It wasn't Bardstown's 300 historic buildings that fascinated Julia Christensen when she was growing up in Nelson County. It was the town's three Wal-Marts. Over the years, the first Wal-Mart was replaced by a larger Wal-Mart that was replaced by an even larger Wal-Mart. Each new store was built in a different place, leaving behind a "big box" that sat empty for a long time.
It wasn't Bardstown's 300 historic buildings that fascinated Julia Christensen when she was growing up in Nelson County. It was the town's three Wal-Marts.
Over the years, the first Wal-Mart was replaced by a larger Wal-Mart that was replaced by an even larger Wal-Mart. Each new store was built in a different place, leaving behind a "big box" that sat empty for a long time.
Christensen began wondering about the thousands of big boxes that are left behind every year as major retailers, grocers and health clubs make adjustments. She asked: What are the best uses for them?
To find out, she has been traveling the country in her 1999 Subaru since January 2003, taking pictures, interviewing big-box users and compiling what amounts to a database. Along the way, Christensen is speaking on the topic to civic groups, urban planners and anyone else who's interested.
She hopes to publish a book on the topic in 2006.
"It's interesting how these buildings shape the community even after the retailer has left," she said during a recent visit to Lexington.
Big boxes are massive -- usually 80,000 square feet or more -- with huge parking lots, extensive storm-drainage systems and often with entrances on at least one major road or highway. They tend to dominate their neighborhood.
Christensen, 29, who recently earned her second master's degree in the arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, believes empty big boxes are the inevitable result of businesses trying to fulfill consumer demands, so it's futile to blame Wal-Mart or Kmart for causing the problem.
What counts, she says, is how the space is recycled.
That's "when the community starts to breathe its character back into these buildings," she said. New uses can include other big-box stores, such as the Furniture World Super Store that moved into the Pace Membership Warehouse off Richmond Road in Lexington. In other cases, the big box might be filled by several smaller users, such as professional offices or retail stores.
Churches, fitness centers, schools and clinics also love big boxes. An abandoned Kmart in Minnesota became the Spam Museum, and a former Wal-Mart in Texas is now an indoor go-cart track, Christensen noted.
The recycling process should begin when big boxes are planned, not when they become empty, says David Mohney, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Design. That's why many cities, including Lexington, have ordinances to regulate the location and design of big boxes.
"If you really build these things as isolated empires off by themselves, it makes it very difficult to go back in and figure out what to do if the occupant moves on," he said. "The trick is to ... incorporate them into the community."
A good example in Lexington is the Kroger supermarket on Romany Road, Mohney said. "You can imagine actually walking to the supermarket because it is such a pleasant area."
To create more such livable areas, planning commissions have to make sure big-box developers meet community standards, he said. Most companies are "ready to give a little bit" and to work with local planners.
Another encouraging sign, Mohney said, is that more retailers, especially grocers, are tailoring the size of their stores to the areas they want to serve, instead of building supercenter-size stores everywhere they go.
It's also practical, because smaller big boxes are easier to lease or sell to new occupants than supercenters, said Bruce Isaac, senior vice president of NAI Isaac Commercial Properties Inc. in Lexington.
The rule of thumb is, the larger the space, the longer it typically takes to find a new tenant, Isaac said. Wal-Marts, Kmarts and other really big boxes often require several occupants, and that can take more time than finding just one.
"Typically for these big boxes it's an opportunity to do a variety of uses, whether it's a school or offices or other retailer," Isaac said. "There is really no limit to what can come out of it."
A good example -- one that Christensen came to Lexington to see -- is the former Kmart on New Circle Road at North Limestone.
Two occupants fill the building -- Alltel (60,000 square feet) and Goodwill Industries of Kentucky (40,000 square feet). Both say the site is exactly what they needed.
Alltel wanted to consolidate several of its Lexington sites. It needed office space, a warehouse and a fenced-in area to park trucks and equipment, said Erin Ascione, the telephone company's Lexington spokeswoman.
The offices went into the front of the former Kmart, the warehouse was in the back, and the former Kmart garden center made a great place to park vehicles.
"It was kind of a grand slam. It had everything we wanted," Ascione said. "Some places had one and not the other, but they found this one and it was perfect."
At the other end of the building was the former Kmart auto service center with lifts, oil tanks and work spaces cut into the floor, said Erin Gold, vice president of Goodwill Industries of Kentucky.
"When I looked at it, I thought 'This is going to be really more than what I want to get into,'" Gold said. "It was really a mess and had to be cleaned up so it was quite an undertaking."
Gold accepted the challenge and "it came out OK," she said. Goodwill now has its division headquarters, offices for its work force development program and a retail store in the building.
As for Gold, the experience made her a fan of big boxes because of the flexibility they offer. If she finds another one in the right location, she will definitely consider it, Gold said. "I wasn't really like that before. It opened my horizons, and my thought processes up."
Christensen has heard many similar success stories and hopes they will motivate communities with long-vacant big boxes to keep trying to find new occupants.
"I'm really interested in collecting the information and just putting it out there so people are able to make decisions and choices, and think about alternative uses for these buildings," she said. "So basically I am a collector and distributor of information."
She doesn't consider herself a consultant or an expert in a niche she pretty much created for herself.
"I'm an artist," Christensen said, noting that all of her college degrees are in the arts, not engineering or architecture. "I talk to people and I share my information, but I always tell them I'm really not an expert.
"More and more," she said, "artists are sort of taking on these projects to examine things that are happening in the social realm."
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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News