I’ve written before about the problems with big boxes, as well as the possibility of adding more of them to a city like Provo. And while they can be big sales tax winners, we’re also seeing now that they can create gapping holes in the urban fabric when their operators leave town or go out of business.
This is a problem that plagues parts of Provo and other Utah County cities. So what should we do about it?
At least one city answered that question by installing a new library. According to both PSFK and Grist, McAllen, Texas, has turned its massive former Walmart into a public library. The building is apparently huge — comparable to 2.5 football fields — but after a renovation it turned into a surprisingly good-looking library with “hundreds of thousands of books.” Library registration also jumped 23 percent after the Walmart conversion.
The best way to avoid having to fill vacant big box space is to simply not build it in the first place. Barring that, however, this example shows that it can still be an asset as long as the community is willing to think creatively and, most importantly, invest funds. With the wonderful library at Academy Square, Provo’s vacant big boxes — in East Bay, the Riverwoods, possibly at the Mall in the future, etc. — may not be suited for a standard book repository. But the kind of thinking exhibited in McAllen is at least what could help Provo overcome wasted, empty retail space.