Treehouse to roller rink: A look at Parmer RTP's $80M overhaul of former GSK campus
The first significant change Karlin Real Estate made after acquiring the 20-building GlaxoSmithKline campus in Research Triangle Park last year was to rip up the gates that had guarded the pharmaceutical giant’s offices and labs for decades.
Today, all that remains of the once-walled off entrance just off T.W. Alexander Drive is an empty guard booth – but even that won’t be around much longer.
Bart Olds, Karlin’s 36-year-old head of asset management, plans to transform the shack into a drive-through coffee shop, where workers can pick up a latte as they pull into the suburban campus in the morning.
The café is just a small part of a much larger $80 million overhaul led by Olds aimed at breathing new life into the aging campus. He envisions multiple companies filling out the empty offices and lab space, connected by pathways and parks and pickleball courts, a process he calls “de-single-tenanting” the campus that for so long belonged to just one company.
That kind of multi-tenant environment is something Olds is familiar with from the West Coast, where Karlin is headquartered, and the firm’s work in Austin, Texas, where it has developed a 400-acre campus anchored by General Motors.
Whether companies will be on board with a new model of office campus in RTP’s antiquated suburban layout is another question. “It’s where your dad went to work,” Olds says of the park. That’s an image he’d like to change.
Making the park a destination for young tech workers is no easy task when the most immediate comparisons are the fast-growing downtowns of Raleigh and Durham, where new restaurants and bars seem to be cropping up every month.
The Research Triangle Foundation has been looking to urbanize the park for years with its Park Center project, but that process hasn't gotten off the ground just yet. Downtowns create "amenitized" space organically, says Neill Sherron, director of leasing at Longfellow Real Estate Partners.
That's what RTP landlords are trying to copy. Longfellow acquired the 142,726-square-foot Venture Center in Durham two years ago and used a $21.9 million loan to fund the construction of new shared space, with patios, fire pits and lawn chairs. It's all about attracting workers. “We want the tenants that lease space from us to be able to offer the best amenities possible to help recruit and retain the top talent," Sherron says.
The difference with Parmer RTP is the scale; the campus totals 1.75 million square feet. Olds is betting the changes coming to the campus, both inside and out, will be enough to take Karlin's corner of RTP, and perhaps the park itself, in that direction.
A significant portion of the overhaul involves building an “amenity center” between the northern and southern segments of the campus. The circular paved space will include a food truck promenade and covered seating, with room for concerts and bocce ball courts. Construction will begin in the coming weeks.
Nearby, Olds has plans for a treehouse with glass walls, creating an outdoor conference room space. The estimated cost: nearly $1 million.
Work has already wrapped up on a multi-sport athletic field complex. Olds would like to see an intramural sports leagues setup, where GSK employees could play the Credit Suisse basketball team during lunch.
Inside, Karlin has begun revamping old offices and lab space and adding new life to lobbies and other shared space. That means reclaimed-wood walls and new televisions, conference rooms and arcade games.
The firm’s ambitions exceed just the Parmer campus. In the past eight months, the company has also sunk more than $14 million into the acquisition of the 44-acre Dupont campus and 94-acre Ellis Research Center, rebranding the sites as Parmer 14 and Parmer Ellis, respectively.
Combined, the land, buildings and renovations represent a quarter billion-dollar investment in a one-mile radius, Olds says. The wager has already had some early returns; LabCorp signed a lease for 220,000 square feet at the campus in April.
Olds also says the firm isn't done expanding its footprint in the Triangle just yet. The company is part of Karlin Asset Management, founded in 2005 to manage the capital of Dr. Gary K. Michelson, a billionaire spinal surgeon-turned-investor. Because the firm has just one investor, it can move quickly and decisively, Olds says.
For now, the question is the more than 1 million square feet of office and lab space that still sits vacant, out of 2.4 million total.
If Apple finalizes a deal to build a new hub in the park, that space would likely become more attractive. Olds says that's something he's had in mind. “We thought it would only be a matter of time before a West Coast tech giant made a splash here,” he says. “We wanted to be on the forefront of that wave.”