Photo courtesy International Marketplace Coalition
Over the past 30 years, abandoned big-box stores have become the retail blight of middle and suburban America: In 2005, there were 70 empty big-box stores in Columbus, Ohio alone. From the late 1980s thru the early 2000s, more than 100 Walmarts closed in Texas. Research shows that empty big-box stores can deter new investments to a town. Vacancies create the perception that a place isn’t economically viable. They can also become magnets for vandalism or other crime, which lowers the value of nearby property. Look around middle America and it’s likely you’ll see plenty of vacant big box.
In theory, says author and senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress Alan Mallach, there’s no reason why these buildings shouldn’t be demolished. But that’s easier said than done. A developer will often choose to build on an empty field rather than untangle the legal and financial issues associated with demolishing an old building. According to Mallach, it can cost half a million dollars to knock down one of these old big-box stores — and that doesn’t include dealing with the parking lot. “To undo one of these complexes, building and parking, is a multimillion dollar proposition,” he says.
And yet, that’s typically considered the best solution to big-box blight. Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, says the best possible solution is to either repurpose the site so no more greenfields are paved over for big-box retail, or to return the abandoned site to the greenfield it was before — a cost that she encourages municipalities to require developers to pay for by local ordinance, before ground is broken.
For communities that don’t require a plan for the demolition of a site, the behemoth spaces are often turned into depressing municipal buildings, schools, or ICE detention facilities.
It doesn’t need to be that way. Examples of functional, productive re-purposement are out there, all over the country. The three examples highlighted here are proof that it just takes creativity and patience to find the right spaces and develop them.
Rock City Indoor BMX, in rural Greenville, Michigan, is a year-round dirt track playground, sanctioned by USA-BMX. It hosts bike racing, training and family events. Riders come from hundreds of miles away — including Indiana, Ohio and Canada — to ride in the cold winter months when outdoor BMX racing and riding is impossible. There aren’t a lot of indoor BMX dirt bike tracks in the region, so people will travel no matter the weather to ride here.
“Athletic recreational types of uses are perfect for former big-box stores, with their large space, high ceilings and clear room to move around in,” says Mallach.
Riders come from hundreds of miles away — including Indiana, Ohio and Canada — to ride in the cold winter months when outdoor BMX racing and riding is impossible. (Photo courtesy Rock City Indoor BMX)
Rock City Indoor BMX occupies about 100,000 square feet of what was the first-ever Meijer big-box store — a private, family-owned Midwestern chain similar to a Walmart. They closed this location and moved to the proverbial “other side of town” in 2001, following Walmart when it moved in.
Rock City “rents” the facility from Jesus Non-Denominational Church in Greenville. The deal was worked out between the church and Meijer: After the original Meijer store became vacant, Tommy Turner, pastor at the Jesus Non-Denominational Church, asked Meijer repeatedly over the course of 8 years for the building. Meijer, for its part, tried to sell it. After several years of no sale and not wanting the store to languish, the company fulfilled Turner’s request and gave the building to the church. Meijer paid the closing costs to transfer the property to the church, and also paid all back property taxes. “We didn’t pay one cent for the building or for transferring the building. It was a miracle from the Lord that allowed us to get the facility,” says Turner.
Meijer, for its part, says the donation to the church was “an exception to our normal process,” spokesperson Frank Guglielmi tells Next City by email. “Meijer began in Greenville in 1934, so that particular location and community had historical significance.” Still, Meijer in general seems to operate a bit differently from other big-box stores: “It is rare that a Meijer store is closed,” Guglielmi adds. “When that does occur, we normally either sell the building, or demolish the building and prep the site for future development and/or sale.” Demolition and site prep is so rare for big-box store owners that many municipalities are turning to city ordinances to ensure the site owner is a truly good neighbor, cleaning up a former store’s site and removing what might otherwise become blight and potentially drag down property values. (“If you’re part of a larger commercial area and there’s an abandoned hulk in the middle, people will be less eager to shop or go there,” says Mallach.)
