Saturday, February 28, 2009

Big box of trouble: Dealing with the coming plague of empty superstores

The Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, is a renovated Kmart

When Circuit City announced last month that it was going out of business, everyone’s concern was naturally with the 34,000 employees that got laid off. Less noted has been the fate of the chain’s 1,500 big box stores scattered across the U.S. and Canada. The company, whose locations average about 25,000 square feet, was an anchor tenant in many malls and shopping centers. With numerous other big retailers teetering, not only are the prospects for filling Circuit City’s spaces gloomy, there will likely be a rash of follow-on closings among neighboring stores. And many analysts think the national retail shakeout is still in its early stages.

The problem of retail vacancies on this scale is so new that it hasn’t really been studied yet. Perhaps the only authority on the subject of empty big box stores is Oberlin College professor and artist Julia Christensen. She has spent the last seven years traveling around the country seeking out and documenting cases of communities reclaiming abandoned big boxes and putting them to a socially productive use–for instance, as museums, libraries, rec centers, and schools. She wrote about it all in her recently published book Big Box Reuse (MIT Press). A few days ago, we got her thoughts on how towns and cities can make beneficial use of these vacant structures and turn a hole in the local fabric into a community asset.

Studying big box reuse is such a timely and fascinating project. How did you get started?
I began the project because I grew up in a small historic town in central Kentucky called Bardstown. It’s very well preserved with over 300 buildings in the national registry of historic places–and meanwhile Wal-Mart has expanded twice there involving three sites in town. The company’s original store, abandoned so they could build a larger structure on the other side of town, remained vacant for about ten years. Eventually the town needed a new courthouse building and they decided to build on that lot. Doing so really changed the civic structure of the town. It was very intriguing. …

Big Box of Trouble: Dealing with the Coming Plague of Empty Superstores

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