Breaking up the concrete: Innovation and rejuvenation in Ann Arbor office parks

The images conjured up by the phrase "office park" are less than inviting. The office park (and its bigger, uglier cousin, the industrial park) arose in the mid-20th century, as businesses refocused their operations in built-to-suit suburban structures. The results have tended to be drab, sprawling expanses of brick, concrete and glass, anonymous and unwelcoming to the general public. 

What's more, these days the structures are increasingly empty. A 2015 Washington Post article noted that there are over 70 million square feet of vacant office space–"enough emptiness to fill the [National] Mall four times over, with just enough left to fill most of the Pentagon"–in the Washington, D.C., area, primarily in office parks. Architect Magazine attributes some of that trend to the economic downturn of the Great Recession, but also the fact that millennial workers are seeking workplaces with a bit more personality and a lot more amenities than the old parks have to offer.

Despite all that bad news, Ann Arbor contains several prime examples of how to think differently about the office-park model – one of which was around long before the recession hit and before employers like Google started shaking up employees' perceptions of what makes a pleasant office space. Domino's Farms, the expansive world headquarters of Domino's Pizza, opened in 1985 with a singular vision to create inviting office space for Domino's employees and multiple tenants.

"What we looked to do is really match distinct architectural character with a unique landscape environment," says John Petz, Domino's director of real estate and public affairs. "We think that provides an opportunity to provide, in a suburban-type setting, an inspiring environment that folks like to, and are motivated to, come to work at."

In addition to walking trails and a fitness center catered toward employees, some features of the complex are geared toward the general public, like its petting farm and art gallery

"We need to create something that's more than just someone coming out to do business," Petz says. "We want to be a much larger part of the community. We think having these additional amenities allows us to serve that larger role in the community while also providing a really appealing environment for the employees themselves."

And with over 55 tenants, some of whom have occupied space at Domino's Farms for decades, Domino's approach seems to have paid off.

"[Tenants are] clearly finding value not just from a dollars-and-cents standpoint, but the experience that their employees have while they're out here," Petz says.

Rethinking airport plaza

Domino's Farms has the advantage of being built to suit Domino's unique vision for an office park. But on the opposite side of Ann Arbor from the pizza empire, tenants at the Airport Plaza industrial park have found ways to inject new life into a preexisting development.

The park, a complex of massive, boxy white-and-gray buildings, is hardly what one would call welcoming to the general public. But over the past two decades one of its tenants has helped to make the park something of a minor retail destination. Zingerman's Bakehouse opened there in 1992 as a wholesale business intended to supply Zingerman's Deli and other retailers. But bakehouse managing partner Amy Emberling says it didn't take long before the operation started attracting retail customers without even trying. 

"People would smell what we were baking and they would come to our door and say, 'Oh, can I have a loaf of bread?'" Emberling says. "In the first year, we'd say, 'Oh, sure.' If we had an ugly one, maybe we'd just give it to them…But more and more people started coming, so we thought, 'Gosh, we should really have a shop.'"

A deli employee started working at the bakehouse daily in 1993, selling baked goods from a single table. A formal shop followed in 1996. The success of that operation, and Zingerman's overall growth, prompted the opening of Zingerman's Creamery in 2006 and Zingerman's Coffee Company in 2010 as both wholesale production facilities and retail shops at Airport Plaza. Emberling says the Zingerman's partners conferred in 2009 as to how to make their industrial spaces "softer" and "more inviting" to customers, looking to San Francisco winemaker Bonny Doon's then-new industrial-park tasting room as a model. 

Although retail sales make up less than 25 percent of revenue for Zingerman's Airport Plaza businesses, collectively dubbed "Zingerman's Southside," Emberling says inviting people into the space is "definitely important" from a marketing standpoint.

"It's really helpful for us to be selling our own things because we can see exactly how they're received by our customers, and we get really great feedback directly from them rather than from a wholesale customer," she says. "It gives us a really nice sense of community and being able to be a part of the community."

And in so doing, Zingerman's has helped to inspire a burgeoning sense of community within Airport Plaza overall. When Tom Root (also a managing partner in Zingerman's Mail Order) was seeking a site for Maker Works [], the maker space he co-founded, the industrial park made perfect sense – not just for sheer square footage, but for what Root calls "retail amenities."

"Zingerman's coffee shop was there," he says. "The creamery was there. The bakehouse was there. So we got some of the benefits of a more retail, a more downtown, location. But we were still in an industrial park."

There have been drawbacks to Maker Works' location. Pittsfield Township zoning regulations have prevented Root from installing signage to better direct visitors to the shop. (Zingerman's solved that problem a while ago by painting the top of their building bright orange, and Root says plans are underway for all Airport Plaza buildings to receive a distinctive coat of paint). 

But between Zingerman's Southside and Maker Works, Emberling says Airport Plaza has become "a bit of a campus," with unique amenities that brighten the industrial-park experience for employees and open it up to the public. It may not quite measure up to something as ambitious as Google's planned new campus in Mountain View, Calif. But in Root's words, it's "poking at the edges" of how people use what have traditionally been rather forbidding spaces.

"I guess at some point it's a virtuous process," Root says. "This is a part of the process, where someone comes along and says, 'Let's try to do a retail bakehouse in an industrial park. Let's see what happens.' And that hopefully forces a conversation, to varying degrees in different industrial parks, that that's happening."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate and Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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