The Norwalk-based firm Building and Land Technology has begun construction on an 8-story office building in the Towers at Merritt River Corporate Campus in Norwalk. A rendering of the campus is shown above.

The last piece of one of Norwalk’s successful office parks near the intersection of Merritt Parkway and Route 7 is on its way to completion, four-and-a-half years after plans for the park began.

The Norwalk-based company Building and Land Technology has started construction on an 8-story, 360,000-square-foot office building in the Towers at Merritt River Corporate Campus. The company broke ground on the new building a few months ago, according to Building and Land Technology President Carl Kuehner. It is the last of three office buildings to be constructed in a project the firm started over four years ago.

The new building at 901 Main Ave. will be one of the park’s two towers. Space in Building and Land’s other tower – which is scheduled for completion in 2005 – already has been snapped up by the alcoholic beverage business Diageo PLC. That company signed a 15-year lease and will occupy 280,000 square feet in the built-to-suit tower.

Diageo, which produces Guinness, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, Baileys Original Irish Cream and other alcoholic beverages, will consolidate four of its Stamford offices into the new space.

Building and Land hasn’t yet nailed down tenants for the new building, but Kuehner isn’t worried.

“We think it’s the premier office park in the county,” he said.

Work on the new tower – which will have an exterior of glass and granite, like the other tower – will probably wrap up in the first or second quarter of next year, Kuehner said. The 8-story building will sit on top of a 5-story parking garage, which is already finished. The company plans to start erecting steel in July and when that construction starts, Kuehner expects tenants to start banging at his company’s doors. After that, Building and Land will do tenant-specific construction at the end of the year.

“The tenants need to see something,” he said.

It is typical for construction to start before tenants commit to the space, Kuehner said. Some companies already have started expressing interest.

The Towers at Merritt River is about a mile from downtown Norwalk and across the street from a railway system. It offers amenities such as underground parking, seven-day-a-week security, a health facility and a cafeteria.

When complete, the two towers will join an 8-story, 250,000-square-foot building that is home to Hewitt Assoc., a global human resources outsourcing and consulting firm.

‘A Greater Risk’

The office market in Norwalk has been extremely successful recently, with companies like Diageo and GE Commercial Finance signing leases in the Route 7 and Merritt Parkway area. But when Building and Land first started planning the park, things were not so certain.

“We were probably taking a greater risk than we are today,” Kuehner said.

There also have been a lot of changes since the late 1990s, when the company began planning the park. Events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have changed the political and economic landscape significantly.

Still, Building and Land Technology kept mostly to its original designs, but made one rather large change.

“We’ve stuck with what we’ve designed,” Kuehner said.

One of the buildings originally slated to be an office facility was changed to a rental apartment building called Merritt River Apartments. The 227-unit structure is located across the street from the office towers and is made up of high-end luxury apartments. There is also a fitness center in the complex.

When the building was constructed in 2002 and 2003, the company changed its original plans because, with all the new construction and additional jobs coming to Norwalk, there was a demand for more living space, Kuehner said.

“We thought there was a market for rental apartments,” Kuehner said.

That proved to be the case. Building and Land sold the complex earlier this year for a record price. The complex went for slightly more than $264,000 per unit. The buyer, Merritt River Apartments LLC, bought the complex for $60 million.

Both the existing offices in the park and the apartments are nearly all occupied.

“They are 96, 97 percent occupied today,” Kuehner said. “There clearly [is a market].”

Building and Land constructed the office park as an extension of the older, successful Merritt 7 office park, which is located next door. Although Building and Land doesn’t own that park, the company’s offices are located there.

Diageo hasn’t been the only big company to establish headquarters in Norwalk. The city has been experiencing a boom in commercial real estate. That is illustrated by the fact that the construction of the Towers at Merritt River has gone quickly compared with how long it took to build the Merritt 7 Corporate Park, said Doug Bora of Building and Land.

“It took probably 20 years to building Merritt 7 in six buildings, and we’ve done five in five years,” Bora said.

The five buildings that Building and Land is developing in the area include 901 and 801 Main Ave., Bora said.

The two office parks have attracted some big companies over the past couple of years, including FactSet, a supplier of computer-based economic and financial information, which will move into 601 Merritt 7 later this year. The company will lease 126,000 square feet there.

Also, GE Commercial Finance committed to 221,000 square feet at 201 Merritt 7.

Norwalk has become a destination for companies seeking office space for several reasons. Some companies are moving closer to where their employees live, Kuehner said. Many of the companies’ workers live to the north or east of Norwalk, where housing prices are lower, and can use Route 7 to commute to work, avoiding traffic on Interstate 95 that frequently comes to a standstill. Companies also look for the kinds of amenities the Towers at Merritt River campus offers.

Norwalk’s success could overflow into nearby cities, Kuehner said. Stamford, which has recently been hit hard by losing many of its big office leases, like Diageo, could receive some of that overflow, Kuenher said.

“Stamford will be fine. It’ll just take awhile,” he said.