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Somerset Development presents potential Bell Labs rehabilitation and redevelopment plan

February 18, 2009
Bell Labs property- aerial view

Bell Labs property- aerial view

PNJ was in attendance on February 12th as Somerset Development, the developer currently negotiating with Alcatel Lucent to purchase Saarinen’s Bell Labs complex in Holmdel, NJ, conducted the second in a series of open, public meetings designed to solicit feedback regarding rehabilitation and redevelopment proposals for the Bell Labs site. Ralph Zucker, President of Somerset Development, Ralph Rosenberg, an architect with NK Architects, and Nick Graviano, President of Graviano Planning Group, presented renderings, statistics, and financial data regarding the most recent incarnation of their proposed rehabilitation of the site, which includes the construction of 600 multi-family residential units and the rehabilitation of the Bell Labs building into a mixed-use facility housing residential, retail, dining, office, healthcare, education, conference and hotel space.

The group based their plans on five overarching themes:
1)    Enhancing ratables and economic activity for the area
2)    Mitigating the impact of any redevelopment on the surrounding community
3)    Preserving the building and site
4)    Creating a vibrant public place
5)    Providing for environmental and open space preservation

Much repeated mention was made of “place making” and Somerset’s desire to create a “sense of place” by retaining the unique feeling and setting that characterize Bell Labs. The proposed new construction would be designed in a contemporary style that aims to complement the Bell Labs building. Bell Labs itself would loose its east and west walls, opening up both ends of the central atrium while retaining the skylights overhead and maintaining the central 1/3 of the atrium as an enclosed space. The entire development is designed to be a pedestrian-friendly “new town center,” wherein the mixed-use Bell Labs building is within a five-minute walk of all residential units, and sidewalks, streetlights, and street furniture encourage pedestrian activity.

New construction is proposed around the ring road on the property east and west of the Bell Labs building, with some new construction extending outside of the ring road down an east entrance road. Somerset did indicate that they are open to the elimination of the portion proposed for outside of the ring road. Construction would be capped at two stories on the ring road, while it would be permitted to reach up to five stories closer to the Bell Labs building. The rest of the property would be preserved and maintained as designed green space, as would the north and south vistas of the Bell Labs building. Somerset emphasized the necessity of these vistas and the landscape in general to the historic integrity of the property.

The residential units on the property are to be both sale and rental, and many are slated to be age-restricted, in an effort to minimize the number of school children the new development would bring to Holmdel.

Graviano discussed the fiscal impact of the project on the area, indicating that they project this project will generate $4, 291, 015 in tax profits for Holmdel annually and that the total projected value of the project as it stands is $416 million.

Much of the Holmdel community was in attendance, and there was much continued concern voiced regarding the number of school-aged children this project would bring to the Holmdel school system, the potential for increased traffic and general congestion, the costs the community would bear in the event that this project proceeds (largely as a result of increased density; those that were voiced included increased fire and police protection, the addition of new teachers to the school system, the extension of the sewer system, and street paving/maintenance), and the developer’s long-term plan for property maintenance and, in particular, preservation of the surrounding landscape.

Somerset referred to the Bell Labs charette as a source and inspiration throughout the presentation. They indicated that the charette was the final thing that convinced their group to get involved with this property, and that their design builds on ideas taken directly from the charette report.

Somerset Development has proposed an interesting solution to the challenges of rehabilitating the Bell Labs property. The public has posed multiple important questions, the answers and solutions to which will require careful consideration by Somerset and hopefully, will inspire productive deliberation between all interested parties.

Bell Labs building, north facade, 1964

Bell Labs building, north facade, 1964

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