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Thinking Inside the Box, For a Change

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If you've pledged to run screaming from the room the next time someone speaks about "thinking outside the box," then how's this for a twist? It's time to return to thinking inside the box. Only this time, we're not just talking ideas, we're talking real estate.

The Washington Post is reporting on a growing trend to re-purpose the big-box retail stores that sprouted like toxic mushrooms all over suburbia in the last 20 years. (Here's the story: hpid=topnews&sid=ST2008111402224&s_pos=).

With chains like Linens 'n Things, K-Mart and C-Mart either downsizing our shutting down, and Circuit City perhaps not far behind, we're about to inherit millions of square feet of echo chamber. Even Wal-Mart is selling hundreds of these units-and then building even bigger superstores up the road. What's to become of these empty hardened circus tents, many of which are the size of six football fields?

According to the Post, some have already been converted into indoor raceways (Texas) or courthouses (Kentucky). And one county in Virginia is thinking of putting an emergency medical services center into an empty C-Mart building.

Now, the economics of these conversions is interesting. I would have thought this would be a difficult transition, especially if these buildings slide from the for-profit to the nonprofit side of the ledge. But apparently they are typically paid off in under 10 years, which means that most of the big box stores now sitting empty can probably be gotten on the cheap, taking property taxes into account.

A new book by artist Julia Christensen, Big Box Reuse (MIT Press) imagines all sorts of possibilities for these properties, from cathedrals to museums. I think she's on the right track. It's easy to bemoan the ugly and opportunistic strip-mall mentality that has reigned in suburbs and exurbs for decades, now. It's as if our once natural and beautiful farmland, rolling hills, rivers, streams, and nubby hills had been kidnapped by evil aliens, who steamrolled over all the land and turned into a landfill of grey and beige concrete with flashes of lurid plastic red, yellow, and green. Of course, it's our own fault for allowing this to happen. And reams have been written on the rape of the land in this manner. I count myself among those who never quite tires of ranting and raving about the environmental injustice, the loss of countless historic wood-framed and quarried stone buildings. I still play the "if only" game. If only we hadn't allowed counties and villages to turn the keys over to developers and allow such rampant, cheap commercial real estate to wreak havoc on our communities. If only we had had the foresight to value the uniqueness of more authentic and organically emergent town centers-the lost dreamscape of Main Street, USA. If only we hadn't grown so dependent on finding gas stations and fast-food outlets on every corner. You know how it goes.

But we are where we are, so now we ought to make the best of it. The hollowing out that is inevitably occurring during this protracted economic crisis can perhaps be seen as an opportunity for a colonic cleansing of the landscape.  A purging, if you will. An opportunity to put some fresh juice in an old bottle. There's really no end to the possibilities for how these facilities might be re-used. It's fine to think of one-off uses for them-a church here, a community center there. But if state and local officials work with their citizens and really take time to think about this, the potential is really quite intriguing. For example, a big box store could be converted into an apartment building filled with affordable units for families transitioning from public assistance to work; for teachers, firefighters and police who crave affordable living that's close to work; or for young professionals who are priced out of downtown lofts and luxury condos (assuming those markets even hold up). Naturally, these kinds of projects would only be possible in the hands of the "right" owners. But increasingly, I think, we're going to see a tighter link between development and socially beneficial outcomes. The times demand it. And this will be a far cry from the aggressive profit-driven mentality of the original big box owners, if for no other reason than that profit-taking becomes, ahem, subdued if not scarce.

But we can go much further than this. Instead of thinking of these units as stand-alone warehouses for something or other, we should think of them as hubs for local economic development. They can serve an integrative function that has benefits that extend far beyond the confines of the front door-something the big boxes never really accomplished, outside of providing low-wage service jobs. A former K-Mart or Wal-Mart is a great place to house a transit hub-a center where retail, office, and transportation services converge, to better serve the nexus of urban and suburban commuters who are eager for alternatives to congested highways and urban beltways. It's not a big stretch of the imagination to envision one of these buildings as a hub for bus rapid transit service that combines park-and-ride facilities with public transit, and which features restaurants, ground-floor retail, and the like. Remember, these buildings are large enough to house two, if not three, vertical levels of development. And the moat of parking spaces surrounding these buildings offers further flexibility. Portions of the parking lot could accommodate bus or trolley traffic or build-out options.

If the economic doldrums forestalls even this type of agenda, then there is always the quality-of-life model. I heard recently about a converted gas station in Austin, Texas, that serves as a secular church of culture on Sundays. Congregants come to hear music-mostly Beethoven, I think-and this provides their weekly spiritual sermon in lieu of organized religion. A lovely idea, and one that a big box store could serve very well. In fact, one could partition the store into different cultural churches-one for classical, one for jazz, one for hip-hop, and so forth. What a nice idea: Music floating up to the criss-crossed iron rafters instead of Muzak. People enjoying a morning of soul-stirring song instead of traipsing aisles filled with over-sized jars of olives and mayonnaise.

So here's to the Big Box Revolution. I never thought I would find a reason to value these white elephants, but perhaps this is truly an opportunity to make lemons out of lemonade. I hope we get it right.





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Amy L. Bernstein is a full-time executive speechwriter and a former award-winning print journalist, public radio reporter, and editor. Author of two books, one celebrating Baltimore's bicentennial, the other a novel for young teens. She has a (more...)
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