Repurposing the iconic bell labs building for a residence/retail/entertainment complex promises a beautiful new era for Holmdel

By Laura D.C. Kolnoski

The closest thing to what’s now evolving in beautiful, affluent Holmdel, New Jersey can be found in Turin, Italy. There, the massive former Fiat plant sat dormant until it was revitalized into a retail, cultural, and entertainment complex. A similar renaissance, enhanced by 40 luxury estate homes and 185 upscale “active adult” carriage homes, is currently in development at the site of the former legendary Bell Labs.

The locale is noteworthy for a plethora of reasons. The two-million-square-foot rectangular glass main building is a modern marvel, designed by internationally renowned architect Eero
Saarinen, creator of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport. He built his structures to last, so new owner Somerset Development of Lakewood is busily upgrading aesthetics and “greening” the building to be more energy efficient, but all are amazed at its sound state, despite being shuttered since 2007 when then owner Alcatel-Lucent left.

Outside, landscaping by acclaimed modernist landscape architect Hideo Sasaki—designed to blend into the building by dovetailing the view from the entrance to the flowering tree-lined lake before it—is being restored. (Sasaki was responsible for landscape design at Euro Disneyland in Paris and Forrestal Village in Princeton.)

At the dawn of the high-tech age in the 1960s, the original Bell Labs, on 473 acres, was a hub of research and development wherein the best and brightest created the future. Seven Nobel Prize winners toiled there, and radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, cellphones, and other keystones of information technology were developed within its space-age walls. When Bell Labs’ golden age ended, however, local officials and residents were faced with lost revenue and an exodus of prominent citizens, never mind the prospect of a huge, empty albatross without a future.

Gardian Spread

Enter Somerset Development, one of the state’s major developers of urban and residential landmarks. It took six years of negotiations and plan alterations, but Somerset President Ralph Zucker endured, taking possession of the entire site last year. As work began, Zucker traveled to Turin to tour Fiat’s transformation, with an eye for a plan that transcended the merely commercial. Joining him in the resurrection is national residential development firm Toll Brothers. Their plan for luxury homes nestled among the natural beauty of the spectacular grounds was revealed last year—the entire site re-christened “Bell Place” to honor its past.

Indoor City of Tomorrow

Anchored by a hotel/conference center featuring a 350-seat state-of-the-art auditorium and huge, Jetson-like kitchen/cafeteria, the next iteration of Eero Saarinen’s masterpiece will blend a mix of high-end shopping, dining, entertainment, and special event space. A soaring central six-level atrium with a glass ceiling will become an indoor pedestrian promenade akin to a main street. There, films and other video projections will be shown on two immense cement walls, and seating from gourmet and eclectic restaurants will extend out under live trees onto the atrium’s original slate floor, now undergoing a complete restoration. Locals will patronize a 20,000-squarefoot municipal library/media center, a promise Holmdel officials secured from Somerset early on. A museum, dedicated to the rich history of Bell Labs and its technological contributions, is being planned by international scientists and Bell alums. There will be 650,000 square feet of office space in all, along with a daycare center, but that’s certainly not all.

A centerpiece of Bell Place will be its healthcare component. To achieve that, Somerset contracted with Community Health Associates LLC of Bloomfield, a healthcare real estate developer specializing in repurposing facilities. The result will be a 300,000-square-foot multi-specialty medical center and 75,000-square-foot fitness center. Doctor’s offices, laboratories, a surgi-center, rehabilitation facilities, and assisted living will all be part of the plan.

Conceivably, a person could work, dine, shop, exercise, see their physician, visit children at daycare, attend a cultural event, enjoy a wedding, and more…all in the same building.

Contract negotiations with potential tenants for the 150- to 200-room hotel, as well as the restaurants and shops, are already underway, and interest is global. (Some are national names yet to be revealed.) Car and trade shows can be held in the atrium, and vehicles can easily be driven in. A licensed heliport is ready out front. Shuttle service will take people to and from nearby transportation, or visitors can avail themselves of 4,263 parking spaces. These days, Ralph Zucker gets around via Segway.

A well-known high-fashion magazine has already requested to conduct a photo shoot there, and a high-end national furniture designer wants to display products amidst the building’s mid-century splendor. A documentary team has already shot on the site, which includes a lower-level event space with glass walls on three sides and a black stone floor. (To refurbish that floor, Somerset returned to the original quarry for materials.)

“Bell Labs always stood for collaboration and innovation,” Zucker said. “It was a vibrant, dynamic, creative community, and we intend to honor that. We envision folks not chained to their desks, but relaxing and working at chairs and tables in the atrium in an office of tomorrow. The hotel lobby will spill out into the conversation pit at the entryway, an Eero Saarinen signature. It’s an urban environment in a suburban setting.”

The first tenants are expected to move in next year, with others following over the next several years. Visitors and residents alike will enjoy walking and biking through grounds that include specimen trees, shrubs, and flowers, as well as an appropriate descendant of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree. Trails will lead to an indoor/outdoor sports complex with playing fields at the rear of the property, nestled in the woods near another lake with a center island that’s a haven for magnificent birds.

Bell Life

Right now, Holmdel Township engineers, attorneys, and officials are pouring over a site plan application that will bring two styles of luxury housing to Bell Place. On either side of the main interior road leading to the building, 185 luxury, over-55 “Regency Collection” carriage homes will rise behind landscaped berms. Market conditions will determine prices for the 2,700- to 3,400-square-foot carriage homes. The single family “Estates Collection” homes will be 4,000 to 5,500 square-feet, priced at $1.2 to $1.5 million. The homes will be set on 237 acres. Mr. Christopher Gaffney, a Holmdel High School graduate who is now a Group President with Toll Brothers Home Building Operations, said his firm continues to study the market to determine buyer desires.

“Based on what we are seeing, there are many empty nesters in New Jersey who are downsizing,” Gaffney said. “These will be active adult communities. The market sector we pursue love our layouts, floor plans, and what is available in these homes. We believe we are in touch with what the market wants.”

To attract these older buyers, the carriage homes—which have design flexibility and can be customized to buyers’ preferences—feature master bedrooms on the first or second floors. Premium materials and amenities will be offered, including marble, granite, Kohler fixtures,
Viking appliances, Sub-Zero refrigerators, and elegant millwork. Residents will also be able to walk to all complex amenities.

A comparable Toll Brothers development can be found at the Enclave at Short Hills, on the site of the famous Chanticler banquet facility. The estate homes will be set back and apart from the carriage homes, behind woods along the Roberts Road side of the site. Toll Brothers will also be responsible for landscaping the residential area.

“We are very excited about this opportunity,” Gaffney said. “It’s a magnificent property, and we believe our brand is what Holmdel wants. This will be one of Toll Brothers’s flagship communities.” Construction timelines will be established after plans are approved by the township and the state. Once begun, model homes will be ready for viewing in six to eight months.

“What’s going on at Bell Place is amazing,” said Holmdel Mayor Patrick Impreveduto. “I didn’t think they would go to the lengths they have to bring the building back to vibrancy, especially the atrium and cafeteria facilities, and we’re very excited about the library. Our plan is to dedicate a portion of it to the history of the building. I’m happy we were able to save this iconic structure and give it a heartbeat again. Not only will it enhance the community and provide jobs, but it will be an asset to Holmdel and all of Monmouth County.”

Somerset Development
somersetholmdel.com