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Offices in the Park : Firms Take Workplace to Suburbs


If you don't already work in one, chances are you've glimpsed them from the road. Office parks, the glass-walled, anonymous-looking colonies of modernistic buildings near major highways have become as much a part of the landscape as North County's parched, tawny-brown hills.

Phenomenal economic growth in North County is responsible for the spread of the parks, which glimmer under the sun from Del Mar to Rancho Bernardo, said David Birch, a former San Diego resident who now directs an MIT Research program--Jobs, Enterprises and Markets.

The parks, usually built in open fields near developing residential areas, often seem without spirit--yet they thrive.

"People want to work where they live, and they want to live where the schools are good, the crime rate low, and the housing costs lower," said Birch. "Highways without congestion are worth their weight in gold."

Corporations wooing the workers of an increasingly smaller labor pool are happy to oblige, especially when weighing the costs of real estate in downtown San Diego.

"Why should a company rent or build space downtown when it can locate in Carlsbad or Escondido, where land is a heck of a lot cheaper?" asked Birch. When ISIS, a new pharmaceutical company backed with about $5 million in venture capital, considered where to put its headquarters last year, Boston and San Francisco were leading contenders. However, ISIS ended up choosing North County.

"You know there is still quality in American business when you discover magnificently tree-lined streets and finely-crafted buildings," said a prospectus describing the area ISIS chose. But this isn't the boast of a chamber of commerce, and this is not Main Street.

The description is from a realty company and the tree-lined streets wind not through a village or town, but through an office park, the 580-acre Carlsbad Research Center.

The research center has a jogging loop, parks and an elaborately landscaped lake ringed by brilliantly-hued violet and orange flowers.

"From a recruiting standpoint, this has been a net positive," said Christopher Mirabelli, ISIS vice president of research. Researchers, hired from the academic and pharmaceutical worlds on the East and West coasts, "don't want to buck traffic."

"We knew that most of our people would be living in Vista, Encinitas, more affordable places, and we wanted work to be close to those communities," Mirabelli said.

"When you know that you can be home in five or 10 minutes, it gives you an entirely different attitude about work than when you're facing an hour's commute," he added.

Other biotechnology firms have also settled in the Carlsbad area, said Mirabelli, most notably Jonas Salk's new company, Immune Response Corp., which is building a facility at the research center.

But scientists with test tubes are not the only ones on the other side of the glass walls in office parks. Other businesses at the Carlsbad park range from a fashion sportswear company to light manufacturing.

At CRM Films, a former McGraw-Hill company that makes educational and management movies, the faces of Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford look down from antique movie posters. David T. Moore worked in McGraw-Hill's Manhattan office, and he commuted four hours a day to and from his New Jersey home. Now, the vice president of sales and marketing drives just 8 miles to Encinitas. "There are no parking problems, the air quality is good, and the atmosphere is quite comfortable," said Moore, who was wearing shorts at work because his sprained ankle was in a cast.

Roger Zrimec, a former Detroit resident who now works at the research center, finds the landscape ideal for jogging--something he couldn't do at his previous workplace.

He is design manager for Chrysler Pacifica, Chrysler's West Coast design office, which is planning cars that won't roll off the assembly line until after the turn of the century. It is an enterprise that demands tight building security "almost to military standards" said Zrimec, so the chance to "go out, walk around and kick a few stones at lunch time is a special relief."

Companies that locate in the office parks can rent space, buy a developed parcel, or buy land and build. At most office parks, an architectural review board must approve all proposed buildings.

For all the attention to architectural detail, office park buildings often lack distinction. When a company does not have high visibility in a downtown area, it can lose its incentive to make an architectural statement. In the relative obscurity of a park, function usually triumphs over form, so the least expensive design prevails.

The mostly box-shaped buildings are typically faced with stone, mirrored glass, or some combination of the two. They tend to be landscaped with saplings all-in-a-row and clipped hedges--a style some find as appealing as the landscaping along median strips.

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