In 2010, Herschell Brown had an outdoor BMX facility and went to Turner to ask if they could turn the old store into an indoor community BMX center. The church agreed and charged the non-profit the cost of the utilities for the building, which also became home to the church’s thrift store and food pantry. For the next several years, Rock City Indoor BMX paid the utilities for the entire building. Now that the thrift store and food pantry are self-sufficient, they split the cost of the utilities with the church.
Rock City Indoor BMX is non-profit, run entirely by volunteers. They built the track by bringing in tons of clay soil given to them from a construction company that was digging a tunnel under nearby major thruway M57 (not far from the newer Meijer store) to create a safe crossing for pedestrians and cyclists on the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail.
Brown’s team cut a hole in the side of the building to bring in all the dirt, promising they would take the dirt with them when they left. Turner says he figured, “If you can get the dirt in, you can get it out,” adding, “It was a gentlemen’s agreement.”
Tracy Salisbury is the local track operator and sometime-track director who runs the operations of the facility. She tells Next City they also made all the improvements inside, including new lighting and new heaters — another big challenge in the old box stores. “We can’t heat the way you would heat a regular building,” says Salisbury. “We have tubular radiant heaters, [the kind] you find in garages” throughout the racing area.
While on any weekend the facility teems with racers, kids and families all having a good, healthy time, the old big-box space has its issues. The roof leaks, not surprising given the age of the building and its eight-year vacancy before the BMXers took it over. Salisbury estimates it will cost north of $100,000 to install a new roof. “It’s a big area,” she says, and the roof is “an expense we can’t afford.”
“If you can get somebody to donate that building to you and write it off,” says Brown, “then it works.” The cost otherwise, he says, would have been untenable for the community non-profit.
Salisbury says they’ve been doing spot repairs in small areas, and that inside they have tarps to catch the water and then direct and drain it out of the building.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” Salisbury insists, with an earnest Midwestern practicality.
Turner is more optimistic, explaining plans to incorporate a donation-based fowling facility in the building’s north end (fowling is a popular game created in Michigan, a cross between football and bowling). He hopes that will raise enough money to fix the roof.
“We’re lucky and fortunate to be able to find an indoor facility that will host us,” says Salisbury. Not every landlord is open to a potential tenant saying, “’Can I bring in hundreds of yards of dirt and let it sit?’” she adds. “I’m very happy we have a facility to use and kids can ride year-round.”
Using the big-box store has worked out well for the church, Rock City Indoor BMX and the community. “If you can get somebody to donate that building to you and write it off,” says Brown, “then it works.” The cost otherwise, he says, would have been untenable for the community non-profit. “It’s just a lot of leg work to get it done.”
For Turner, the use of the old Meijer site is about how to “partner with community in every way.” He also hopes to add a resource center, banquet hall and auditorium to the property, to host even more events for the community. While he admits that’s all “still a ways off,” he is confident it will happen. “We’re like a herd of turtles. We just keep going ‘til we can check something off the list.”
Lynn Richards, President & CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism, says that when a big box and parking lot are abandoned, “that’s 40 acres that is sitting fallow. Building a new one is consuming more land, more materials… The environmental impacts and economic and public health impacts of the community to put that land back into public use,” she says, must be considered.
From Richards’ perspective, it is imperative to “think creatively about how these spaces can be reintegrated into a thriving community.” Because of their typical location — outside of town, just off an expressway — connecting the empty big-box store to a greater community can be a challenge.
Heartland Community Church in Olathe, Kansas might, at first glance, look like any other mega church. Except the building was originally built in 1987 as an 111,000-square-foot PACE — a bulk-purchasing membership warehouse similar to a Costco — which was acquired by Walmart and became a Sam’s Club before it closed in the early 1990s. Walmart had a lease on the property, which they subleased temporarily, but the site quickly became vacant and stayed that way for at least five years.
Walmart wanted out of their lease and the church needed a bigger space to accommodate its growth. The building owners approved of the deal and the church purchased the property for $6.4 million in 2008. Then came a $6.8-million renovation completed in November 2009.
