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Thinking inside the box: Reusing Ward 5's empty big boxes

Julia Christensen has become the authority on adaptive community reuse of empty big box stores with her 6-year project and now recent book, Big Box Reuse. Empty stores have transformed into community centers, museums, charter schools, markets, and more. While Christensen's project focuses primarily on the suburban landscape, we are dealing with a similar loss in DC's northeastern Ward 5.

Photo by iwasteela.

This past November, National Wholesale Liquidators, Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In little over a month we had two empty big boxes less than two miles apart: one at 514 Rhode Island Avenue NE in the Rhode Island Avenue Center, and the other in the Hechinger Mall at 1600 Benning Road NE. Conversations over what should next fill the space have erupted and died down many times since on neighborhood email lists.

Many residents suggested filling the dead space with higher-end retail, including the ever-elusive Trader Joe's or Harris Teeter. However, Safeways already anchor both suburban-style strip malls. While the NWL on Rhode Island Avenue replaced the Ames department store (which took over Zayre's) when it left the mall during that company's death throes, we are currently in the midst of a recession. That makes the prospect of finding another big box retailer to fill 60,000+ square feet two times over in DC almost certainly impossible.

Ryan Avent, in response to Jebediah Reed's interview with Christensen on the Infrastructuralist, envisions creating a dense, mixed-use neighborhood in place of dying strip malls. This fits with recent literature on "retrofitting" or "recycling" suburbs and is, in fact an integral part of the THINK Rhode Island Avenue Great Streets Initiative. But that project has just begun and is on an extended timeline. What do we do in the interim?

Edgewood's ANC-5C08 Commissioner Marshall Phillips has seen the Rhode Island Avenue Center transition over the years, and he began thinking outside the box before he'd even heard of the big box reuse movement. At the March 17 ANC-5C monthly meeting, Phillips took the floor during the Commission's "Workshop on Infrastructure Issues" and spoke from the heart of his desire to work out a deal between property manager Vanguard Realty and the DC government to fill the dark space with community services, perhaps a combination of CSOSA, an MPD-5D substation, and a larger space for the overcrowded Brentwood DMV. The DMV is constantly overwhelmed, yet Mayor Fenty is proposing to close it in his new budget.

Phillips would like to see community services rent the space for approximately 7 years. That's enough time for the economy to rebound and the Rhode Island Avenue Great Streets to hopefully move from planning to the beginning stages of inception. Currently, Vanguard is looking for a retail tenant to sign a 30-year lease. H&R Retail manages the Hechinger Mall, and is likely looking for similar terms. Neither site is listed in the Washington, DC Economic Partnership database, though I'm not sure that would necessarily help right now.

Communities across the country are, in varying ways, reclaiming private space for public benefits. This movement, suburban in its genesis and at first glance contrary to New Urbanist ideas, sets a great precedent for what we can do with existing infrastructure here in DC, even if not ideal or urban in its form. I commend Commissioner Phillips on his vision, and hope both the community and the District government are able to work together to reopen these dark spaces as soon as possible.

Before moving to California, Jaime Fearer was a community planner in Greenbelt, MD, and she lived in Trinidad, DC, where she served on the neighborhood associationís board. Jaime is now Planning & Policy Manager for California Walks


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Circuit City, Tower Records, & Office Depots have been going out of business in my area... I shudder to think of how a Best Buy would ever be reused as a giant blue box.

I worked at a place that was using a purpose-built Staples building. The owners wouldn't allow us to put up big signs, tear down the racks over the windows, or remove the wall-sized posters on the outside showing office supplies. As a result, our branch lost money because nobody could find us and we had half a dozen people a day walk in and ask how to get to the Staples.

I think it's seen three or four other tenants in the last two years.

I will definitely be checking out the book, thanks Jaime.

by Squalish on Apr 2, 2009 4:16 pm • linkreport

Great post. However, I wholeheartedly disagree with the ideas expressed by Phillips. It doesn't make common sense for the District to spend valuable money leasing this site when there is gobs of city-owned surplus property available in desperate need of uses such as the ones he elaborated. Why spend millions renting and more millions building out the space when you could use one of the dozens of old schools currently sitting fallow?

