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

Okay, so what is the definition of a "big box"? Does an old supermarket count? How about an old furniture store?

Christensen rules them out. Big boxes are not only one-story, one-room places originally created for retail sales. They are of breathtaking size -- some of them as much as 280,000 square feet or six football fields. They are marked by dazzlingly tall ceilings -- 18 feet or more -- that beg to have additional levels, balconies and cantilevers added to them. And they offer world-class heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.

"It's just a big tent -- like a circus tent," says William Reeder, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University.

The Post big-box boosters wound up focusing on a Best Buy off Route 1 in Alexandria between Crystal City and Old Town. It is a bustling 51,639 square feet -- you could comfortably fit a football field in it. It is part of Potomac Yard Center -- almost 600,000 square feet of big boxes anchored by a Target. (Which raises the issue of whether, if you were a mile and a half from the Pentagon, you would paint a bull's-eye on your roof, as they have, but that's a question for another time.)

This place sparks the imagination for several reasons. First, it's already a reuse. Before it became big-box heaven, it was part of one of the biggest rail yards on the East Coast, so full of spilled diesel fuel and Lord only knows what else that it became a Superfund site.

Today, however, its location is hardly Dogpatch. Alexandria planners are already thinking about adding a Metro station nearby. The trendy Del Ray neighborhood is across Route 1. Just up the road is Arena Stage's temporary digs. Indeed, there is no doubt that Potomac Yard Center's use will change as its occupants' leases run out in the next few years. "It is fair to say that when the project was developed it was developed with the thought in mind of redeveloping it," says Juan Cameron, vice president of McCaffery Interests, the developer and manager.

Nonetheless, big boxes are nothing if not generic. So possibilities that can be imagined here can work elsewhere.

The assignment we gave our team was to come up with ideas that were creative, credible, local, of the moment, the now. Keep Reading to See Some of the Team's Results.


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