How to Repurpose Suburban Chicago’s Vacant Corporate Campuses

by Kristin Harlow

More than 50 years ago, I was witness to the birth of a new building type in Chicago’s suburbs — the great sprawling corporate campus. From Motorola and McDonald’s to Ameritech and Sears, some of the most influential brands in the world started taking root in Chicago’s bucolic suburbs as they looked to consolidate business divisions under one large roof and to provide a stimulating work environment away from the hustle and bustle of the inner city.

Today, many of these corporate meccas sit vacant due to the rise in telecommuting and a shift in workforce demographics. The simple version of the narrative is that instead of people chasing the jobs, firms are now chasing the talent. And for the moment, many employees prefer to live and work in the city.

Dirk Lohan, Wight & Co.

While some suburbs are strongly associated with the companies who previously occupied those campuses, there is another story to tell in terms of the opportunities change can bring to these properties and their surrounding communities. As the architect who designed two of these campuses, the AT&T (né Ameritech) corporate campus in Hoffman Estates in 1989 and McDonald’s global headquarters in Oak Brook starting in 1978, I have repeatedly been asked to share my thoughts on the future potential for these facilities. And it is with much pleasure that I have come to the conclusion that these sites will find new life that is in synch with the rapidly changing lifestyles and habits of the suburban populations surrounding them.

In fact, looking at what is happening thus far with the former McDonald’s and AT&T corporate campuses, we can see two very different approaches emerging.

Reinvention for the suburbs

Recently purchased by New Jersey-based Somerset Development, the former 120-acre AT&T corporate campus along the popular Jane Addams Memorial Tollway is being envisioned as a “metroburb,” an urban hub housed in a suburban location. Modeled after a similar project the developer undertook to reinvent the 472-acre Bell Labs complex in Holmdel, New Jersey, the Hoffman Estates project, called Bell Works, will transform the prior office-only complex into an engaging and vibrant mixed-use development including office, retail, various amenities and restaurants with future plans for nearby residential space.

Not only does this approach provide a more urban, pedestrian-focused experience for people to work, live, play, socialize and shop all in one large place, it also provides a new attraction to the community surrounding the property. And the live-work-play benefits of the new Bell Labs “metroburb” should appeal to people across wide demographics.

Due to their size and existing infrastructure, many corporate campuses are ideal for repurposing to create this type of urban experience, not just for the young professionals of the millennial generation and the emerging GenZ, but also for family-oriented GenXers and maturing Baby Boomers.

Reimagine the property

The McDonald’s former corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, the landscaped campus along Jorie Boulevard, opened in the 1980s. It had been home to the company’s global headquarters, a 130,000-square-foot training center (Hamburger University) and a 218-room Hyatt-operated Lodge hotel.

The obvious buyer for the corporate campus would be another large corporation that is open to working on the periphery of Chicago rather than in the city. The existing 225,000-square-foot office building was master-planned to accommodate expansion up to 750,000 square feet. Designed to integrate with its park-like setting, the building was conceived by McDonald’s then-CEO Fred Turner to connect its occupants with the flora and fauna around it, similar to how plants are used in biophilic design today. For companies that rely heavily on air travel, the Oak Brook location offers easier access to Chicago’s two main airports than many other suburbs and even the city center. The property’s on-site training center and Hyatt hotel are other conveniences to large corporations.

Other potential uses might be an educational institution i.e. university or college, as the existing facilities already contain conference and learning facilities. I also think the complex, with a certain amount of remodeling, would make a wonderful residential or seniors housing development. As we know, sooner or later, homeowners are reaching the point where they do not want to take care of homes and gardens any longer and often move to appropriate apartment or condo buildings.

The former McDonald’s campus would allow people from the western suburbs to continue living in their familiar surroundings and be close to friends and family without the burden of homeownership. In my mind, the McDonald’s campus could become a very high-end and exclusive residential environment in the midst of a beautiful park setting.

Though the former AT&T and McDonald’s corporate campuses were developed with some common elements — expansive site plans with a single-use focus — there is no one-size-fits-all solution to repurposing them. Instead, there are lots of options. And it is always good to have exciting options.

— By Dirk Lohan, Principal, Wight & Co. This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Heartland Real Estate Business magazine.

You may also like