Once A Wal-Mart: The New Lives Of Big Boxes

Raceway

hide captionThe interior of the RPM Indoor Raceway in a renovated Wal-Mart building in Round Rock, Texas. The indoor track used 40,000 square feet of the Wal-Mart's 92,000 square footage.

Julia Christensen/The MIT Press

Tour The Stores

In her book, Big Box Reuse, Julia Christensen documents former Wal-Marts, Kmarts and Home Depots across the country that have been converted and repurposed into schools, churches and apartments. Take a tour of some of the places she visited.

Head Start i i

hide captionThe Head Start Early Childhood Center in Hastings, Neb., is in a renovated Kmart buiding.

Julia Christensen/The MIT Press
Head Start

The Head Start Early Childhood Center in Hastings, Neb., is in a renovated Kmart buiding.

Julia Christensen/The MIT Press
Spam Museum i i

hide captionAccording to Christensen, Hormel engineers told her that reusing a Kmart to house the company's homage to Spam in Austin, Minn., was less expensive than building a new space from the ground up.

Julia Christensen/The MIT Press
Spam Museum

According to Christensen, Hormel engineers told her that reusing a Kmart to house the company's homage to Spam in Austin, Minn., was less expensive than building a new space from the ground up.

Julia Christensen/The MIT Press
Route 66 Museum interior i i

hide captionThe garage door in the back of Route 66's gas station exhibit is an original from the building's days as a Kmart.

Julia Christensen/The MIT Press
Route 66 Museum interior

The garage door in the back of Route 66's gas station exhibit is an original from the building's days as a Kmart.

Julia Christensen/The MIT Press
Route 66 Museum i i

hide captionThe library in Lebanon, Mo., shares space with a museum and a cafe in a building that used to be a Kmart.

Julia Christensen/The MIT Press
Route 66 Museum

The library in Lebanon, Mo., shares space with a museum and a cafe in a building that used to be a Kmart.

Julia Christensen/The MIT Press

Across the country, communities are turning abandoned big-box stores like Kmart and Wal-Mart into churches, schools, libraries — even museums devoted to everything from Spam to Route 66.

Julia Christensen, an artist and professor at Oberlin College, crisscrossed the country to find out how these sprawling structures are being repurposed. Christensen first got the idea to study big boxes in her hometown, Bardstown, Ky., the bourbon capital of the world.

Bardstown has a charming, historic downtown, with little cafes and boutiques. Tourism is a vital part of Bardstown's economy. People come from all over to visit the distilleries and the 18th century mansion that inspired Stephen Foster to write "My Old Kentucky Home."

To keep the historic buildings intact, there are very strict design regulations downtown.

But like cities everywhere, the outskirts are a different story. Strip malls are just a few minutes' drive away. Wal-Mart has already opened and outgrown two buildings here.

Prime Property

What intrigued Christensen is what happened at the site of the first Wal-Mart: A huge space that was also home to a number of other businesses that wanted to be close to Wal-Mart — a bar called Boots and Buckles, a restaurant called Hunan Dynasty, a movie theater. When the Wal-Mart left, so did the other businesses.

But the Wal-Mart lot isn't empty anymore. Bardstown needed a new courthouse, so eventually the government bought the property, razed the big box and built the Nelson County Justice Center. A few smaller government agencies set up shop nearby. The bar and restaurant area are still vacant.

As for Wal-Mart, it moved into a bigger building across town. About five years ago, it made plans to leave that site and move to a third location. But this time, local officials wanted a say in the matter. Dixie Hibbs was the mayor of Bardstown at the time.

"We know you're going to build a big building. We've seen them. We don't like them," Hibbs says. "You're going to take a prime piece of property and build something we know will be there for 20 years. We want a building that will be pleasing to us."

In response, Wal-Mart agreed to change the building's design.

"It looks like a shopping center, not a shopping box," Hibbs says.

Big Box Reuse

It's important to note that sometimes, when a big box is left empty, it's not necessarily the fault of retailers; they don't always own the buildings themselves; often they lease them.

Christensen says she's not interested in finding fault with the owners of big boxes. She's operating on the assumption that they're here to stay. Instead, she wants to focus on what people do with them when they're abandoned.

In her new book, Big Box Reuse, Christensen looks at 10 different communities.

In Austin, Minn., Christensen went to a big box that had been renovated into a museum devoted to Spam, the canned meat. In Fayetteville, N.C., she went to a flea market that had once been a Kmart. And in Round Rock, Texas, a group of young entrepreneurs turned an abandoned Wal-Mart into an indoor racecar track. Christensen cites the racecar track for its imaginative use of such a large space — but they couldn't keep up with the overhead costs and had to close down.

Christensen says cities have a huge incentive to find other uses for these buildings.

"Roads are widened. Stoplights put in. Entire bypasses might be created," she says. "So all of this invested infrastructure remains after the retailer leaves the building behind."

