Recycling Big Box developments
New Uses for the 'Big Boxes'
October 05, 2005 — By Jim Jordan, The Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky.
It wasn't Bardstown's 300 historic buildings that fascinated Julia Christensen
when she was growing up in Nelson County. It was the town's three Wal-Marts.
Over the years, the first Wal-Mart was replaced by a larger Wal-Mart that was
replaced by an even larger Wal-Mart. Each new store was built in a different
place, leaving behind a "big box" that sat empty for a long time.
Christensen began wondering about the thousands of big boxes that are left
behind every year as major retailers, grocers and health clubs make
adjustments. She asked: What are the best uses for them?
To find out, she has been traveling the country in her 1999 Subaru since
January 2003, taking pictures, interviewing big-box users and compiling what
amounts to a database. Along the way, Christensen is speaking on the topic to
civic groups, urban planners and anyone else who's interested.
She hopes to publish a book on the topic in 2006.
"It's interesting how these buildings shape the community even after the
retailer has left," she said during a recent visit to Lexington.
Big boxes are massive -- usually 80,000 square feet or more -- with huge
parking lots, extensive storm-drainage systems and often with entrances on at
least one major road or highway. They tend to dominate their neighborhood.
Christensen, 29, who recently earned her second master's degree in the arts
from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, believes empty big boxes are the
inevitable result of businesses trying to fulfill consumer demands, so it's
futile to blame Wal-Mart or Kmart for causing the problem.
What counts, she says, is how the space is recycled.
That's "when the community starts to breathe its character back into these
buildings," she said. New uses can include other big-box stores, such as the
Furniture World Super Store that moved into the Pace Membership Warehouse off
Richmond Road in Lexington. In other cases, the big box might be filled by
several smaller users, such as professional offices or retail stores.
Churches, fitness centers, schools and clinics also love big boxes. An
abandoned Kmart in Minnesota became the Spam Museum, and a former Wal-Mart in
Texas is now an indoor go-cart track, Christensen noted.
The recycling process should begin when big boxes are planned, not when they
become empty, says David Mohney, dean of the University of Kentucky College of
Design. That's why many cities, including Lexington, have ordinances to
regulate the location and design of big boxes.
"If you really build these things as isolated empires off by themselves, it
makes it very difficult to go back in and figure out what to do if the
occupant moves on," he said. "The trick is to ... incorporate them into the
A good example in Lexington is the Kroger supermarket on Romany Road, Mohney
said. "You can imagine actually walking to the supermarket because it is such
a pleasant area."
To create more such livable areas, planning commissions have to make sure
big-box developers meet community standards, he said. Most companies are
"ready to give a little bit" and to work with local planners.
Another encouraging sign, Mohney said, is that more retailers, especially
grocers, are tailoring the size of their stores to the areas they want to
serve, instead of building supercenter-size stores everywhere they go.
It's also practical, because smaller big boxes are easier to lease or sell to
new occupants than supercenters, said Bruce Isaac, senior vice president of
NAI Isaac Commercial Properties Inc. in Lexington.
The rule of thumb is, the larger the space, the longer it typically takes to
find a new tenant, Isaac said. Wal-Marts, Kmarts and other really big boxes
often require several occupants, and that can take more time than finding just
"Typically for these big boxes it's an opportunity to do a variety of uses,
whether it's a school or offices or other retailer," Isaac said. "There is
really no limit to what can come out of it."
A good example -- one that Christensen came to Lexington to see -- is the
former Kmart on New Circle Road at North Limestone.
Two occupants fill the building -- Alltel (60,000 square feet) and Goodwill
Industries of Kentucky (40,000 square feet). Both say the site is exactly what
Alltel wanted to consolidate several of its Lexington sites. It needed office
space, a warehouse and a fenced-in area to park trucks and equipment, said
Erin Ascione, the telephone company's Lexington spokeswoman.
The offices went into the front of the former Kmart, the warehouse was in the
back, and the former Kmart garden center made a great place to park vehicles.
"It was kind of a grand slam. It had everything we wanted," Ascione said.