I think this site would be better suited as a low-density redevelopment, a destination retail like Costco or Target lured in by a significant TIF by the government (providing hundreds of jobs for the community), or subdivided retail space into much smaller units in order to more realistically find a leasee.

by SG on Apr 2, 2009 4:34 pm • linkreport

sg: schools that are in a residential neighborhood wouldn't be ideal for a DMV location, though. it might just be too much activity for a place like monroe and 16th in brookland.

i know that there are a lot of people in brookland (sorry to use them as an example, but it's the first neighborhood that comes to mind, and it's in ward 5) who tend to be opposed to most any development, but i wouldn't argue with them if they were to be opposed to something that would bring this much activity into a surplused school in their 'hood.

a DMV site would be quasi-commercial in nature anyway, so best to have it in an established commercial area.

by IMGoph on Apr 2, 2009 4:42 pm • linkreport

So, can't we find some abandoned Circuit City to reuse as Maryland's Clean Energy Center?

by Jasper on Apr 2, 2009 9:45 pm • linkreport

Also, it seems appropriate to point out that any DMV location is going to need... a lot of parking. So ex-big box sites may be especially suited to that.

Another public use that comes to mind is fitness facilities. You can subdivide the inside into rooms for yoga, weights, treadmills, whatever. If you want to cut out some of the parking, repurpose part of the lot into basketball courts or something.

Another use might be a big indoor market. Instead of subdividing into a strip mall, I'm thinking something like Boston's Faneuil Hall or some of the marchés in Montréal. Some or all of the space could be reserved for part-time tenants, like weekend shops for a farmers/flea/antique/art market. Again, if you want to cut down on the parking, use some of the lot for outdoor booths.

You could also make a reeeeally big business incubator or coworking space.

Any of those uses (except the DMV) seems like a decent contributor to walkable TOD. The DMV might be better than nothing (in terms of development, if not TOD) since you can target shops and restaurants at the employees and customers.

I should probably just read that book and stop guessing ;)

But in a place (like, AFAICT, DC) that has surplus school property, I don't see the wisdom in turning these facilities into schools. Unless it's somehow much cheaper to retrofit these buildings than the old schools, they seem better suited to that purpose.

To me, the biggest question is not how to retrofit the individual buildings, but the surrounding infrastructure and landscape. Pockets of suburban-ish development within urban areas (like DC's center cities) are easier than miles of purely suburban/exurban development, but it still seems awfully costly.

by Gavin Baker on Apr 2, 2009 11:20 pm • linkreport

I'm trying to bring an old-fashioned diner to DC in the next few months, and my partner and I are trying to find a good, vacant lot to develop. Sounds easy, but it's not.

My partner contacted the Hechinger Mall folks about placing it on the area just in front of the old NHL garden center (plenty of room to place the diner, and very convenient). They said no. The reason? It may draw TOO MANY people and take up TOO MUCH PARKING.

With that attitude towards would-be development in this economy, I can see why it'll sit empty for a long, long time.


by Matt Ashburn on Apr 3, 2009 9:32 am • linkreport

One of these buildings could be used to house a creative reuse space similar to the Resource Center in Chicago, SCRAP in Portland, and dozens of others around the country.

Donated materials could be sold at a very low cost and affordable art classes could be offered for residents. Community Forklift in Hyattsville fills this need for building materials and accepts donations which keeps excess material out of landfills, but there is nothing available on a smaller scale.

From Chicago's Reuse Center: "This innovative program locates and collects overruns, rejects and by-products that business and industry treat as "waste" and redistributes the materials as valuable educational and artistic resources appropriate for reuse. Donors have an opportunity to dispose of materials free of charge, clear valuable storage space, receive tax deductions and support cultural and educational programs. The donation of tangible property is one no-cost method for companies to support nonprofit organizations in their communities.

Who are the recipients? Chicago schools and teachers, local cultural centers, social service organizations, summer programs, performance companies, museums, community organizations as well as individual artists. Recipients have used materials to teach classes, present art work, and to make possible exhibitions and productions. The materials go a long way toward making up for teaching and art resources that many urban schools and organizations cannot afford to purchase."