“The attraction for us was the size of the building,” says Steve Fisher, director of Operations for Heartland Community Church and project manager for the site’s renovation. “The blank canvas we would have and the cross-easement parking for 1,100 parking stalls. It was everything we were looking for growth-wise, and then we had talented architects to help us with the space. The challenge was bringing in natural light.”
“One of our core values is transparency and openness,” says Fisher. The question became, “How do we bring light into the space?”
Erika Moody, now a principal at Helix Architecture and Design in Kansas City, was part of the design team at 360 Architecture, which did the Heartland Community Church renovation. Making the space appropriate and adequate for the people inside, she tells Next City, was a priority. “They self-describe as a church for the un-churched,” she says, adding, “They didn’t want to be traditional,” but they wanted it to be light and welcoming.
Moody and the design team peeled off the typical flat, precast front and added glass so “people can see in, before they committed to coming in.” Then, they removed part of the ceiling and added a skylight, an atrium and a large, open-ceiling glass terrarium in the center of the building. They tore up the concrete slab of the terrarium, added a water element and created a natural space with trees and green foliage—a connection to nature inside the church.
As Moody describes the renovation, she circles back to the same concepts: removing concrete and inserting glass. They wanted to work with what they had. It became, she says, about taking away here, or adding to it there.
While daylight was a priority, “It helped [that] they needed dark space as well. Their auditorium is in a big black box,” she says.
The before (above) and after (below) shots of how a shuttered Sam's Club morphed into an airy, light-filled megachurch. (Photos courtesy Heartland Community Church)
Moody confesses they haven’t tackled many big-box stores and that’s what, she thought, the church team wanted, in order to foster creativity. They also stuck to the church’s ethos of stewardship, transparency and simplicity.
“We love it,” says Fisher.
What makes the site unusual among big-box store conversions is how mindfully it has integrated with the surrounding community: Two large apartment complexes, each with their own community feel, are within walking distance of the church. Heartland supports them with services that include an on-site food pantry and clothing drive in collaboration with Mission Adelante. Fisher says they strive to “meet the needs of the community that God has placed us in.”
Integrating the church further is their front parking lot, a stop on the Johnson County public transit system, called “the Jo,” which connects them to nearby Kansas City, Missouri. The bus transit system’s largest stop is the front parking lot of the church, where commuters park and ride into Kansas City. The church “enhanced that,” says Moody, by creating an occasional “space for people to come in and get a cup of coffee while they’re waiting for the bus.”
When the Royals won the World Series, the team’s management asked the church to serve as a gathering place for the community to go to before taking the shuttle to the victory parade.
Whereas maintenance has been a recurring issue with the Michigan space, Heartland’s extensive design and update has neutralized those concerns. “There are no unique challenges to the building itself,” says Fisher. “It’s been pretty easy to maintain.”
Most big-box stores, says Mitchell, don’t have a long life. “There’s an advantage to being mixed in with other businesses, to attract new customers. [With] isolated locations surrounded by parking, you end up with an apron of useless asphalt. You can re-use them, but it’s being forced into a structure that is not ideal.”
Isolation is a problem with most big-box blight. But in Indianapolis, a 2 ½-square mile area once known as Lafayette Square (named for the mall that once thrived here) has been converted into the International Marketplace. The old Kroger is now a discount store, and the old La-Z-Boy Furniture store is now a Latino event center. What was once Galyan’s Sporting Goods is now a Latino grocery and butcher shop that has two to three dozen butchers working at any one time. The old Circuit City is now a local health club. The Toys “R” Us is now a science-focused charter school. And the old Hobby Lobby is the International Village Welcome Center: Here you can find a museum, community events and immigration support.
At International Marketplace, you can eat Chinese hot pot, Thai, Burmese, Guatemalan and Yemeni cuisine — among dozens of other varieties. In fact, so many immigrant businesses have moved into the area, you need a map and a guide to find your way around the 80-plus ethnic restaurants and more than 40 different groceries, bakeries and markets.
