Repurposing big boxes
Hey, I’ve got something: What’s even worse than a new big-box store killing local shops and disrupting a neighbourhood? One that closes and leaves a big fat load of nothing behind.
For the record, I’m not against Walmart. I shop there sometimes. You know, when I want something cheap. I’m more of a Loblaws kind of girl. But whatever, I don’t have an objection to big stores that cater to normal people on a budget.
I do hate it though when one of those stores closes and fails to take its building and parking lot away. This happens more than we realize, apparently.
Over the past 30 years, abandoned big-box stores have become the retail blightof middle and suburban America: In 2005, there were 70 empty big-box stores in Columbus, Ohio alone. From the late 1980s thru the early 2000s, more than 100 Walmarts closed in Texas. Research shows that empty big-box stores can deter new investments to a town. Vacancies create the perception that a place isn’t economically viable. They can also become magnets for vandalism or other crime, which lowers the value of nearby property. Look around middle America and it’s likely you’ll see plenty of vacant big box.
In theory, says author and senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress Alan Mallach, there’s no reason why these buildings shouldn’t be demolished. But that’s easier said than done. A developer will often choose to build on an empty field rather than untangle the legal and financial issues associated with demolishing an old building. According to Mallach, it can cost half a million dollars to knock down one of these old big-box stores — and that doesn’t include dealing with the parking lot. “To undo one of these complexes, building and parking, is a multimillion dollar proposition,” he says.
And yet, that’s typically considered the best solution to big-box blight. Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, says the best possible solution is to either repurpose the site so no more greenfields are paved over for big-box retail, or to return the abandoned site to the greenfield it was before — a cost that she encourages municipalities to require developers to pay for by local ordinance, before ground is broken.
The article goes on to highlight a few examples where community groups took over an empty big box store and made it into something awesome. That’s repurposing properly understood.