Thinking outside, inside the big box

I’ve always wondered just how many abandoned Walmarts are sitting out there, taking up space as they fall apart. A glance at WalMartReality.com seems to imply there are about 80 properties for sale or lease across the U.S. I don’t know if that includes everything that has been vacated by the retail giant or just select properties they are trying to monetize in some way. But even 80 properties at an average of 120,000 square feet per site equals around 10 million square feet, or looking at it another way, a blocks width of Manhattan from the East Village to the Upper East Side. It doesn’t sound all that big, until you’ve walked that in Manhattan, which I have.

The average abandoned Walmart is about the size of two football fields. When you drive by one in the town you live in, it can be a sad reminder of the grow or die, use and throwaway world we seem to be living in. But there are those who will look at such a property and see the possibilities, like some folks in McAllen, Texas who transformed their abandoned Walmart into the largest single-floor public library in America.

As Mike Cahill writes in a photo piece that appeared on viralnova.com, developers converted the old big box with a modern feel and layout that boasts 16 public meeting spaces, 14 public study rooms, 64 computer labs, 10 children’s computer labs, 2 genealogy computer labs, a cafe, a used book store, an auditorium, and self check-out stations. Even the surrounding grounds were converted to provide a park-like atmosphere for meeting and/or reading outside.

It’s encouraging to see the way people, just like Mother Nature, can descend upon the carcass of a lifeless structure and take it back, so to speak. Author and educator Julia Christensen’s website BigBoxReuse.com tracks some of the innovative uses of abandoned retail spaces across the United States. Big box conversions to schools, apartment complexes, a fitness center, churches, more libraries, a medical center, an indoor race track, and a spam museum are all catalogued on her site.

The more aggressive features of our consumer-driven economy that encouraged the explosive and often reckless speculation evidenced in all of that big box building over the past few decades have cooled considerably. In certain high-growth areas, such as Austin, Texas, where I live, you wouldn’t know that is the case. The suburban expansion is intense with net arrivals to the city being around 110 new residents every day. And with the suburban sprawl comes more big boxes. I only hope we need that many libraries and rec centers when they eventually move on to some new destination.

There are other signs that the overall trend is away from expansion of big box world. Increasing online sales as well as a fatigue with the impersonal nature of big box shopping are two things often mentioned. This Huffington Post piece and this blog post from Forbes, both from 2014, are interesting quick reads on the decline of big boxes and indoor malls . The Forbes post quotes a report from Green Street Advisors.

About 15% of U.S. malls will fail or be converted into non-retail space within the next 10 years … Of the roughly 1,000 malls in the U.S., about 400 cater to upper-income shoppers.  For those higher-end malls, business is improving. It’s the lower-end malls that are being hit by store closures.

So if you shop at Saks or Neimans, your big-boxian ways may continue, for now. The rest of us can shop online or give some love to our long-neglected local businesses.

Some analysts place the number of projected mall and big box closures much higher. However you slice it, that’s going to mean a lot of Manhattan, figuratively, will be in need of a makeover. The opportunities are significant. They’ll just require a very different kind of thinking than that which resulted in all of this abandoned real estate in the first place. Possibility thinking, perhaps.

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