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After Sept. 11


Sept. 11 pushes firms to suburbs

By Anthony Flint, Globe Staff, 8/18/2002

A series of occasional articles about security, buildings and cities after Sept. 11.

Part 1
Safeguards in cities could get new look

Part 2
Architects want safe structures without creating a fortress mentality

Part 3
Sept. 11 pushes firms to suburbs

Rigidity and resilience: Engineers are designing new buildings to block a terrorist's destructive mission, while providing easy escape for occupants in an emergency.


The Security Infrastructure Partnership

American Society of Civil Engineers

National Fire Protection Association

Federal Emergency Management Agency

The National Institutes of Standards and Technology

Institute of Structural Engineers

American Society for Industrial Security

American Institute of Architects

American Association of Engineering Companies

Building Owners and Management Association

EDFORD - It is just another nondescript office building off the main drag, in one of the many strip malls filled with chain stores, karate schools, and doctors' offices. Yet 41 North Road represents a big part of the future of development after Sept. 11.

Instinet, a New York City-based electronic trading agency that performs up to 20 percent of all Nasdaq trades, has computers, data storage, and a small staff in the building - all able to keep the company functioning should Manhattan be thrown into chaos again by another terrorist attack.

Backup facilities and multiple office sites have gained new currency since Sept. 11, as businesses and governments seek places to continue to function in an emergency. They've sought suburban areas with independent transportation and utility systems, and most critically outside of cities, which are seen as the target of choice for terrorists. The New York Stock Exchange recently proposed a backup trading floor in Westchester, N.Y.; an emergency office building has been established outside of Montpelier to house Vermont state government in a crisis.

Eerily similar to the Cold War policy of dispersal, today's security planning has huge implications for the future of the American landscape, planners and other observers say. At a minimum, more land will be developed if businesses and governments have two of everything - one facility in the city, another in the suburbs.

But many planners see a domino effect that could intensify patterns of sprawl - just at a time when urban areas were making a modest comeback. Backup facilities and satellite offices need a labor force nearby, as well as infrastructure and commercial development. Westchester officials already are saying the NYSE facility would trigger growth. Some Fidelity employees now working in Boston have moved to the suburbs in anticipation of needing to be at regional sites in Smithfield, R.I., or Merrimack, N.H., one executive said.

While real estate specialists see no conclusive evidence of a wholesale exodus to the suburbs, security concerns and soaring insurance premiums for urban properties have become reasons for businesses to quit the city. Some government agencies are already headed in that direction, as in the case of the Office of Homeland Security, mulling headquarters in rural Virginia rather than Washington D.C.

''We're going to look back 20 years from now and ask how this happened,'' said Harvard law professor David J. Barron, who believes that such symbolic moves, as well as legal and policy frameworks, dictate development patterns. ''We built the [interstate] highways for defense, and the next thing you know we had a whole way of living that no one ever necessarily chose.''

For others, security concerns are only slightly accelerating an inexorable trend outward. Joel Kotkin, author of ''The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape,'' argues that technology makes it unnecessary for people and businesses to be clustered in one place - and most people prefer the suburbs anyway. Sept. 11 merely underscored the problems associated with bunching up.


While such broader issues are debated, however, businesses and governments are quietly taking practical steps to survive another terrorist attack on a centralized urban area. The emphasis is on geographically separated facilities. Some are ''dark'' backup locations that would be switched on in the event of an emergency; others are ''active'' satellite offices that continually duplicate business functions and back up computer data; others are a combination.

Disaster planning long has included redundant facilities spaced well apart. But the attacks on the World Trade Center, which crippled business and government not only in Lower Manhattan but anywhere connected to the area through the telecommunications network, has sharpened the focus on separation, said James Francis, a senior vice president at Kroll Inc., a New York-based security consulting firm.

''Companies are out there leasing backup space, highly secure sites with their own electrical generation,'' Francis said. One prerequisite is that backup or redundant facilities are on completely separate power and telecommunication grids, he said.

''The spatial aspect has definitely come into play,'' said Calvin Mitchell, senior vice president at Instinet. ''After 9/11 we created more backup and redundancies outside of Manhattan, with the facilities in Massachusetts and New Jersey. Bedford is integral to our daily operations and certainly part of our contingency planning if other parts of our system go down.''

