Why Wal-Marts become libraries (and courts and civic centres)

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A photo of the children's wing of the award-winning library in McAllen, Texas, that used to be a Wal-Mart. See the entire photo gallery on the library's website.

First aired on Q (20/7/12)

When Wal-Mart and K-Mart set up shop in a new town, controversy often ensues, and it's usually about the debate between more jobs versus the fate of local businesses. But there's another kind of debate brewing around giant chain retailers: what happens when a big box retailer decides to move out? What's a town to do with a huge, empty building on a desolate parking lot the size of a football field? McAllen, Texas, had a solution. That town has just won an international design award for its new public library, built on the site of an abandoned Wal-Mart, and this inventive reuse had the internet abuzz. But they're not the only place to convert a big box store into a community space. Julia Christensen is an artist and a professor at Ohio's Oberlin College. For a decade now, she's been looking at how communities reclaim the spaces abandoned by big box retailers, and she chronicled her findings in a book, Big Box Reuse.


Christensen originally became interested in the reuse of big box stores when the small town she grew up in — St. Bart's, Kentucky — faced this exact problem. Wal-Mart moved in, the town built infrastructure to make the store more accessible. After a few years, Wal-Mart opened a bigger, better store across town, leaving its old building abandoned. When the town was looking for a larger space to house its court, it turned to the old Wal-Mart building — and the former big box store is now a major civic centre, housing all sorts of city services.

"I thought it was a very compelling use of space and an interesting move," Christensen told Q host Jian Ghomeshi in a recent interview. "On a hunch that other communities were dealing with empty big box stores, I started doing a little research and found that, sure enough, across the United States communities were in fact reusing these buildings as libraries, community centres, etc."

So why is this happening? Christensen chalks it up to the system Wal-Mart uses when it comes to town. "They request invested infrastructure to be built in order for the building to function the way they want it to." This includes easy access to not only local roads, but to highways. When they come to a new small town, the town usually has to take out loans to widen roads, put in new stoplights and build access points. "When the corporation moves out of the building, they are not only leaving the building behind, they are also leaving a lot of invested infrastructure behind," she explained. The towns are left paying off the loans that financed the new roads, and footing the bill for maintaining them long after the corporation has moved out.

Second, the big box stores often put major restrictions on how the buildings can be used once they've moved out. Either "corporations are happy to pay the lease on the empty building in order to keep competition away," which leaves the building paid for but empty, or they've built into their lease stipulations that minor competition can't move in for 10 or 15 years and major competition can't move in ever.

Which means that if towns want to see these buildings used, they need to get creative. And in more than a decade of research, Christensen has seen it all. "I've seen schools and churches and libraries, senior resource centres," she said. A constant crowd-pleaser is a Wal-Mart-turned-indoor RPM raceway in Round Rock, Texas. "It was a really successful business," Christensen said. "They had league nights and did these community functions on their parking lot and it turned into this hopping place."

Christensen hopes that reclamation projects like the McAllen Public Library and others she documents in her research will inspire towns to think in the long term when they allow corporations like Wal-Mart into their communities. They need to think about possible reuse before the building is built and make restrictions on landscaping, building design, lease negotiations and more. "That is becoming more and more the question that municipalities need to be thinking about, in terms of taking the decision back into their hands instead of just accepting this homogenous corporate structure over and over again," Christensen said. "We need to be thinking long term about what it means environmentally and economically on these structures."