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Big Box & Beyond: Today's Temples of Consumption Don't Have To Be Tomorrow's Ruins. What's in Store?

Christensen has seen the future.

"In the background is this very large problem that is being thrust upon our landscape. The big-box buildings themselves were not necessarily wanted in the first place. These corporations are not held accountable for the fact that they are building hundreds and hundreds of buildings that will be abandoned in the future. Luckily, our communities are incredibly resourceful, finding amazing things to do with these buildings. That's key. That's the balance of this project, the thrust of the message."

Some big-box stores become available because their parent corporations have trouble competing -- like Kmart. In Prince George's County, just north of FedEx Field, there is a shopping center where the county is thinking of putting an emergency medical facility. It features an abandoned C-Mart -- the closeout retailer.

More typical, however, is the situation at At last count there were 189 Wal-Marts for sale, and not because business is bad. A typical available Wal-Mart might be a 40,000-square-foot store (about the size of a football field) that was replaced by a 80,000-square-foot store that was so successful it has been replaced with a 200,000-square-foot store just down the road -- which is precisely what happened in Christensen's home town of Bardstown, Ky., where now you find the repurposed courthouse.

Of course, Wal-Marts are late arrivals to dense, expensive metropolitan areas such as Washington. But it's only a matter of time before the ones here join the ranks of the reused like the Calvary Chapel of Pinellas Park, Fla., that Christensen writes about. Or the RPM Indoor Raceway of Round Rock, Tex. Or the senior center of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. Or the charter schools of Buffalo, Charlotte or Laramie.

"Big boxes are effectively paid off in seven, eight, nine years," at which point the owners can do just about anything they want with them, notes Christopher B. Leinberger, a developer, fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of "The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream."

"If you keep the roof from leaking they can last 30 or 40 years."

Where the Boxes Are

Just how creative can you get?

First, of course, comes the horsing-around stage. When The Post asked designers to address the big-box reuse challenge, one said, "Turn it upside down and make it a litter box for a 10-story-tall intergalactic pussycat."

"Make it into homeless shelters for people who can no longer afford their tract mansions," said another.

Suggestions included a cemetery or crematorium. And a shooting range. Or even an ammo dump.

But when you get down to it, one of Christensen's contributions is her relentless pragmatism, demonstrating that the idea of reusing a big box is not nuts. She gets into the financing and what people did about it, and leaky roofs and what they did about it, the plumbing, the leasing, the whole deal.

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