A recent report on the daunting challenging of re-using a growing number of empty big box stores showed the challenges ahead may mirror the challenges decades ago of filling empty storefronts in downtown.

But some of the answers may be the same

The city of Mankato studied the feasibility of re-using empty big box stores like Sears, Gander Mountain, Gordmans, Herberger’s and Lowes to fill a growing need for indoor recreational spaces.

Unfortunately the results of the study showed it’s just not physically feasible to transform the structures that were designed to be retail stores into recreation facilities that require completely different designs and structures.

The study found big box stores had ceilings that were far too low for recreational activity and support beams that were usually too close together. It would also be too costly to transform them into swimming facilities or skating rinks due to the plumbing that would be needed.

In the end, estimates showed it would cost more to transform the big box facilities than simply building new. For example, transforming the building that most recently housed Gander Mountain and Gordmans would cost about $21 million, including the price of the building. By comparison, Bethany Lutheran College is building a similar facility for about $19 million. North Mankato estimates a slightly smaller facility would cost just $10 million.

So given the retail-recreation transformation won’t work, what about housing?

Developers of the Rosedale Mall in Roseville have proposed transforming part of that mall to include “village style” apartments and restaurants, leaving only part of it retail. It calls for transforming the empty Herberger’s store to upscale apartments. The plan is still in the concept stage, but the mall has moved forward with other alternative uses, according to a report in the Star Tribune.

It opened a “Revolution Hall” last year that offers 12 different types of cuisine and two bars. It recently added an aquarium type-facility that offers birds, sea life and reptiles and another store sells handcrafted items by local artisans.

Mankato has experience re-developing property for new uses. The downtown Mankato Place Mall was transformed in the late 1990s to the Intergovernmental Center hosting state, local and federal government offices.

Unfortunately, the transformation of that space required significant government subsidies and worked because there were ready and willing government tenants.

That effort was led by a City Council and community that had a sense of urgency to eliminate the blight that downtown was becoming.

The same effort and urgency will be needed to rid the landscape of increasingly ugly and desolate-looking empty big box stores, and transform them to fill community needs in housing and recreation even if that means tearing them down.

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