Save Bell Labs in Holmdel, NJ

There’s been much written lately about the amazing history of innovation discovered and invented at the famous Eero Saarinen designed Bell Labs building in Holmdel, New Jersey. The timing couldn’t be better to inquire about the future of this landmark treasure by the current buyer under contract with Alcatel-Lucent, Elsie Sterling Oversight LLC.

On investigation, Elsie Sterling Oversight LLC appears to be a shell promoting a public relations spin on the philanthropy of the namesake front woman since they have a minimal to poor history in real estate.

According to the APP article, Alcatel-Lucent has buyer for former Bell Labs property in Holmdel, Elsie Sterling Oversight’s rep John Boyd, a director of MBI Project Management, makes it clear, “While the company’s first inclination is to preserve the iconic Eero Saarinen-designed 1.2 million-square-foot building rather than knock it down, all options are being considered … I couldn’t rule anything out at this point.”

Mr. Boyd artfully qualifies their intentions as “inclined” and only mentions 1.2 million square feet of the 2 million square feet structure. This portends an intention to raze, at a minimum, the remaining and equally significant .8 million square feet designed by Pritzker Architectural Prize winner and Saarinen protegee, Kevin Roche. They also ignore any mention of preserving the Sasaki Walker landscape architecture.

Self-proclaimed author, John Boyd, recently posted on YouTube Bell Labs Holmdel Redevelopment – When the Past Becomes the Future. It focuses more on Mr. Boyd’s interest in a premise for his next novel than on a forthright redevelopment vision of the future of this iconic building. Furthermore, it’s an uncomfortable hint at a mysterious plan involving religion. According to Boyd, “There has been a story floating in my head for some time that involved science and technology and religious faith. I haven’t written the story for many reasons mainly searching for the perfect venue to base the story in until now. I have finally found a way to follow both my passions at the same time with Bell Labs as the catalyst … The untold scientific discovery at Bell Labs will shake our thinking and beliefs as we know them, but will change our lives and the lives of others that follow.”

Given the considerable care and money Alcatel-Lucent has spent over the years to maintain the building and ensure that it remained structurally sound, it would be appalling for any potential buyer not to follow suit and preserve such a significant entry in the architectural catalogue of Eero Saarinen’s masterpieces that include the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the main terminal at Dulles International Airport, in addition to being the site of Nobel Prize winning technological breakthroughs benefitting humanity.

As far back as 2006, Engadget published a cry to arms to save this slice of history in their fascinating articleDeveloper to raze Bell Labs Holmdel facility, birthplace of the cellphone.

True Innovation, a feature in the New York Times February 26, 2012 Sunday Review by New Jersey resident and author of the forthcoming “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” Jon Gertner, recounts the decades of life-changing innovation that sprung from Bell Labs. This timely expose makes the vetting of this Florida buyer and her future use of the Holmdel site all the more poignant.

This alert does not intend to denigrate Elsie Sterling’s philanthropic achievements in Miami. By all accounts she is a community-minded woman, who would no doubt fight tooth and nail if speculating developers swooped in from New York to tear down the historic Art Deco hotels in Miami Beach.

However, the credentials of any group considering the purchase of Bell Labs deserves scrutiny. Since it’s Elsie Sterling’s up at bat, the spotlight is on her group.

Elsie Sterling Oversight LLC was incorporated on January 12, 2012 through  Capital Connection, a Tallahassee firm that specializes in one day incorporation. Its legal address is that of her husband’s office at 1111 Lincoln Road, Suite 400 in Miami Beach, a rental they share with Mark Balzli, a closing and title insurance attorney, and Luxury Living Realty, a local residential real estate agency. Elsie Sterling Oversight LLC is a new, separate entity from Sterling Oversight LLC.

Elsie Sterling’s experience includes Sterling Public Relations, although an Internet search only acknowledges a firm with that name founded by Paula Streurer of California. Other than Ms. Sterling, none of the Managing Members of her LLC have any notable credentials. It was incorporated by the namesake, her husband, and their associates, who are also officers of Baye Contracting, a dissolved contracting corporation. Eugene Howard and Bruce Samuels are generically found as real estate lawyers, but are unaffiliated with any real estate development corporation or any legal firm, nor do they have websites as sole practitioners. Managing Member, attorney Allen D. Fuller, specializes in nursing home litigation, medical malpractice, premises liability, whistleblower actions, motor vehicle negligence, serious personal injury, and product liability claims. Managing Member, Elizabeth Brown, has no known credentials at all.

