How Can I Reuse A Vacant “Big Box” Store?

A February 12 Sustinable Cities Network article discussed the challenges of rehabilitating and reusing vacant “big box” stores (also called “ghostboxes”).  The article highlighted the successful case of the city McAllen Texas, that was able to convert an empty Wal-Mart store into a 124,000 square foot public library.

“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.

The article discussed the ongoing big box store vacancy challenge, noting that one source estimated the national retail shopping vacancy rate to be 11 percent after the first quarter of 2010, up from 8.4 percent in 2008.  Oberlin College Associate Professor of Integrated Media Julia Christensen and University of Maine School of Law Associate Professor Sarah Schindler are advocates of big box reuse and highlight challenges and offer advice on how a local government can best approach such a project in the article.

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.”  …

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.