Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Downtown, things will be great when you’re downtown.

I’m a city girl. Always have been, and most likely always will be.

I do have suburban experience, however, having worked for a few years here and there in suburban locations, including two stints on Route 128 – American’s so-called Technology Highway. My first suburban outing was in Lexington, where the company I was working for in Cambridge got collapsed in with the company that acquired us. Hiss, boo. I had to get a car and reverse commute out to the ‘burbs. The saving grace was being able to go to Wilson Farms at lunch and buy produce.

My first 128 job was when yet another Cambridge-based company I was working for got suburban fever and moved out to Burlington. When we got the news that we were moving, my buddy George and I drove out – his car: I had given mine up the moment I no longer needed it – to check out the new digs. George decided we needed to have the full and fully horrific Burlington experience, so we went to the Mall and ate at the Rainforest Café. (I can report that the Rainforest Café closed just last year, having outlasted my company – Softbridge – by 16 years or so.)

My next job was just up the road, on the other side of the Burlington Mall and nearly adjacent to the fabulous traffic choke point between Route 128 and Route 93.

The jobs were fine, but I didn’t particularly enjoy working out in the middle of nowhere. Being able to buzz over to the Mall at lunch and do a bit of shopping was most decidedly not a lure. And I detested commuting.

I ended up my full-time career in Andover, in an office park-ish setting that made Burlington look like Manhattan.

No, I much preferred working in Cambridge. I like taking the T. I liked all the places to grab lunch. I liked the interesting stores that were around when I worked between Harvard and Central Square.

So I get why companies want to locate in urban areas rather than in the suburbs.

These days, most of my clients are urban. A couple in the Boston waterfront area (hip and happening; one of these outfits relocated from the suburbs a few years back). Another in another one of Boston’s up and coming hip and happening urban settings.

I have a client in Manhattan, one in Washington DC, and another in San Francisco. My one suburban office park client is actually located in a city: Portsmouth NH. I have a new prospect in Cambridge.

So from where I sit, tech companies are urban-ites.

But what company isn’t a tech company these days?

Why, there’s McDonald’s, which last year announced that they were high-tailing their HQ out of the Chicago suburbs and downtown, into the Loop.

You may well be asking yourself, what’s so techie about McDonald’s?

A few years back, in response to the wonderful world of Internet:

…it opened an office in San Francisco and a year later moved additional digital operations to downtown Chicago, strategically near tech incubators as well as digital outposts of companies that included Yelp and eBay.

Chief executive Steve Easterbrook who took over in spring 2015, sought to keep innovating, launching mobile ordering, emphasizing self-serve kiosks in restaurants and expanding delivery through a partnership with UberEats.

As McDonald’s embraced technology, it decided that it needed to be closer not just to workers who build e-commerce tools but also to the customers who use them, said Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary who is a McDonald’s executive vice president. That is because the next generation of fast-food consumers may be more likely to arrive via iPhones than drive-throughs.

“The decision is really grounded in getting closer to our customers,” Gibbs said. (Source: Washington Post)

I’m a bit suspicious of this as the real, or the entire, reason. Surely, there are as many McDonald’s consumers in the suburbs as there are in the city. I’m guessing that McDonald’s just didn’t want to be left out in the cold when all the cool companies moved in town.

Not that Kraft Heinz, ADM, and Motorola Solutions are exactly the cool kids. But, like McDonald’s, they’re:

…all looking to appeal to and be near young professionals versed in the world of e-commerce, software analytics, digital engineering, marketing and finance.

All this is good news for Chicago, and for folks who, like me (only younger), want to live and work in cities.

But not so good for the locations that are being abandoned. Oak Brook, Illinois, can’t be all that joyed-up that they’re losing McD’s.

At least the Oak Brook workers can suck it up, get on the train, and commute into the Loop.

It’s not all loss for the suburbs. Caterpillar will be leaving Peoria and moving to Deerfield. Not a lot of folks are going to commute 180 miles from Peoria on a day to day basis.

This is, of course, a colossal loss for Peoria. So much for the revitalized downtown that they were planning on, back a couple of years back when Caterpillar was promising to plunk its HQs there.

Long term, the corporate moves threaten an orbit of smaller enterprises that fed on their proximity to the big companies, from restaurants and janitorial operations to subcontractors who located nearby.

Caterpillar is mostly moving its top execs. The product folks (including manufacturing) are staying put. For now.

After 50 years or so of dominance, are the suburbs really getting the heave-ho as the place to run your business out of? Is the relocation to the big city a few isolated examples or an actual trend? Or is this just a phase that we’ll go for between now and when every job will be work-from-home or automated out of existence?

Meanwhile, I’m all in favor of jobs coming back downtown.

Remember what Petula Clark told us:

The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown, things'll be great when you're
Downtown, no finer place for sure
Downtown everything's waiting for you.

1 comment:

trixie said...

As a daily 128 commuter, I can attest that these suburbs are decidedly not getting the heave-ho, based on the volume of traffic. No more "summer vacation" from commuting woes anymore. Which is why I am happily working from home today!