In Waukegan, Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, a Catholic school that serves mostly middle-income and minority students, refurbished an old Kmart for a modest $10 million. Architects added windows and skylights, flooding the space with natural light while economically redeploying the building’s existing features.
In Cleveland’s Collinwood community, the city bought an empty Big Lots store and turned it into a recreation center with fitness classes and an indoor water park.
Milwaukee lured a light manufacturing company to an abandoned Lowe’s store. In another part of the city, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin opened a clinic inside a former Office Depot.
In Muncie, Ind., U-Haul opened an office and storage facility in a former Kmart.
Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., hosts a senior citizen resource center with adult day care in a former Walmart. You’d never know, looking at the creatively adapted space, that it once included a garden center and aisles of baby diapers and toys.
These are all good examples but it downplays the difficulty of the task at hand: everywhere from Manhattan to suburbs to small towns are dealing with empty retail and big box locations. Just a few of the issues at hand:
- Will the new use generate taxes in the same way as the retail use? Religious groups and community centers are not going to bring in similar monies even if they are helpful sites for the community.
- What will it cost to redevelop the property for other uses and who will pay that cost?
- Will neighbors always approve the new use? They moved next to what they thought was one thing and even the exit of a big box store may not automatically lead to a more desirable land use in their eyes.
- In the long run, how can a community overcome the loss of status and revenues from losing businesses? Again, community uses are good but many communities build their reputation on having businesses and certain revenues.
Perhaps one of the best answers to this issue is to not approve as many retail and big box uses in the first place or to require that the buildings be built or connected to surrounding neighborhoods in such ways that a new use would not be a major shift. The typical warehouse, strip mall, concrete box option surrounded by large parking lots is not easy to fix up.