Adapting Empty Big Box Stores, The MDC Group

Adapting Empty Big Box Stores

With many big-box retailers closing locations or going out of business entirely, each year brings an increasing amount of empty square footage in need of a new strategy. Shopping centers and malls find themselves without anchors. Adaptive building repurposing for new uses and functions, has become the go-to solution if no other retailer will take it over. Preparing empty big-box stores for use as housing, smaller retail units, or other alternatives sometimes just take a little renovation, but even major modifications can payout in the long run.

Empty big box stores have been reborn as:
• Libraries
• Flea Markets
• Schools
• Gyms
• Smaller Retail Stores
• Housing
• Offices
• Museums
• Churches
• Recreation Facilities


There are hundreds of empty Walmarts alone in the U.S., each representing wasted space and a public eyesore. In the small town of McAllen, Texas, an empty Walmart became a public library. It’s the largest single-floor public library in the country and spans 124,500 square feet. The builder replaced the old walls and ceilings and added glassed-in rooms and bookcases. They created an award-winning, useful, and appreciated space with some bright white paint and brightly colored architectural details like outside murals. Another community in Minnesota remodeled an empty grocery store into their new library. They added dropped ceilings to save on energy bills and skylights to add natural light. The architects used geometric patterns to accentuate the open space. Instead of an eyesore, these communities have beautiful libraries.


In Arizona, the concept of turning empty stores into schools has become popular. In Chandler, a Smitty’s grocery store is now the Chandler Preparatory Academy, a charter school serving 700 students. They dug up some parking lot for sports fields and an auditorium.

In the town of Gilbert, an old Albertsons grocery store became the Leading Edge Academy, where 400 elementary through high school students spend their day. The high ceilings made it possible to build a bottom floor for the younger students and an upper floor for high school. A library stands where there was a bakery, and the gym replaces the produce department.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, Sugar Creek Charter Elementary School was built and opened inside an old Kmart. Many of the school hallways coincide with the shopping isles to use existing lighting. The designers added skylights because the building had no outside windows to bring in daylight.

Recreation Facilities and Gyms

The big-box building lends itself well to recreational facilities from indoor racetracks to bowling alleys and trampoline parks. An old Value City building in Michigan has become an Airtime Trampoline & Game Park, which draws up to 1500 youngsters every Saturday. The extensive floor space and high ceilings were ideal. Half of an empty Walmart in Round Rock, Texas, became RPM Indoor Raceway. In Michigan, where empty stores are in huge supply, one former furniture liquidation store became a popular gym. One of a chain, Crunch Fitness, took over the 25,000 square feet.

Smaller Retail Stores and Flea Markets

Libraries and other public buildings don’t bring in tax dollars, so some jurisdictions prefer converting empty big-box stores into a collection of smaller retail establishments. For example, when the RPM Indoor Raceway closed in Texas, the old Walmart building it was in was subdivided for smaller retail use. The mini-shopping center includes a hair salon, smoothie shop, gym, and several other retailers.

In Europe, flea markets inside empty buildings have been a popular solution, and that’s starting to catch on in the U.S. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, the Bragg Blvd. Flea Market opened for business in a renovated K-Mart store near Fort Bragg. This long-standing and successful flea market made few exterior changes to the building and simply subdivided the open space into booths for vendors. There was another successful flea market in Bardstown, Kentucky, called The Peddler’s Mall, and you can find other flea markets and antiques malls in old big-box buildings throughout the country.


Sometimes the location of an empty store makes it desirable. For example, an old Grand Union grocery store between Latham and Troy, New York, was easily accessible by major highways. The Grace Fellowship Church bought it to build a 1500 seat sanctuary. The church building also has several offices, 15 classrooms, and two cafés. The store building had been empty for five years, and the church bought the building in 2001. They were able to renovate and open in a year.


California has a severe housing shortage and plenty of empty big box stores and strip malls. While the idea of converting buildings into housing has been discussed, zoning laws and concerns about lost taxes have prevented anything beyond the talking stage. Several jurisdictions are considering zoning law changes. Architects have examined the empty big box store problem, and several have proposed housing as a possibility. The Washington Post got a team of architects, engineers, and artists together in 2008 to discuss the problem and look for solutions. One architect, Roger Lewis, from the University of Maryland, proposed turning empty stores into housing. One possibility is providing small unit housing for the homeless.

In Lynnwood, Washington, a portion of the mall, including the large, empty Sears store, has become a 300 unit apartment complex called Avalon Alderwood Place. However, the retail aspect remains, with the housing at one end and stores at the other.
With today’s online shopping, some brick-and-mortar stores struggle to stay open. When large stores close, the preference is to replace it with another retail store, but there are alternatives. For example, repurposing large spaces into smaller retail stores or recreational facilities keeps the commercial dollars and taxes coming in. For less traditional use like libraries, churches, and schools, some communities and organizations save money and rid the community of an eyesore by using these existing structures.

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