What to Do with Empty Big Box Stores

'Ghostboxes' Can Find New Life - But It Isn't Easy

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Julia Christensen is an associate professor of integrated media at Oberlin College, and is the author of “Big Box Reuse,” a 2008 book based on her Big Box Reuse interdisciplinary research project from 2003-2010.

Sarah Schindler, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Law, is the author of “The Future of Abandoned Big Box Stores: Legal Solutions to the Legacies of Poor Planning Decisions,” which appeared in the University of Colorado Law Review’s April 2012 issue.

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Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 6:30 pm | Updated: 11:33 am, Thu May 15, 2014.

Look in almost any city in North America, and you’ll find at least one: That empty shell of a building with the paper-wrapped windows and the weed-infested parking lot.

Yep, it’s a vacant big box store.

Maybe the original Wal-mart super-sized on the other side of town, or maybe the once-thriving Blockbuster store fell on hard times. Whatever the reason, it can be tough to find a business, large or small, that’s willing to take a ragged old brick-and-mortar and turn it into something shiny and new again.

But take heart: It CAN be done. Even a circa 1980 “ghostbox” store can find new life through adaptive reuse. The city of McAllen, Texas, for example, took an empty big box store and filled it with books.

McAllen’s commissioners bought the former Wal-mart store with its 15 acres and 864 parking spaces for $5 million in 2006, after the retail chain built a larger store nearby.

Now they have the award-winning, 124,000 sq. ft. McAllen Public Library, one of the largest single-floor public libraries in the U.S., and a hub of community activity in the border community.

“In a city like McAllen, with cartel violence across the river (less than 10 miles away from the library), I think it’s amazing that the city is devoting resources to not only saving a large and conspicuous piece of property from decline and vandalism, but also diverting those resources into youth and the public trust,” said Adriana Ramirez, who teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh and grew up in McAllen.

The city is near the southernmost tip of Texas on the Mexico border. “It’s easy to fall into drugs, drinking and violence when you live on the border,” Ramirez said. “It’s not really easy to find a place to hang out when you’re 14 that’s not the mall, the movies or Mexico. And a giant library – a cool-looking open space devoted to entertaining the imagination? Well, I think that’s the best counter-move against violence imaginable. And you don’t even have to wait for a computer now” since the new public computer lab has 116 stations.

Converting big box retail space into a public facility was a smart financial move too.

“McAllen residents got a lot of library compared with what they would have gotten building new, reduced their impact on the environment and turned a blight into a flourishing center of community life,” said Leanne Larson, lead interior designer for the project. “It is a desirable location with easy access, ample parking, clear vision of the front door … (and a) floor plate that is wide open, which makes it easier to reconfigure into the library program.”

The city spent $14.2 million to renovate the 124,500 sq. ft. building, and city and library staff visited nine libraries across the U.S. to gather ideas on how to use their new space. The library has won several coveted awards, including the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Honor Award for Interior Architecture.

It also received high praise from Julia Christensen, an associate professor of integrated media at Oberlin College, and Sarah Schindler, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Law, two advocates for dealing with what are called “ghostboxes,” or abandoned big box stores.

Christensen is the author of “Big Box Reuse,” a 2008 book based on her Big Box Reuse interdisciplinary research project from 2003-2010, which also created the BigBoxReuse.com website featuring several examples of adaptive reuse.

Considering herself more of an artist than architect or urban planner, Christensen said she approaches the “ghostbox” problem from a different perspective.

“My research is very much anecdotal,” she said. “I visited between 40 and 50 reuses over seven years. I came to this issue with a voice observing things around me as an artist does. I was able to connect with people in communities affected by ghostboxes. The first step is for any municipality to become engaged.”

Schindler is best known for her article, “The Future of Abandoned Big Box Stores: Legal Solutions to the Legacies of Poor Planning Decisions,” which appeared in the University of Colorado Law Review’s April 2012 issue. Although turnover and short-term vacancy is normal in a retail landscape, she said the vacancy rate for big boxes is unprecedented.

“One source estimated the national retail shopping center vacancy rate to be 11 percent after the first quarter of 2010,” she said. “This rate has increased since 2008, when the national retail vacancy average was 8.4 percent.”

Not only are these stores going dark, she said, but they are staying that way. She cited a 2005 Texas study, which found that 30 former Wal-marts remained unoccupied for about three years on average, while a few stayed empty for 10 years and one for 17 years.

