In my ongoing quest for good news, I happened upon a quote buried in an online newsletter: “If we weren’t optimists, we shouldn’t be in real estate,” this from Steve Park, a senior VP for Chicago-area real estate firm Alter Group.
These days , who puts “optimist” and “real estate” in the same sentence? I like it, but I would give it one more twist: If we weren’t artists, we shouldn’t be in real estate. Because if you think about it, the empty spaces landlords and tenants are bemoaning could be viewed as blank canvases to the innovative eye.
Julia Christensen is an artist and writer from Oberlin, Ohio, who has made it her mission over the last decade to study vacated big-box stores that have been reclaimed by their communities and put to new uses. Her findings, published in a book entitled “Big Box Reuse” (MIT Press, 2008), have landed Christensen among a select group of admired American futurists. “The book is an inspiring product of someone astounded by the variety and richness of the extra-ordinary American landscape, and who takes us on a journey, trying to figure it out,” wrote Matthew Coolidge, director, Center for Land Use Interpretation, about the book, which was named among Amazon’s Best of 2008. And, “Christensen has seen the future,” according to Joel Garreau of The Washington Post.
What’s most interesting about “Big Box Reuse” are the stories of townspeople working together with developers and city officials to transform abandoned eyesores into productive, albeit sometimes unusual, uses.
A vacant Kmart building in Austin, Minn., is now the Spam Museum, a monument to Hormel’s canned meat. A former Wal-Mart in Round Rock, Texas, became an indoor go-kart raceway. In Lebanon, Mo., an empty Kmart morphed into a complex that includes a library, a Route 66 museum and a themed cafe.
Not all the reclamation projects studied stray so far from the structure’s retail roots. In New Orleans, a Guitar Center found a new home in a renovated Home Depot.
While Christensen is the artist who envisioned big-box reuse as fodder for an art book, it is the communities that are the real innovators. Adapting a vacant big-box structure into a socially productive building doesn’t happen overnight. In the case of a Head Start Family Resource Center that took over an old Kmart in Hastings, Neb., a complicated web of ownership and leasing stipulations stalled the project for years, but community perseverance paid off: The school opened in August 2004, and today its large land holdings on natural cornfields have become coursework for students, who learn about seeding, growing and harvesting corn.
Big-box reuse projects aren’t so much about creative tenanting techniques, which Chain Store Age writes about in this month’s cover story (see page 19), but more about solving community problems—such as finding a permanent home for a needed educational facility—and recycling existing structures.
But both creative tenanting and adaptive reuse represent positive ways to light up dark spaces and return revenue and jobs to municipalities in dire need of both. That they also paint a more attractive American landscape is an added bonus and a welcome bit of good news.