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Editorial: Thinking inside the big box

Those who've visited Austin, Minn., might know the SPAM Museum, an homage to the famous canned cooked pork that people seem to love or hate, which once occupied a former Kmart. As it happens, offices for the maker of SPAM, Hormel Food Corp., grew so much that they took over the entire vacated retail space, forcing the SPAM Museum to move. Meanwhile, in the Twin Cities suburb of Eden Prairie, a former grocery store has been transformed into a huge library with vaulted ceilings. Elsewhere, the Santa Monica Children's Museum is moving into an outdoor shopping mall. Around the country, former big box stores have been turned into megachurches, community spaces and housing stock. In fact, there's a growing movement of architects, urban planners and activists who are at the forefront of what's called adaptive reuse—giving a new purpose for existing architecture. That's a fancy phrase for recycling buildings.

Fargo-Moorhead finds itself with a growing inventory of closed big box stores, casualties of the shakeout in the retail industry. Forum reporter Tu-Uyen Tran recently tallied retail spaces that are empty, or soon will be, and came up with the startling total of 549,000 square feet. That's the equivalent of a bit more than half of the West Acres mall becoming ghost space. One of the most challenging vacancies will be the loss of Herberger's—which is closing all of its stores—from the already-struggling Moorhead Center Mall. Another Herberger's will close in Fargo's West Acres.

Clearly, Fargo-Moorhead is in dire need of creative applications of adaptive reuse for the growing graveyard of dead stores. We've already seen some local recycling examples. Noridian Healthcare Solutions occupies the former Village Square, once home to a factory outlet mall, among other tenants. In Dilworth, Axis Clinical, a firm involved in testing new drugs, occupies the former Walmart. But the sheer magnitude of the ballooning inventory of empty big box stores presents the metro area with an unprecedented challenge.

So we are turning to the always humming hive mind—to you, dear readers—with a challenge: Come up with innovative ideas for transforming these hulking architectural carcasses into something useful. How about it, architecture and urban planning students? How about it, armchair designers? Forum columnist Mike McFeely recently laid down a gauntlet of a proposal for the Moorhead Center Mall post-Herberger's: bulldoze the place and build a performance center. Could a former big box be resurrected as a senior living center? A school? Affordable housing? An indoor skating rink?

The best suggestions will be not only creative, but viable. Send your ideas to, with "Thinking inside the box" as the subject line. We'd love to write about your ideas in the hope that they will spur action.

Forum editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.