Plot or Premise
The textbook-sized book includes ten case studies across America where former big box stores – Walmarts and Kmarts – have been put to new use after the store left or closed.
What I Liked
I was drawn to the premise of the book as I have frequently seen large big box stores in Canada, anchoring malls and plazas, move out and languish empty for a number of years. Sometimes it is a short time and another retailer moves in. Sometimes it is a long time, and it looks like urban blight. Rarely have I seen much in the way of “good news” around these sites, and I was intrigued with the idea of a series of case studies where the stores aren’t just languishing empty, but have been put to reuse.
From a policy perspective, the first thing that jumped out at me was that the stores were not all empty because the store “failed”. While the Kmarts closed, most of the Walmarts moved to larger facilities…instead of trying to renovate an existing space (and losing revenue while it was being renovated), they built a whole new store, sometimes just across the road. Secondly, I liked some of the challenges and opportunities that go with the store’s design…they are primarily utilitarian empty boxes. Which means they can be anything you want them to be, except perhaps attractive (usually). Beyond these first two, some other issues that I liked were some of the restrictions the former store put on future use when selling the land (lease restrictions to prevent competition for instance); local ordinances that were hard-learned lessons about responsibilities of the owner when the boxes are being built with a view to future reuse (accessibility, divisibility of the interior space, extra doors, etc.) or eventual removal if it sits empty too long; the short-term reuse by other types of businesses (like an indoor racetrack) until the lease restrictions ease at 10 years and the subsequent eviction of those temporary tenants in favour of larger more profitable retailers; the use of some of the properties as “land banks” to use the land for SOMETHING while waiting until the value increases; the importance of time frame for assessing success as some of the reuses look great initially but weren’t sustainable; the importance of interior and exterior aesthetics to the new users and the public; the consideration of the location not just as a “building” but as tied to the infrastructure around it – utilities, parking, accessibility to good transportation routes, etc; and the potential for complicated types of real-estate deals in place to address if you want to reuse something – current lease holder, building owner, and a land owner.
I think my favorite chapter was one that looked at a reuse of a Walmart box by three seniors services organizations who co-located into one building, and the place was thriving. Equally, I saw potential in the reuse by a few Charter schools and a couple of other “startup” organizations who couldn’t afford to build their own building, at least not initially, but could afford to lease a space, get up and running, earn some revenue, save up, and then buy the building, while slowly expanding their use throughout the space. A library project took the “challenge” of being in a big box and turned it into a way to engage the community (a common challenge to face together, which built support for the project). Finally, there is a chapter on converting the box store into a church, and not just in one location, it has happened in lots of places.
What I Didn’t Like
I was a bit disappointed that the book only looks at Kmart and Walmart stores, as they all have a very specific type of footprint, which would in some ways limit their reuse. Multiple sizes of stores might have more interesting reuses. I was also disappointed with the lack of much other context – how does big box reuse compare to gentrification of factory districts, how do the issues that crop up with historic buildings compare with the issues of more modern box stores, how do they compare with issues when converting schools or churches to other uses? A couple of the chapters are throwaway chapters for me as they are not truly reuse. One looks at a courthouse that took over the space, but just razed the building and built something new; another only used the parking lot; and another just had other types of retailers in the space.
The Bottom Line
An interesting series of case studies for a common modern-day problem.