In its heyday, Bell Labs was the birthplace of countless world-rattling inventions, from the transistor (1947) to the solar battery (1956) to the laser (1960). But in 2008, when real estate developer Ralph Zucker toured the vacant steel-and-glass facility, it desperately needed re-invention.
“People wanted to knock it down,” says Zucker, founder and president of Somerset Development, which is located in Holmdel, the same central New Jersey suburb as the 472-acre campus. “They were ready to blow it up and cart it away.” Some had hopes that the town could lure a single tenant, such as Google, to occupy the site, which has two million square feet of office space.
Zucker, however, envisioned building on the lab’s legacy of ingenuity -- which includes discoveries responsible for no fewer than eight Nobel prizes -- with an innovative blend of “a suburban location and an urban vibe.” Although it took almost six years before Somerset closed on the sale, in mid-2013, Zucker and his group still hadn’t agreed on a name. “Bell Labs changed the world,” says the 53-year-old developer. “We very clearly wanted to capitalize on that, with a name that was a nod to the past and also showed the way to the future.”
Ultimately, a marketing company came up with the solution: Bell Works. (In a clever twist, they introduced the idea at a meeting where everybody had been issued lab coats.) “I loved it right away,” says Zucker, who had previously wanted to call the project The Idea Factory.
He felt equally passionate about using the domain name bell.works, which was also suggested at the meeting. “We jumped at the idea because it ties very much into what we are all about,” says Zucker. “We thought having the ability to have the name and the domain name exactly the same would be a little more edgy than having a dot-com name. Bell.works goes with everything we’re trying to create.”
In so doing, Zucker has put his finger squarely on the Internet zeitgeist: Companies in a wide variety of industries, from clothing to travel to dental services, are bypassing the standard dot-com naming convention in favor of new domain name options that let them stand out from the crowd and more effectively build their brands.
For technology companies, the location’s current appeal stems in part from its past -- still in place are several useful resources, including back-up generators and access to abundant electric power. The glass-enclosed building, which features a quarter-mile pedestrian walkway, was designed with an eye toward fostering collaboration and cross-pollination among the companies Bell Works hopes to attract. “It’s very appealing to more urbanized tenants, with employees who are more prone to wanting to work in an atrium under a tree while sipping coffee and using their iPads,” Zucker says. “It’s an environment where a community of people can share ideas.”
Those folks can also ruminate on the locale’s storied past. Zucker says a group is working on setting up a museum, and installation has begun on a history wall celebrating the scientists and their inventions. His plans also include constructing a small lab that students can use, modeled on those that existed when the building was still part of AT&T.
Change has been a constant for the site: Ma Bell lost its regulated monopoly as a result of an antitrust suit in 1984. Eventually, Bell Labs became part of Lucent, and, later, Alcatel-Lucent. But changing fortunes, even in the worst of times, creates new opportunities. Zucker’s visit and subsequent vision for the site, actually benefited from the economic downturn in 2008. “Had the bubble not burst, Alcatel-Lucent would have had other buyers,” he says. “But Lucent gave us the time to do it. As a result, what was going to be demolished is being reborn.”
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