Elsie Sterling Oversight’s “oversight” company, MBI Project Management of Lake Worth, FL, lists a sampling of selected international projects their management team has been “involved in,” although they don’t provide any actual details. Their North American clients are a handful of small projects and renovations in Florida and North Carolina. The company’s website does not list an executive team or staff. Nowhere is mention found of John Boyd, his title, or his experience. MBI Project Management’s web domain was registered only 4 months ago on October 14, 2011 by George Modric of Air24Hour, a small family owned air conditioning and refrigeration company in Lake Worth, FL.George Modric also lists himself on LinkedIn as a Director of Field Operations at Valcom Design & Construction, a small construction-related concern whose most recent ADA compliance project was completed in 2008. Valcom Design & Construction, MBI Project Management, and Air24Hour all share the same address in Lake Worth, although Valcom recently moved to a new nearby address.

Fact checking bona fide credentials is a critical responsibility of media outlets to their readers. Ms. Sterling claims in a recent Holmdel Patch interview that she is no stranger to Holmdel because she has family who lives in the community. This is as serious as a Holmdel resident claiming enough familiarity with Miami Beach to become a major redeveloper of The Miami Beach Convention Center because they have family who lives there. Ms. Sterling counts her homework as reading old reports from 2007 and 2008, and exposes her naiveté in buying a massive multi-million dollar property by stating that, “But we’re too early in the process to know what we’re going to use and what we aren’t going to use.” This assertion is then contradicted with, “Our vision is the highest and best use for the property that will enhance the community of Holmdel and will bring business opportunities for all of us.” Either she has a vision for its use or she doesn’t, notwithstanding that the most successful developers would never consider an acquisition of this size and scope without having a well-conceived use, architectural renderings, and feasibility studies to demonstrate return on investment to their investors.

A January 2011 NJBIZ article, Fla. investor buys R&D campus in Franklin Twp, reported that this entrepreneurial investment group purchased for $2 million Exxon Biomedical’s 24-acre research and development campus at 101 Mettlers Road in Franklin Township, including 174,892 square feet in 4 buildings, “one of the largest empty properties to trade in 2010.” Sterling’s plans were “to create incubator space for smaller biotech and lab firms that will eventually grow into a larger portion of the building.” Keen insight into the Sterling group’s future stewardship of Bell Labs can be gleaned by the outcome of this campus, the realization of its plan to benefit small biotech and lab firms, and its impact to community land values. To wit, on January 10, 2012 Sterling Oversight LLC entered a tax appeal Stipulation of Settlement reducing a Tax Court Judgment on this property to $10,000,000 and reducing the assessed value of building improvements from $7,900,000 to $5,620,000. Therefore, the property was devalued under the ownership and direction of this speculating investment group. One can likewise anticipate that Holmdel property values may be devalued as well under their ownership and direction.

According to The Independent, “Elsie Sterling Oversight was unknown to the Holmdel Township Committee until just a few hours before the Feb. 23 meeting.”

The glaring lack of credentials of anyone behind Elsie Sterling would not be an issue or concern if this were a purchase for just a few acres or a small nondescript building of no significance.

The concern is that Bell Labs in Holmdel represents an acquisition of one of the largest and finest models of architectural importance on 472 landscaped acres, as well as being ground zero of so much innovation in American history.

The Bell Labs owner only has to be concerned about getting money from a sale to move on, but Holmdel officials need to be concerned about the long-term implications for the town and posterity of their responsibility for an historic treasure. If this phantom operation is able to finance the purchase price, town officials with a fiduciary responsibility need to be certain the group provides a specific plan and has the hundreds of millions of dollars firmly in place to maintain and develop the site. If not, the property will sit idle for the unforeseen future, Holmdel will not get the hoped-for ratables, the building will decay, and public officials supporting this transaction may find themselves the subject of ridicule and contempt if it blows up.

Even if Elsie Sterling Oversight is able to cobble together funds for the purchase, developing the site will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Without a plan yet, how do they expect financial backers to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the current lending environment which is hostile even to proven developers of highly successful projects with expert teams?

The buyer still has to perform due diligence. Time is of the essence to investigate their authenticity and apply pressure that demolishing the building is NOT an option to whatever their plans are for the property.

Bell Labs is an historic treasure and should not be sold to inexperienced predatory developers who storm in dangling a check, no matter how understandably enticing to both Lucent, who wants to unload the property, and to the Holmdel administration, who needs to bring in ratables.
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