Thursday, December 11, 2008

Big Box Reuse

by Julia Christensen

The MIT Press

This is a wonderful, inspiring book--all the more so because it is meticulously reported and cogently written. But it's also wonderful and inspiring because of the people who made all these projects happen.

The book is about 10 projects in various parts of America that took abandoned Big Box buildings (usually Wal-Marts and some K-Marts) and transformed them for public uses--as a courthouse, children's or senior center, school, library, health center, museum, and in one case, a new wrinkle on a public market.

These buildings were abandoned not because there was anything wrong with them, but mostly because that's what Wal-Mart does: it builds a big store to create a market, then abandons it to build an even bigger store close by, to expand the market. Using jobs and business generation as bait, Wal-Mart often gets municipalities to provide land and roads for reduced or no cost, loans and a deal on sales taxes, with promises of later repayment and/or tax revenues--by which time they're long gone.

So it is more than poetic justice that retail buildings sited and built with public funds eventually get re purposed to serve the public. But it's not easy or quick. It takes a lot of public and private perseverance, ingenuity and hard work.

For example, the Wal-Mart that eventually became the Centralia Senior Resource Center in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Once the long process of imagining how to use this building, designing it and getting the community to accept and even love the idea was all begun, a deal had to be struck with Wal-Mart, which made some compromises but eventually made money on the deal, as well as getting the money it owed the town forgiven. Though the Wal-Mart company was more giving in other projects described here, it was Wal-Mart workers who rose to this occasion, by donating their time to the project and forcing the company to contribute. Eventually there were over 900 names of contributors on a wall in the resulting complex, which has become a center not only for seniors but for the entire community.

For me, this and others like it --the Head Start Center in Hastings, Nebraska, and the charter schools in Buffalo, New York and Laramie, Wyoming --are the most heartwarming and hopeful stories. Of the library project, one participant said, "It honestly would probably be easier to count the people in this town who didn't help."

The more colorful projects may attract other readers more, like the indoor raceway in Round Rock, Texas or the Spam Museum (the kind in the can) in Austin, Minnesota, or the Peddler's Mall in Kentucky. Christensen does the work of a scholar in describing the projects, the design issues, the outcomes, and adds enough voices of participants to provide a sense of personalities. But it is her clear and judicious prose that brings this book to life.

There's a web site of photos and some information, but the book is the thing: hefty but sturdy, with friendly type on good strong paper, with well presented images. Well-written and well published, Big Box Reuse is a pleasure as well as an important book.

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