What To Do With Abandoned Big Boxes

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.


1 Comment

Filed under Development, economics

One response to “What To Do With Abandoned Big Boxes

  1. Paul

    Part of the quandry with big boxes is that they are the chosen way of shopping for many/most people and for a very large portion of the retail commerce which takes place in a community. And candidly, they are usually thrown up as quickly and inexpensively as possible, with the idea that they eventually will be demolished to make way for the next iteration of of retail “evolution.” And then there are issues with parking for a big box and the way they sprawl across the landscape. Short-term return on investment is the name of the game with big boxes. This kind of development runs counter to most communities’ objectives for their downtowns, where emphasis is on architectural quality, preservation, and efficient use of land and infrastructure.

    The big box model may be adjusted sometimes to be compatible with a downtown district, if the developer can see that he has no good alternative to reach a large urban market from a more suburban location. But this will tend not to be the case in a relatively small and auto-oriented market such as Provo. Here, urban core residents can easily get to stores out beyond the core. Also, if the big box can be done at all in a downtown setting, it must be used very judiciously, at specific locations where throw-away buildings aren’t such a big deal. Obviously, this rules out locations in an old-town district or where where attracting more traditional forms of new downtown development are a real possibility in the next 10-20 years.

    My main point here is that a community turns it back on big boxes at the peril of its retail health — and yet, by and large, they have no place in a downtown which is striving to remain or become a destination attraction. Today’s downtowns need to make it on smaller-scale (and lower-volume) specialty retail, office, residential, dining/entertainment, hospitality, and other elements which don’t need throw-away big boxes to be successful.

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