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* Big Boxes

Thinking outside the big box: (top to bottom) Grace Fellowship Church (former Grand Union), Latham, N.Y.; Head Start (former Kmart), Hastings, Neb.; RPM Indoor Raceway (former Wal-Mart), Round Rock, Texas; Snowy Range Academy (former Wal-Mart), Laramie, Wyo.

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The “big box” store is generally defined as a large, freestanding, warehouse-like building with one major room. Stock comes off the truck and onto the shelves, so there’s no need for backroom storage space. Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot are a few retailers that fit this category. Many of these superstores close because of lack of business or, more often, says Christensen, they move into bigger and better space across town. As a result, they leave behind their original quarters, which often remain empty for years.

There are few public statistics on the number of empty “big boxes” or the rate at which they are being abandoned across the country’s landscape. But Christensen suspects that communities are dealing with thousands of such structures in the United States. For example, she says, “Wal-Mart alone generally upgrades to a new store in five to seven years. So the turnover rate on these buildings is astounding.”

Christensen, who lives in Troy, has visited nearly two dozen renovated Wal-Marts, Kmarts, and other commercial buildings. She has met with the people who, with their creative resourcefulness, have turned the deserted, less-than-appealing buildings back into an integral part of their communities.

The 28-year-old’s research has resulted in a growing collection of photographs, interviews, stories, and other documents that she uses when she gives presentations at churches, civic centers, city council gatherings, and colleges about how other communities are dealing with this common situation. Among other places, she has spoken at the civic center in her hometown of Bardstown, Ky., Yale School of Architecture, Stanford arts department, Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Design, and at Rensselaer as part of the university’s School of Architecture lecture series. Christensen is now working on a book to further document her research and experiences.

Christensen grew up in Bardstown, Ky., an old whiskey-production town with more than 20 distilleries and nearly 300 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. She watched Wal-Mart move in and out of three big-box stores in her hometown as the superstore’s operations progressively increased. The first Wal-Mart, which was erected in the early 1980s, was torn down and replaced by a courthouse eight years after the retailer moved across town to open a bigger store in 1990. Wal-Mart vacated the second building when it opened an even larger store in Bardstown this year.

“That reclamation of space in building the courthouse on the Wal-Mart lot really got me interested in how other towns are dealing with abandoned buildings,” says Christensen, whose research on the issue was the focus of her master’s thesis at Rensselaer.

Although the courthouse replaced a torn-down big-box building, Christensen’s project is largely focused on the megastore structures that have been converted into reusable space.

Christensen’s work has attracted the attention of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), an organization with headquarters in Culver City, Calif., that explores land and landscape issues through research and art exhibition.

“Julia is the only person we are aware of who’s looked at the [big box] phenomenon systematically, up close, and on a national scale,” says Matt Coolidge, CLUI director who was on Christensen’s thesis committee.

Last year, CLUI opened a Northeast regional office in Troy where a reception was held to celebrate Christensen’s thesis presentation. The reception included an exhibition of some of her digital photography, which documents the renovated commercial buildings including churches, schools, a medical center, a fitness center, and even a racetrack that she has visited.

“Each story is completely different,” she says. “Each place offers a different look at how these buildings are being renovated and reused.”

For example, the Central Kentucky Comprehensive Medical Center, housed in a renovated Wal-Mart, is owned by four doctors who funded the $4 million renovation. The medical complex includes 88 exam rooms, a 24-hour urgent- care center, cardiovascular center, chiropractic suite, wellness center, and physical-therapy center, complete with pool and indoor walking track.

The Head Start Family Resource Center in Hastings, Neb., is in a renovated Kmart. The 40,000-square-foot building houses 13 classrooms and four larger rooms for infants and toddlers. It also holds a resource center for immigrants, computer labs, cafeterias, conference rooms, and offices.

Some of the converted commercial structures that Christensen has visited, such as the Grand Union grocery store that now holds the Grace Fellowship Church in Latham, N.Y., are not considered big-box buildings. Still, Christensen felt compelled to include them in her project.

“When I was talking to people about big boxes in their towns, they would invite me to look at something. I would get there and it would sometimes be a grocery store in a strip mall or a department store,” she says. “But, I’ve included all those experiences too because they informed the discussion about big-box retailers as well. A lot of those situations touched on relevant issues, such as downtown revitalization.”

The Grand Union building that Grace Fellowship occupies was abandoned in 1996 as the grocery store chain began to close all over the Northeast. The building had been empty for about five years when church officials bought it in 2001. The renovated space was opened to worshippers the following year. The nondenominational church, which has doubled the size of its congregation since it opened, contains a 1,500-seat sanctuary, 15 classrooms, two cafes, space for a youth club, and several meeting rooms and offices.


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