"Some places had one and not the other, but they found this one and it was
At the other end of the building was the former Kmart auto service center with
lifts, oil tanks and work spaces cut into the floor, said Erin Gold, vice
president of Goodwill Industries of Kentucky.
"When I looked at it, I thought 'This is going to be really more than what I
want to get into,'" Gold said. "It was really a mess and had to be cleaned up
so it was quite an undertaking."
Gold accepted the challenge and "it came out OK," she said. Goodwill now has
its division headquarters, offices for its work force development program and
a retail store in the building.
As for Gold, the experience made her a fan of big boxes because of the
flexibility they offer. If she finds another one in the right location, she
will definitely consider it, Gold said. "I wasn't really like that before. It
opened my horizons, and my thought processes up."
Christensen has heard many similar success stories and hopes they will
motivate communities with long-vacant big boxes to keep trying to find new
"I'm really interested in collecting the information and just putting it out
there so people are able to make decisions and choices, and think about
alternative uses for these buildings," she said. "So basically I am a
collector and distributor of information."
She doesn't consider herself a consultant or an expert in a niche she pretty
much created for herself.
"I'm an artist," Christensen said, noting that all of her college degrees are
in the arts, not engineering or architecture. "I talk to people and I share my
information, but I always tell them I'm really not an expert.
"More and more," she said, "artists are sort of taking on these projects to
examine things that are happening in the social realm."
There's no excuse for these monstrosities.
On Fri, 7 Oct 2005, Lloyd Wright wrote:
> New Uses for the 'Big Boxes'
> October 05, 2005 -- By Jim Jordan, The Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky.
> It wasn't Bardstown's 300 historic buildings that fascinated Julia Christensen
> when she was growing up in Nelson County. It was the town's three Wal-Marts.
- Big boxes don't grow if you don't subsidize them:
Cheap fuel for driving there
Local government-paid for road improvements
Untaxed customer labor vs. taxed store labor
Low tax on low value expansive parking lot
Shift taxes from labor and buildings and onto land values, and you'll see compact communities, cared-for buildings, and very very few big box stores.
- --- Lloyd Wright <LFWright@...> forwarded:
> The recycling process should begin when big boxes
> are planned, not when they
> become empty, says David Mohney, dean of the
> University of Kentucky College of
> Design. That's why many cities, including Lexington,
> have ordinances to
> regulate the location and design of big boxes.
OK. Freeze, illegalise or disable through ECIP
(External-Cost Internalising Planning) any more big
With big boxes on major highways, first modify
highways as appropriate/technically possible with
trams, commuter rail or bus rapid transit, bridle and
cycle paths, artificial streams, linear parks, etc and
turn big box areas and parking lots into carfree
Yahoo! Messenger - NEW crystal clear PC to PC calling worldwide with voicemail http://uk.messenger.yahoo.com
- The only way to properly recycle big box stores is to have an environmentally responsible
wrecker salvage and sort the building materials after knocking it down. Pull up the pavement
and send it back to the tarpits if such material can be reused. Then redevelop the large piece
of contingous land into medium to high density mixed use development.
PS I know the first rule of recyclnig is reuse, but the monstosity of a big box will only
perpetuate further bad planning.
- Tuds said:
>The only way to properly recycle big box stores is to have anThat part is right.
>wrecker salvage and sort the building materials after knocking it
>down. Pull up the pavement
>and send it back to the tarpits if such material can be reused.
>ThenNope, return it to farmland. The land is too far away from
>redevelop the large piece
>of contingous land into medium to high density mixed use development.
anything to be worth redeveloping in any form, unless it's
part of an entire carfree finger connecting to downtown,
almost certainly with rail service. The reason these places
are where they are is the cheap land next to the highway,
far from downtown.
------ ### -----
J.H. Crawford Carfree Cities
- In reference to:
"J.H. Crawford" <mailbox@...> suggested that
big box areas should be returned to agricultural
OR HOW ABOUT: Green space for non-people - if a nearby
pre-converted highway doesnt interfere - as I assume
it could have been something else before it was used
for agriculture, eh?
