Big Box Makeover

Big-Box stores have been closing left and right, but what happens to the empty stores once they’re vacant?

 

In a retail apocalypse, it seems the real estate graveyard isn’t getting any smaller.

Toys-R-Us is the latest in a long list of big-box retailers closing stores across the United States. The empty shells of commercial real estate left behind, sometimes called “ghost boxes,” are presenting a challenge for brokers.

“These closures release millions of square footage on the market, and there just aren’t a lot of retailers that can fill that space,” says Mary Diduch, a staff writer for National Real Estate Investor.

Developers are finding creative, sometimes quirky, ways to bring “ghost boxes” back to life.

An old Kmart store in Austin, Minnesota is now home to the SPAM Museum, with 14,000 square feet of meat-themed exhibits that attract more than 100,000 visitors annually.

SPAM Museum Photographed Dec. 6, 2017. (Nancy Ngo / Pioneer Press)

Tucked behind an Office Max store in a Garner, North Carolina strip mall, 9th graders attend class in a high school that used to be a movie theater.

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This type of reuse is spanning across the U.S., with community centers, churches and government offices filling the spaces left by retailers. Julia Christensen chronicled ten examples of this in her book, “Big Box Reuse,” which examined the benefit of the civic-minded structures that replaced vacated WalMart and Kmart stores.

“Buildings need to be designed with the long-term needs of the community in mind, not only the short-term needs of big box corporations,” said Christensen. “I hope municipalities can become empowered and incentivized to be more involved in design decisions that are better for their communities, now and in the future.”

Some shopping malls are also utilizing empty retail spaces for gyms and even apartments. Developers may also see the stand-alone retail properties as an opportunity to fill a much-needed gap in the residential real estate market.

MallApartment2 Courtesy Northeast Collaborative Architects
Micro lofts overlook the Arcade Providence shopping mall. Courtesy: Northeast Collaborative Architects

“I’ve heard from experts that housing is being floated out as an option to fill some of these spaces,” says Diduch. “Whether that comes to fruition on a big scale still remains to be seen, but no stone is being left unturned to try to fill these retail vacancies.”

Currently, the housing market faces sky-high demand and a record-low supply. While the idea of living in a former Toys-R-Us store may seem strange, experts say the need for affordable housing could outweigh the awkward façade and pricey renovation.

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