Big Box Blunder: What Do We Do When They Close?
The first big box store reuse that I witnessed first hand was in Seward, Nebraska. For years, the original small scale Walmart store sat empty along Highway 15, less than a mile from the new Walmart Super Center that replaced it. For a town of just under 7,000 people it was hard to imagine it would be reused for anything else. We already had two grocery stores, a farm supply store, and community center. What else could need that much space in an open warehouse design?
The answer lied with the continually growing Hillcrest Evangelical Church. They purchased the building in 2008 and began renovations to transform it into their new church location. They held a service in the giant empty space, taping off the floor to show where the sanctuary and other functions would go. Four years later they officially moved in. One unique aspect of this building reuse was the way the renovations were done. Much of the work was completed by church members with only work that was required to be done by licensed trades hired out.
These kinds of big box store reuses are becoming more and more common. The old answer was to let a building sit long enough that it was deemed a hazard and had to be torn down, paving the way for a new development. Anymore, the benefits and cost savings of reusing these old structures, whether they are a beautiful old brick building or just an 1980’s warehouse, are being realized. I once thought these structures had no architectural merit and should be torn down and replaced with more functional buildings. I was dedicated to saving the buildings that had history. But I quickly learned that buildings that have structural integrity and can stand a second life should be saved as well to avoid the waste of demolition and construction of a new building.
Julie Chistensen wrote about this topic in Big Box Reuse and provides an interactive map of ten case studies on successful reuse projects. One is a Kmart transformation into the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota and another into HeadStart Child and Family Development Program in Hastings, Minnesota. Kmart must have built solid buildings because two of their vacant structures in Lincoln, Nebraska were converted into strip centers.
Just as preserving historic brick buildings took awhile to catch on, so did the idea for reusing all these post WWII big box stores. At the turn of the century the department store, which eventually grew into the big box store, was located at prominent downtown corners, until they moved further out to the fringes of town and built these massive warehouse structures. We found new uses for those original department stores and now we are finding a use for their replacements.