Private equity killed big box retailers, leaving empty big boxes across America, and architects have plans

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A lot of people could live in those empty spaces, a whole lot.


Briefly. Then the capital-owning class will figure out how to charge enough rent to force everyone back out again.


Free range roller derby?


I’ve got family in one local community where the town rented an ex-supermarket to house the library while the library-building was having a major renovation and expansion.

Spaces were divided by function mostly with shelving moved out of the old library building, and there was lots of parking, good public transport access, good directory signs saying what was where, and lots of flexible space perfect for their childrens reading groups and activity days.

It wasn’t long before the public in the community were petitioning to abandon the renovation and sell the old library building in favor of keeping the supermarket. It seems the town board and library administration had too much of an Edifice Complex to allow that to happen, however. The renovated & expanded place has won architecture awards now that they are back in it.


The McAllen project cost $24 million, according to an interview with Strong Towns, $5 million of which went to buying the abandoned Walmart facility.

That sounds about typical. Most of these things are cheaply built on cheap land. Like trying to make houses out of shipping containers, the savings aren’t necessarily that significant the cost is in fitting them out for the new use, the raw shell can be pretty cheap. Although as AlsoDiana pointed out, you always CAN spend more for the building if you want to make it fancy.


Where i live there’s a community college that took over an empty mall and they’ve been slowly adapting it to be their main campus and they’ve done pretty well with the space. They’re also tearing up the parking lot and putting up student housing, new commercial spaces, etc.


There’s one across the street from where I currently work, it’s now been vacant for three years. I keep expecting that someone will open a church in there (in three years, no one’s had a better idea)…

…and now that I’ve just checked, I see that the current owner (since November) is, in fact, a church.

I had a love-hate relationship with that K-Mart: it was nice to be able to walk across the street and buy sundries, but I soon learned to expect that I could never get in and out of there in less than 30 minutes.


Hard to imagine it would be cost-efficient to build multi-story housing in the shell of a big box. You’d have to build independent structural support within the building, which would likely involved tearing up the concrete floor and knocking huge openings in the wall to let in heavy equipment. Probably easier to just knock it down and build from scratch.

Though you could convert those spaces into four-season recreation fairly easily - ice rinks, indoor soccer, etc. That needs the kind of big empty space these places provide.


This is such an important story, and it’s as if it was being covered up.


Boing Boing needs an economist or finance guy on their editorial board. The simplistic ignorance and stereotyping of " all bankers bad" reeks of slanted journalism. Why not ask an investment banker their side of the story? But who would want to share the same air in a closed room with a banker, I suppose.

Bankers are not the cause of Kmart and Toys R Us going bankrupt. Gimmie a break. The long of the short of it is: Equity owners get the upside a gain and down side risk. Bond owners get the full return and high interest rate, with a downside of 20-50% in bankruptcy.

When a company is in decline, and as probability of bankruptcy increases, often the only way to fund a turnaround is with debt because equity buyers won’t fund as they get wiped out and can’t justify the low probability upside. With no financing at all bankruptcy is a near certainty.

This isn’t a bankers fault, its simply creative destruction. And while I have fond memories of Geoffrey singing the “I don’t want to grow up…” jingle, Toys R Us, Sears, and Kmart never really stood a chance.

But you won’t read that here at Boing Boing. So much easier and click-baitier to make a bogey man out of those dirty nasty bankers I would never dream of interviewing.


Not without major retrofits that would likely end up costing more than tearing them down and building apartments in their place. Just a couple of the challenges: dwellings generally need windows (not just skylights) that provide for both ventilation and evacuation pathways in the event of a fire or other disaster. Even on the outside walls of the buildings it may not be possible to retroactively cut and install windows into the tilt-up concrete or cinder block walls that were not designed for them. Dwellings also need plumbing including sewer pipes, which typically only exists around the outer perimeter of these structures. Building additional internal walls that would give residents the privacy they would want would create obstructions slowing down people trying to evacuate from the vast center portion of the buildings.

I understand the temptation but if you just start throwing up a bunch of interior walls in a former industrial space to make cheap housing you end up with situations like the 2016 “Ghost Ship” tragedy in Oakland. Residential building codes and design practices exist for good reasons.

I’m skeptical that large numbers of people could safely reside in these buildings in anything resembling their current forms. That said, surely there are many options for creative, safe uses for these structures, such as the library example that was cited.


In principle, I’m absolutely a fan of re-using things in general, and I’ve often been bemused and appalled by the tear-it-down-and-build-another model of a lot of suburban development.

I’m pretty skeptical about re-purposing big box stores, though. They were designed to be minimally acceptable for their original purpose, and all the concrete and metal makes them noisy and unpleasant to spend time in, even for that purpose. Their tilt-up concrete construction resists modification, and is colossally dangerous when it fails (in extreme weather, for example). The flat roofs pretty much always end up leaking, even when they’re resurfaced every few years. Their siting both re-enforces and suffers from suburban vicious circle failings like sprawl, mandatory car ownership, and traffic.

Cover the roof with solar panels and turn the inside into a light-industry incubator community or an indoor sports center, maybe. But a church, a library, a place to live? Those sound really unappealing.


I regularly volunteer with homeless outreach here in San Diego, that said, I have never met a homeless person to turn down a space indoors as opposed to sleeping on the streets / out of doors. It is the over thinking / over complicating of housing humans that stands in the way of progress. The solution is very simple, available space [and there’s plenty of it] should house needy humans, just that alone would be a step in the right direction.


I don’t know the details, but the local Presbyterian church in my neighborhood had to find a new facility (perhaps because the city widened the intersection where their old building was located). They ended up moving down the block to a derelict car dealership where they now hold their services in the showroom.


Locally, a church moved into a movie theater when a new monsterbox cinema left it vacant.

I don’t know what the remodeling inside is like, but they kept the popcorn machines in the lobby!


I want to be clear about exactly what you are proposing. Because it sounds to me like you’re in favor of disregarding important fire codes in order to create a cheap, “quick fix” housing solution that allows many people to reside in a potentially dangerous space. Am I wrong?

Personally, I’d rather take the money that the government would eventually have to pay out in lawsuits after the inevitable building fire horribly kills dozens or more people and instead put that towards safe affordable housing solutions that comply with the building codes that exist to keep people safe.


Before all that, Malls & Big Box killed mom and pop. Before you could trade stock in a mall chain, malls were built with private equity and the paying off of zoning commissions and (other) elected officials for unconscionable tax breaks.

I forget which one (maybe both), but The Home Depot or Walmart would have a private ceremony on site before opening a new store, crushing or burning a scale model of the most successful local business in effigy.

Toys R Us? Lots of short use garbage at high cost, training the next generation of retail therapy hoarders.

So to all of this I say…


That would almost make me want to go to church. Almost.


Yeah, and it sure beats hard wooden bench pews.