While numerous solutions have been proposed and evaluated, Schindler and Christensen agree that local zoning ordinances can “alleviate the harms imposed by the thousands of existing, vacant big boxes.”

“Because local governments control land use decisions and thus made deliberate determinations allowing big box development, those same local governments now have both an economic incentive and civic responsibility to find alternative uses for ghostboxes,” Schindler said. “Big box abandonment is a nationwide problem that should be addressed at the local level.”

They also both agree that downsizing the physical dimensions of retail stores and the number of retail stores is a significant trend in U.S. retailing, and it will undoubtedly continue through 2014 and well into the future.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) reported Wal-mart, which now has more than 4,800 retail units in the U.S., and Target, which has about 1,800 U.S. stores, continue to build “supercenters” that combine their usual array of merchandise with a full supermarket and numerous specialty services from cut flowers to eye glasses. Supercenters typically range from 180,000 to 250,000 sq. ft., or between 4.1-5.7 acres. The parking lots that surround these stores are several times the size of the store itself.

Many other big box retail stores – including earlier-generation Wal-mart outlets, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Office Depot, Bed, Bath & Beyond, etc., are in the 60,000-140,000 sq. ft. range. Barnes & Noble stores range from 25,000-45,000 sq. ft., or about the size of a very large supermarket. Freestanding chain drugstores operated by Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS are generally 11,000-15,000 sq. ft.

Last year, 12 retailers alone closed nearly 2,500 stores in the U.S., including 438 Fashion Bugs and 300 Blockbusters, according to the website RetailIndustry.About.com.

While the roundup of retailers that closed underperforming locations or went bankrupt in 2014 is considered small compared to the past, it is not insignificant to the future of U.S. retailing, the website reported, concluding that the “era of if-you-build-it-they-will-come retailing seems to have ended.”

U.S. consumers are, in a sense, in charge of physical store closings. With increased online and mobile shopping behaviors, consumers are casting their vote for which retail store experiences have value and which can be easily replaced by their own Internet and mobile counterparts. In response to these strong consumer preference shifts, many large, medium and small retail chains will be closing physical retail store locations because they can’t justify the dwindling sales per square foot they produce.

But repurposing a big box store space is not an easy task. The buildings are designed specifically for the retailer who built it, and sometimes saddled with non-compete clauses that prohibit who can reoccupy them, even non-retailers. Rehabbing them also can be very expensive. Larger stores are harder to repurpose than smaller ones since they aren’t really designed to be split up into, for example, four smaller stores. And, depending on the economy, they might not work for retail anymore.

With the goal of sustainable development, Schindler developed a special matrix (attached) that provides local governments with a number of potential solutions to alleviate problems caused by vacant and abandoned ghostboxes choosing, 1) retail reuse, 2) adaptive reuse, 3) demolition and redevelopment and 4) demolition and regreening.

“Not every building can be reused; some have to be demolished. Each case can be evaluated based on the community’s economic state, ecological goals such as sustainable development, examining the existing retail landscape and evaluating existing land development patterns,” she said.

All of her solutions further sustainable development goals, Schindler said, because, “they provide for existing building or infill development and redevelopment at a higher density and in a more urban fashion than traditional suburban sprawl development. The ‘green’ characterization is important because there are a number of new funding opportunities being made available to cities moving toward sustainable development.”

People have to think outside the box too, Christensen added.

“Some designers have implemented reuses in phases. For example, a new school can build its classrooms around the outside perimeter, then wait a few years to build an auditorium in the center. We could require retailers to install multiple entrances so it would be easier to divide large stores later,” she said.

Finally, Christensen stressed, local governments need to take action to prevent the further proliferation of abandoned stores.

“Reuse begins with the design,” she said. “Communities have to limit the sizes of retail stores and make sure they will help and not hinder the quality of life. They have to think about access other than by automobile. What about more mixed zoning? Having retail, residential and offices in the same space or area? Perhaps some light industrial like a brewery? Retail on the ground floor and apartments above?

“We got so focused on the suburbs because we thought our cities were dirty and unhealthy. That’s why people moved out. So now we have suburban sprawl. We’re seeing how that really hasn’t worked out for us.”

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  • Contrarian posted at 8:52 pm on Wed, Feb 12, 2014.

    Contrarian Posts: 1

    Common in other development is that the developer post a reclamation bond. Recycling of abandoned facilities is great, but if part of the original economic benefit can be applied to redevelopment the the municipalities don't have to bear the entire cost burden. If the big box developer is successful enough to expand, the legacy costs should be borne partially by the entity that benefitted from the initial development.


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