When I lived in Chicago, this was an invaluable asset to many projects and Washington, DC could certainly benefit from a similar program. We have the perfect space for it in these abandoned stores.

by Laura Walsh on Apr 3, 2009 12:47 pm • linkreport

There's nothing new really in that big box work. And creating community service space in these centers isn't necessarily an advantage. The Brentwood DMV is being closed anyway, because DMV is moving more renewal functions online. And the "Ames" shopping center there is similarly constrained in the ability of vehicles to get in and out.

If you want community service facilities to be better placed, I'd suggest locating them immediately at the Rhode Island Metro station, instead of 4 blocks away at this shopping center. BUt adding more such facilities to an area isn't necessarily what I would call a revitalization strategy although it would qualify as a social service strategy.

In 2005, a UMD student design studio did their project on this greater area, and they suggested that it all be planned in concert, rather than as separate parcels. (I.e., encompass the 4th Street area, the RI Metro, the adjacent Rhode Island Place shopping center, the retail on RI between these spaces, and probably the Post office area and the shopping center on Brentwood Road. (I don't remember the exact specifics as the presentation was just about 4 years ago: )

I didn't think the report was all that great:

but they made a very important point in any case.

I thought that was an important insight that clearly shows its prescience today.

by Richard Layman on Apr 3, 2009 4:24 pm • linkreport

I wanted to thank everyone for their thoughtful comments on this thread. More than anything, I wanted folks to think about reuse of these (and other) spaces in a potentially new way. That is why I was excited when Commissioner Marshall Phillips took the initiative to try to fill the space on Rhode Island Avenue as soon as possible with services he sees a need for in the Edgewood community. For the record, I don't believe government services are the best or ideal use of the dark space, but it's important to remember that we are talking about well over 120,000 combined square feet of fallow building.

It's unfortunate that Matt Ashburn was turned away from utilizing lot space at the Hechinger Mall. Matt - do you definitely want a free-standing space? Are you interested in a subdivided section of a larger retail/restaurant space? I honestly know little about H&R Retail, other than seeing their "for lease" signs on other properties around NE DC, but perhaps that would be an option?

Laura Walsh: Yours is a great idea, but I think the space might need to be subdivided (which should be an option the property management is considering) - each NWL site is approxiately 60,000 sq. ft., and Community Forklift is about 34,000 sq. ft. Adding the classroom space you mention could take up a good portion of the excess space, and it would provide a great service to the community. Perhaps the Brass Knob would be interested in being a partner? Of course, I'd expect them to be a better steward of any new building they occupy than they are with their warehouse on N Street. (and, Laura, great article in Momentum!)

Richard Layman and I talked in person this weekend, and I'm satisfied with our offline conversation :)

I've also received some excellent feedback from posting this on neighborhood listservs in the areas that are closest to these sites - I'm hoping some of those folks cross-post their responses here. Finally, it appears nothing is out-of-bounds as malls across the country try to fill dark space...not even wave-making machines (New York Times).

by jaime on Apr 6, 2009 2:11 pm • linkreport

2 points,

1. You can't replace a National Wholesale Liquidators with a Trader Joes or Harris Teeter. Any place that is a market for NWL simply isn't a market for high end grocery.

2. The strangest reuse of a big box I have ever seen is down in Lexington Park near the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. An old bix box store is now used as the offices for BAE systems. It looks odd to see their logo on what looks like an old K-Mart.

by tivoman on Apr 7, 2009 1:23 pm • linkreport

here's an idea! why not put a MOVIE THEATRE there.... better yet a CINEMA DRAFTHOUSE & RESTAURANT there!! it would definitely have customers since there are no theatres for residents on the east side of dc.

by al from dc on Apr 15, 2009 3:21 pm • linkreport

I disagree with the comment that anyplace that is a market for NWL is not a market for high end grocery. One of the big problems I see in this shopping center and the area as a whole is a failure to acknowledge that demographics are changing. We need services, activities and retail that are appealing to local neighborhood residents as well as people city wide. Note the parking permits on cars at the home depot. People come from all over DC to go to that hardware store. I live within walking distance of the NWL and it bothers me that I have to trek way out of my way to go to Harris Teeter, Trader Joe's or Aldi.

by Ed on Jun 22, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

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