Agriculture would continue to bring in tax revenues at
a local level at least (excluding federal subsidies)
unlike a park or nature reserve/human-exclusion area,
BUT can we think of other non-automobile traffic
inducing ways to have the place generate cash? (Of
course nature restoration does have a significant
monetary value, too)
What about malls INSIDE urban areas, not at the
periphery? There are many examples of these, including
my beloved (!) Fox Hills Mall
in Culver City, California, where I learned to play
automobile-themed video games, in the pre-Nintendo
As we have discussed before here - but I think this is
an interesting discussion - turn the parking lots and
structures into housing, keep the mall mostly as-is
but add some convienience stores and all night diners
and clubs and of course better public transport to
keep people coming to the mall? Outside of the
"Residence at the Old Parking Lot", this "WalkMall"
would be within walking distance of thousands of
people and bikeable or less than a few transit stops
away for tens of thousands.
Also consider having the mall have a roof which opens
and closes, etc.
Or destroy it? Is it just too close to the "freeway"?
Emissions might not increase so much in the near
future, but noise will certainly not decrease.
On a related note there is a new Carrefour shopping
centre (Vrsovice) not far from the centre of Prague
which is about 50m from the main rail corridor to the
There is no rail link now, but within the expanding
suburban rail system it is not inconceivable that a
stop could be built here, which would also put the
tens of thousands of residents nearby two stops and
seven minutes from the main train station, which is at
the edge of the historical centre. BUT it is about
1km to the next station towards the centre, and 2km to
the next station towards the outside of town (kind of
short for rail; there is some redundancy). It could
also serve a nearby small sports stadium. It would be
the only major shopping centre directly on a train
line in Prague, and therefore give carfree
accessibility to the centre for the peripheral areas
and villages - stops are at 2 to 3km intervals - up to
30-min away by train. It could do the same for others
living close to other stations. There are no subway
stops at this location.
Realising that having 30-min non-peak intervals for
trains could inconvienience some shoppers, I think a
solution could be to have a big display showing next
train departures (the big new stadium near a train
station here has this) and even some kind of guarantee
that checkout (cash register) staff would be added as
necessary to ensure that if people get into line to
pay at a certain time they know they can catch the
next train... also, since free parking would continue,
shoppers could pay with an integrated smart card that
could give them a discount on the train.
At best this is "car-harm reduction" (I think an
appropriate adaptation of the drug-abuse term), but it
would still continue to make life difficult for small
businesses - though I should say many smaller shops in
Prague have gotten pretty clever about stocking small
amounts of many things, and being personal, etc... and
they know they are walkable. Stores in smaller towns
and villages have not been as creative and of course
it is more difficult to make deliveries there. But at
the same time if there was no way - if driving costs
for individuals become prohibative - to get to a shop
some distance away market pressures could induce the
village shops to expand.
Or, do we just kill it? OR not do anything to make it
more viable commercially?
Ok, I just got some more ideas but right now I need to
enable my companion animals to go outside - and
perhaps you all do?
Todd, Green Idea Factory
"...if there is a solution, there is a solution..."
To help you stay safe and secure online, we've developed the all new Yahoo! Security Centre. http://uk.security.yahoo.com
> PS I know the first rule of recycling is reuse, but the monstrosity of aActually, the first rule of recycling is reduce ;-) But you know that...
> big box will only
> perpetuate further bad planning.
In other words, don't build the damn sprawl in the first place. However, in
many or most places it is too late. I can imagine reusing big boxes as part
of a mixed use community. It takes a lot of imagination, but a big box and
its parking lot could probably be converted into a mixed use community.
How long will it be before big boxes are available in the market and if and
when they become available who will finance the development of the mixed use
It's one thing to preach the ideal and another to participate in the
realization of such.
----- Original Message -----
From: "tokyotuds" <ktuttle@...>
Sent: Friday, October 07, 2005 10:41 PM
Subject: [carfree_cities] Re: Recycling Big Box developments
> The only way to properly recycle big box stores is to have an
> environmentally responsible
> wrecker salvage and sort the building materials after knocking it down.
> Pull up the pavement
> and send it back to the tarpits if such material can be reused. Then
> redevelop the large piece
> of contingous land into medium to high density mixed use development.
> That's recycling!
