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The 1970s was the start of a great migration — a corporate exodus from the city to the suburbs.

Experts say the vast movement of Fortune 500 companies from Wall Street and midtown Manhattan to greener pastures in the suburbs literally reshaped the landscape of southern Connecticut, transforming rolling woodland and sleepy town centers into gleaming corporate office parks designed by the leading architects of the era.

But now, many of those corporate parks are flagging; COVID-19 sent workers home from office buildings, in some cases for years. Some companies folded or closed their offices entirely. At the same time, the need for housing has grown as corporate work shifts to more home offices or hybrid schedules that include work-from-home.

“In the last two years, landlords have taken a look at their real estate,” said James Ritman, managing director of the Stamford office of Newmark. The large commercial real estate company said the COVID-19 pandemic acted as a stress test for many office buildings and office parks in the region.

“For the office buildings and parks that weren’t seeing a lot of activity post pandemic, the question is: What’s the next logical or realistic use for this property? It’s probably not office any more,” he said.

Across Fairfield County as a whole, the office vacancy rate stands at about 24 percent as of the first quarter of 2022. In central Fairfield County — which includes Darien, Norwalk and Westport — the rate runs at 31 percent during that same period, among the highest vacancy rates in the U.S.

The term Suburban Office Obsolescence began to trend in commercial real estate reports and MBA circles as early as 2015.

A professor and real estate analyst, Randall Zisler, said this year, “Real estate always obsolesces, but COVID increased the pace.”

Once upon a time in the suburbs

The corporate building boom of the 1970s and 1980s created huge new edifices for imposing corporate headquarters, clad in smoked glass, marble and steel.

Stamford saw more than 1.6 million square feet of office space under construction in 1985 alone.

General Electric Co. went to Fairfield. Danbury welcomed Union Carbide Corp. American Can Co. created an artificial dam on a sprawling site in the north end of Greenwich and built an enormous office complex there.

The moves to southern Connecticut had a simple logic: “Location, location, location,” said Robin Stein, a longtime planner for the city of Stamford.

The region was — and is — well-served by its proximity to New York, Stein said. In Stamford and other towns along Long Island Sound, there were large empty tracts of land, friendly local governments and plentiful access to the kinds of amenities that executives and their employees were looking to enjoy.

In Greenwich, town leaders were more than happy to create a new office-business district for the American Can Company in 1970 at a site formerly zoned residential, a first for the town. A town planner directed company executives to the 181-acre site off King Street when a search team looking to relocate from midtown Manhattan came calling at Town Hall. A 600,000 square-foot complex later rose there, and 2,300 employees worked in offices adorned with rugs imported from Morocco and suede leather chairs.

Stein also pointed out that the suburban office park boom put work closer to home for many corporate executives. Especially in the case of re-locations to Stamford and Greenwich, company chairmen enjoyed much shorter commutes post-move. Sociologist William Whyte found that the average commuting distance for a CEO was eight miles during that era.

But it was clear even in the 1980s that the huge amount of office space built during the boom years was too much for the market to handle.

Stein said Stamford’s office-vacancy rate was becoming a problem by the late 1970s. At the American Can Company in Greenwich, the parking lot for 1,700 cars was half empty by the early ’80s, according to media reports from the era, and in 1984, the company decided to sell off the property and downsize.

A change in focus

Ritman, from real estate company Newmark, said public officials and developers had to take a close look at what kind of creative and adaptive use might work best for an old office site that was no longer viable as a workplace. “What’s the demand in that market? What will the market allow for? You need to know your audience, and your town, what’s needed in Norwalk versus Stamford. What’s lacking?” he said.

A large residential development is proposed for the old American Can Co. off King Street, now occupied by Tishman Speyer.

Tishman Speyer / Greenwich Planning and Zoning Commission

Now, in Greenwich, Stamford, Danbury, Darien, Trumbull and New Haven, those questions are being asked, and new uses for empty office space have been built or are being proposed. The trend has been accelerating in recent months.

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