The contingency planning has led to deeper conversations about all locations, Mitchell said. ''Part of our business is touched by humans, entering trades at a desk, but other parts of the business don't require that. So we're constantly asking, where should we put what?''

Security considerations join other factors that companies consider such as rent, taxes, and labor, he said.

The high cost of insurance after Sept. 11 is a factor that may push some companies out of the city, real estate specialists say. The premiums for high-occupany buildings in Manhattan have soared, and some businesses may not be able to get coverage at all when they try to renew this fall, said Jack Gibson, president of the Dallas-based International Risk Management Institute.

Post-Sept. 11 urban environments are bad for ''concentrations of risk,'' Gibson said - a way of saying a lot of people in harm's way. The suburbs - where there are fewer insurance hassles - will begin to look attractive to exasperated executives, he acknowledged.

Boston-based Liberty Mutual has no plans to leave its Back Bay headquarters, said company spokesman John Cusilito, although a new building for New England operations at the Route 128 interchange in Weston could serve as a backup facility in the event of an emergency. Similarly, Fidelity remains headquartered in the Seaport and the Financial districts, but its far-flung regional sites - built for a variety of reasons in the 1980s - are prized more than ever for being outside the city.

''The regional locations have always been important to us, but certainly now they continue to play an important role,'' said Fidelity spokesman Jim Griffin.

Fidelity uses old Digital Equipment Corp. buildings for its complex in Merrimack. Such existing space is almost always the first choice for companies looking to expand facilities. Vermont is redeveloping a historic building in Barre, outside of Montpelier, for its backup site, said building commissioner Thomas Torti. Massachusetts and New York State already have emergency bunkers.

New construction for backup offices is not unheard of; developers have even begun to market themselves as specialists in such building.

''I don't see tenants moving out to the suburbs because of 9/11, but I do see these [backup] centers, all over the place,'' said Daniel Ozelius, vice president at the real estate and development firm Spaulding & Slye Colliers. One tenant in downtown Boston, whom he declined to identify, just finished setting up a backup complex in Billerica, he said.

Backup facilities are ''an expensive hobby for something you're not using all the time,'' said Robert Yaro, president of the New York-based Regional Plan Association, the group currently focused on rebuilding Lower Manhattan.

''The suburbs are tied up in knots with traffic and there are problems with access to the workforce, while urban centers have clearly made a comeback,'' Yaro said. ''If 9/11 is an isolated incident, I think people will come to their senses and say, `Why do we have a second trading floor in Westchester again?'''

If businesses leave the city, people won't be far behind, Yaro and other planners know. But post-9/11 residential real estate trends have been hard to pin down. Residents told Ohio State University researchers that fear of a terrorist strike was one more reason they preferred living in suburbs. But James English, principal in the Raymond Property Co., developers of Battery Wharf and Trinity Place, said interest in city living has come back strong after a brief lull following Sept. 11.

At Charles View, a year-old, 67-unit condominium building on Beacon Street in the Back Bay, ''we lost 15 buyers after 9/11. Then we got into a pace of selling one or two units a month, then five or six a week, and we sold out by May,'' English said.

Demographic trends - retiring baby boomers selling suburban homes and young professionals seeking urban amenities - tend to make up for those who elect to leave the city, he said.

William J. Mitchell, dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, said that Sept. 11 focused people's attention on where they work and live, but that other factors such as technology have more impact on land use.

''In a networked world, you get more flexible spatial patterns. You don't necessarily need a big corporate headquarters, or a suburban office park, but a portfolio of different spaces that can be linked electronically.''

Barron, the Harvard law professor, agreed that in the context of security, the city-suburb tradeoff was too simplistic. If backup facilities were located in ''inner ring'' suburbs - a local example might be Watertown or Malden - that would help the environment more than building in the countryside, he said.

Almost a year after the staggering attacks on two of the nation's cities, security considerations tend to outweigh public concern about sprawl, Barron and others acknowledge. But the new strategies in planning, which many areas had been experimenting with over the last decade, might be abandoned in the process.

''After 9/11,'' said Barron, ''a lot of the older ways of thinking about places seemed to creep right back in.''

Anthony Flint can be reached at flint@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/18/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.