> PS I know the first rule of recyclnig is reuse, but the monstosity of a
> big box will only
> perpetuate further bad planning.
> Post messages to: carfree_cities@...
> Unsubscribe (blank message): carfree_cities-unsubscribe@...
> Group address: http://www.egroups.com/group/carfree_cities/
> Yahoo! Groups Links
- --- In firstname.lastname@example.org, "Mike Morin" <mikemorin@e...> wrote:
>Oops, can I claim being tired when I said the first rule was reuse? Reduce, reuse, recycle
> > PS I know the first rule of recycling is reuse, but the monstrosity of a
> > big box will only
> > perpetuate further bad planning.
> Mike Morin said:
> Actually, the first rule of recycling is reduce ;-) But you know that...
> In other words, don't build the damn sprawl in the first place. >
has been my mantra for nearly 20 years, but 15 years ago I adopted what many people
recommended as the "New First Rule": Refuse.
I think "Don't build the damn sprawl in the first place" qualifies as Refuse, and I agree
My thanks to Mr Crawford for pointing out earlier that big boxes are built on the edge of
the city or even in the coutryside due to cheap land. So, it's better in those cases to return
it to farmland or green space. If we Reuse the big box, then turning the parking lot into
medium to high density mixed use could be a plan, but if we tear down the big box and
the land is still adjacent to country-side, I agree we should return it to countryside.
I'm thinking of some of the big boxes in Toronto, Burlington and London Ontario where
the suburban sprawl has already swallowed up all the land in every direction around the
big boxes. Older big boxes, strip malls and the like are no longer adjacent to the
Here in Japan there is the Large Scale Retailer Law which has protected the small mom and
pop retailer for 50 years. Until recently, the only large retailer that could be built was
department stores. Every neighbourhood still has a small, local "shotengai" shopping
street, a main street if you will, even in the center of Tokyo.
I live about 1.5 km as the crow flies from the Imperial Palace, but the shotengai here is
just beautiful. There are merchants who have been on that street for 8 or 10 generations.
It's wonderful! It's about 1km long, and every Sunday and Holiday it is closed to traffic:
that is, Carfree!
So, my point is, until recently Japan has Refused big box retailers. Sadly, this is changing.
They are allowing exceptions now and there are a few Costcos in Greater Tokyo, as well as
2 bankrupt Carrefours, and in spring 2006 the first Ikea in Japan will open. We'll see what
> My thanks to Mr Crawford for pointing out earlierBut not always. I used to live in the very depressed
> that big boxes are built on the edge of
> the city or even in the coutryside due to cheap
city of St. Louis, and a HUGE debate there is about
building big box developments in town. There is no
lack of space or cheap land, sadly, as the city is
more than half empty (pop 315,000, down from a peak of
850,000) and most of the shopping gets done in the
There the debate comes down to bringing commerce into
the city (and keeping the people that still live in
the city shopping in the city) vs. trying to build
walkable communities. The latter, while the ideal, is
hampered by lack of population that care and lack of
population in absolute numbers.
Meanwhile, I've noticed "big box type" of stores in
San Francisco, without the giant parking lots,
seemingly integrated into the existing streetscape.
These mostly are the office/technology type places
such as Circuit City and Office Max.
- A study conducted by Gothenburg's university and Chalmers tek "Göteborg
2050" suggested that big boxes be used as distribution centres. That is to
say, places where the goods we consume and have ordered over the Internet
get reloaded for delivery to our local centre so we can walk there and
collect them. A spatial analyse in many cases will show that the big boxes
are placed around but outside of the city where there is a motorway
(highway). Big boxes are placed where the maximum amount of goods can be
distributed with the minimal km/ton transport. The problem today is that we
get a thousand SUVs each loaded with one bag of groceries instead of one guy
with a really big SUV loaded with a thousand bags of groceries.
- Dan Kliman wrote:
> > My thanks to Mr Crawford for pointing out earlierI use to work for Loblaws( http://www.loblaws.ca ) here in Montreal, it was
> > that big boxes are built on the edge of
> > the city or even in the countryside due to cheap
> > land.