Which can make these sites good for repurposing. Take Lebanon, Mo. When a Kmart there went bankrupt, its building was left vacant for three years, and the area became depressed. So the community raised money to turn it into a new and bigger county library.

Cathy Dame, the library's director, says it took awhile for some people to adjust.

"Sometimes, honestly, it was easier to say, 'Remember where the shoe section was? That's our children's room,' " Dame says.

Since the structure was too big for just the library, they broke it up and now share it with a Route 66 museum and a cafe, among other things. And Dame says they are getting a lot of traffic, partly because it's easy to park.

Dame stresses that the whole project was paid for in private donations, not taxes. Individuals and local businesses all chipped in.

"The comment I kept hearing the board say — and the public say — was how ugly the building was just sitting there," Dame says. "It was a reminder of a business that went bankrupt. It was just depressing, frankly."

"With these big-box buildings, they are constructed by the hundreds every year, and they are abandoned by the hundreds every year," Christensen says. "We're dealing with a limited resource here. There's not an endless supply on Earth, so we need to think about what's going to happen to the future of these structures."

Excerpt: Big Box Reuse

Book Cover Photo: Big Box Reuse
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The asphalt was freshly laid when I first visited the RPM Indoor Raceway. The parking lot was sweating in the dead heat of a Texan July, and the soles of my tennis shoes fused slightly with the tar as I walked across it. Three acres of asphalt loomed in front of the building, reflecting all light and moisture right back up, so that a world of heat was hovering above the ground, right around my ankles.

As we drove into the parking lot on that summer day in 2002, I first encountered the now familiar site of a reused Wal-Mart sign: those three tiers on a post that once announced "WAL-MART," "We Sell For Less," and "ALWAYS." Now this sign read "RPM Indoor Raceway," "Speed Happens," and "Go-Kart Racing," a merging of the building's past life and its current incarnation. Driving down the highway or on a country road today, when I see that multitiered sign, I am clued in to the strip mall's hidden past—Wal-Mart once operated in that building. In some instances I wonder if the reuse of the signage is an adaptive reuse of Wal-Mart's branding, a strain of marketing that carries through from the building's past life, an obvious nod to Wal-Mart's legacy at the lot.

Round Rock, Texas, is a town that was historically a suburb of Austin. By 2002, when I first visited, the suburb had grown so that it was no longer "sub" anything: in 1990, the U.S. Census listed the population at 30,923; as of June 2006, the population was at 86,902; the 2006 Annual Report of the city projects a 2010 population of over 100,000 people.

Along with a boom in people came a boom in development, and the town structure stretched and flexed in order to support its new population. Round Rock won a prestigious

Comprehensive Planning Award from the Texan chapter of the American Planning Association in 1999, and the city website boasts about its long-term plan for expansion. Round Rock is characterized by its strip malls, big box stores, and overpasses arching against the sky, which apparently have all been carefully planned.

The old Wal-Mart building is on a road called Hester's Crossing, a name that stands out among the surrounding road names, all of which consist mainly of numbers. "Hester's Crossing," a street name that is surely a relic of some forgotten use of the surrounding land, is now home to several big boxes. The building is directly accessible from Interstate 35, so that the Austinites nearby had easy access to the Wal-Mart store when it was in operation.

This big box was first constructed decades ago, and at the time, it sat out on its own, away from all other development. The aerial photographs of the building site at the time of construction, in the early 1980s, show that the building was indeed a cement and steel island in a sea of yellow grass. "The aerial photograph shows no other commercial development in the frame of the picture," says Charlie Gifford, owner of the racetrack. Slowly, stores moved nearby, just as had been the case in Bardstown. The Wal-Mart building attracted other nearby businesses, helping build Round Rock into a commercial center, drawing heavy traffic from the surrounding region.

My first visit to the RPM Indoor Raceway was in the summer of 2002. As my tour guide, Austin resident Jacqueline Saltsman, drove me north from Austin, I noticed a definite break in the continuity of the sprawl. There was a distinction in the roadside landscape between the city of Austin and the city of Round Rock, a break in the commercial development lining the highways. As we drove, we passed a few stray highway exits that led to seemingly residential districts, but there was indeed space lining the highway; the land was not yet entirely consumed by the impending sprawl.

During a second visit to the site in 2006, only four years later, the drive from Austin to Round Rock offered a seamless continuation of development, so that the Round Rock exit signs snuck right up on me on Interstate 35 while I still thought I was in Austin. My second visit to the site occurred when I was summoned to investigate a compelling update: The racetrack had been evicted from said building, and the structure had been broken into a strip mall hosting a Gold's Gym, a smoothie shop, a health food store, a men's hair salon, and a tanning salon. In the words of Gifford, "The evolution of that big box property from vacant land, to Wal-Mart, to the RPM Indoor Raceway, to Gold's Gym, is indicative of the evolution that has taken place in the last decade in the greater Austin and Round Rock area."

Excerpted from Big Box Reuse by Julia Christensen, published by The MIT Press, November 2008. Copyright 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.

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