“We’re a global Village,” says Mary Gurnell Clark, executive director of the International Marketplace Coalition. “Our immigrant brothers and sisters aren’t taking jobs, they’re creating jobs.”
Mary Gurnell Clark is one of the founders and now executive director of the International Marketplace Coalition, a 501c3 that many local businesses belong to. In 2005, she started working in the area as an activist trying to keep the big-box stores from leaving. Today, she’s perhaps the area’s biggest repurposing champion.
Clark says that by the late 1990s, big-box stores that had grown up around the mall (built in the 1960s) started leaving the area. Seven large plazas and 15 auto dealerships had sprung up, and then started to close, even as more people of color were shopping in the area.
While this was happening, downtown Indianapolis started seeing reinvestment and the U.S. saw more immigrants moving in. Indeed, immigrant population nationwide has increased steadily since the 1970s.
Vacancies in the Lafayette Square area were affordable for new immigrants, who came in and rented the space. “We started seeing all these new restaurants come to the area,” says Clark. Ethiopian, Cuban and Japanese restaurants opened, along with new grocery stores from dozens of different cultures.
The International Marketplace Welcome Center is housed in a former Hobby Lobby. (Photo courtesy International Marketplace Coalition)
Clark is enthusiastic about the diversity of the new businesses that have taken over so many old big-box buildings, gushing over an Asian grocery store with a seafood department that sells alligator. Named Saraga, the market moved into an old Kmart.
There is still a Walmart and a Meijer in the area. Almost everything else, says Clark, is from another culture.
In total, there are more than 900 businesses, most of them ethnic, in this 2 ½-square mile area. “When we say ethnic, we include Americans, because we too are international,” she adds.
In this corner of Indiana, locals celebrate Holi, the Hindu holiday, and Asian communities come together to celebrate the Lunar New Year. They also come together to celebrate a mock West African wedding, simply to raise cultural awareness.
“We’re a global Village,” says Clark. “Our immigrant brothers and sisters aren’t taking jobs, they’re creating jobs.” The organization’s email marketing comes with a message that echoes that sentiment: “Shrinking the globe and creating a village.”
Ask Clark how all this happened, and she is quick to give credit to God. Asked what else it involved, she elaborates: “It was timing. All these boxes, all these storefronts had lost tenants, property owners weren’t getting the top dollars they were used to getting. As immigrants moved in, they kept lowering their prices.”
Affordability and the International Marketplace Coalition’s gentle encouragement of an exceptionally diverse community helped to bring these businesses to the area, which has recently seen a $176-million investment that includes a new library branch, YMCA and senior housing.
Growth in the area reflects what’s happening elsewhere in Indianapolis and across Indiana. While traditional immigrant-heavy metro areas such as New York City have seen population decline, Indianapolis and Indiana are seeing population growth, with more than a quarter of it driven by immigrants.
A 3D map of the International Marketplace area, which supports more than 80 ethnic restaurants and more than 40 different groceries, bakeries and markets.(Photo courtesy International Marketplace Coalition)
Take a look around middle America and it’s easy to see how these three examples are the exception to the big-box blight problem, rather than the rule. Re-using old retail spaces or returning the site to greenfield is part of the solution. Yet with thought and creativity, there are other options
“We talk a lot about what design means to people,” says Moody. The Heartland Community Church project “has attracted attention from people outside of design [as an industry]. Design matters to everyone. That’s the underlying message. The end result is a space welcoming and unifying for everyone.
“There can be so much more explored,” she adds, noting it’s important to “not get hung up on the way we’ve always done it.”
“A lot of empty big-box stores are just waiting for people… [and] a lot of these stores will donate [the space] if you ask them,” says Turner. “We were the smallest church in Greenville. It doesn’t mean you can’t achieve your dreams.”
Valerie Vande Panne is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Politico, and The Boston Globe, among many other outlets. She is the former editor of Detroit’s alt-weekly, the Metro Times.