>But not always. I used to live in the very depressed
>city of St. Louis, and a HUGE debate there is about
>building big box developments in town. There is no
>lack of space or cheap land, sadly, as the city is
>more than half empty (pop 315,000, down from a peak of
>850,000) and most of the shopping gets done in the
>There the debate comes down to bringing commerce into
>the city (and keeping the people that still live in
>the city shopping in the city) vs. trying to build
>walkable communities. The latter, while the ideal, is
>hampered by lack of population that care and lack of
>population in absolute numbers.
>Meanwhile, I've noticed "big box type" of stores in
>San Francisco, without the giant parking lots,
>seemingly integrated into the existing streetscape.
>These mostly are the office/technology type places
>such as Circuit City and Office Max.
the store on the corner of Park and Jean Talon, right beside the Park Avenue
metro/train station. One nice thing about the format of the store compared
to the suburban counter parts was that the parking was under ground with the
store and a park on top.
- First, of course gas taxes should be higher, and this
will discourage future big boxes.
However, I am also struck by the similarities of the
empty big boxes to Diocletian's Palace. His luxury
palace on the Adriatic -- essentially, a big box made
out of stone with better architecture -- became, at
the fall of the Roman Empire, a new city. It was
interesting to go to that city (Split) and see the
"appartments" that used to be rooms in the palace.
I'm not an engineer, and I wonder how long the boxes
were designed to remain standing, how long the HVAC
will remain mold-free, etc. But the idea of a big box
becoming the marketplace for a pedestrian community
that grows up around it seems both romantic and
--- Todd Edelman <traintowardsthefuture@...>
> --- Lloyd Wright <LFWright@...> forwarded:
> > The recycling process should begin when big boxes
> > are planned, not when they
> > become empty, says David Mohney, dean of the
> > University of Kentucky College of
> > Design. That's why many cities, including
> > have ordinances to
> > regulate the location and design of big boxes.
> from: <http://www.enn.com/today.html?id=8960>
> OK. Freeze, illegalise or disable through ECIP
> (External-Cost Internalising Planning) any more big
> With big boxes on major highways, first modify
> highways as appropriate/technically possible with
> trams, commuter rail or bus rapid transit, bridle
> cycle paths, artificial streams, linear parks, etc
> turn big box areas and parking lots into carfree
> Yahoo! Messenger - NEW crystal clear PC to PC
> calling worldwide with voicemail
> Post messages to: carfree_cities@...
> Unsubscribe (blank message):
> Group address:
> Yahoo! Groups Links
Yahoo! Mail - PC Magazine Editors' Choice 2005
- Aside from the other arguments against recycling this junk, already
The typical big box represents the flimsiest, cheapest, down-and-dirtiest
construction techniques and materials possible. These "buildings" aren't
intended to be long-lasting -- and they don't last long. Not to mention
that they are all unutterably ugly.
I guess you could use them as outbuildings, greenhouses and warehouses
adjacent to the community gardens the parking lots should become.
Please folks, forget these damned things.
Pick your favorite city or town. Draw a circle with a half-mile radius
around the central square, commons, main intersection, or whatever. When
that area is appropriately compact, mixed-use, sustainably urban and
urbane, move out to the next zone. And so on.
By the time you get to the big boxes, everyone will know what to do.
If you need bigger schemes, build carfree cities from the ground up.
On Mon, 10 Oct 2005, Eric Dupre wrote:
> First, of course gas taxes should be higher, and this
> will discourage future big boxes.
> However, I am also struck by the similarities of the
> empty big boxes to Diocletian's Palace. His luxury
> palace on the Adriatic -- essentially, a big box made
> out of stone with better architecture -- became, at
> the fall of the Roman Empire, a new city. It was
> interesting to go to that city (Split) and see the
> "appartments" that used to be rooms in the palace.
> I'm not an engineer, and I wonder how long the boxes
> were designed to remain standing, how long the HVAC
> will remain mold-free, etc. But the idea of a big box
> becoming the marketplace for a pedestrian community
> that grows up around it seems both romantic and
"It is dangerous to be right
when the government is wrong."
P.O. Box 1007
Larkspur, CA 94977