Reusing a Big Box

The question many communities are grappling with is what to do with the remains

By Kellyn Brown

When Walmart built its new Supercenter on the north side of Kalispell it left behind a 129,666-square-foot building in the heart of Evergreen. It sat vacant for six years. The county considered buying the massive building for a new jail, but U-Haul, the largest moving and storage business in the country, eventually purchased it for an undisclosed sum.

The 15.76-acre commercial property was lucky to find a buyer. Many similar properties don’t sell, or, like the former Walmart, it takes several years. There are only so many entities that need so much space. And since then, the Flathead has only added to its big-box inventory.

The Shopko in Evergreen and Shopko Hometown in Whitefish are poised to close in the next few weeks after the retailer declared for bankruptcy protection and couldn’t find a buyer. The Whitefish location opened less than four years ago.

Meanwhile, in Kalispell, the roughly 80,000-square-foot former Herberger’s location in the heart of downtown has remained empty for about a year. The department store announced its closure not long after it completed a massive expansion and renovation project.

The closing of big-box stores is not unique to the Flathead Valley, and some of them find replacement tenants in short order. For example, when Borders bookstore declared bankruptcy and closed its north side Kalispell store in 2011, within months Natural Grocers announced it would be moving in.

But it’s not just retailers that are moving and closing. Over the last decade, a handful of area car dealerships have merged with others or relocated to more modern facilities, leaving behind thousands of square feet in empty buildings.

To be sure, economics dictate whether a business survives or decides to move locations. But the question many communities are grappling with is what to do with the remains.

Sometimes demolition is the most practical option. As Roger Lewis, professor emeritus of the University of Maryland’s school of architecture, told Popular Science last year, “A lot of these big box structures were very cheaply built. They were constructed with off-the-shelf materials and structural systems and mechanical systems. Their lifespan was not really meant to be more than 25 or 30 years.”

But there’s another option that is gaining traction among communities and architects alike: adaptive reuse, or the process of reinventing abandoned buildings into something completely new. It’s where old fire departments are turned into hotels, old power plants into multi-use complexes and old box stores into award-winning libraries.

“Adaptive reuse is as old as architecture itself, with few buildings retaining their original structure, layout and functions across generations,” writes Kurt Kohlstedt at 99% Invisible. “Far more time and money is spent revamping existing structures than building new ones.”

Today, it just might take a little more vision on a buyer’s part to see a large vacancy’s potential. It could be as simple as a warehouse or fulfillment center. But, depending on its location, it could also be much more.

Our region is growing and, in conjunction with that, new commercial properties will continue to sprout up. But we shouldn’t forget about the bones already in place in pockets of our county, ready and waiting to be reimagined as something new.

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