For years, it was a 97,547-square-foot monument to the fickleness of consumers and a disposable society. But the long-empty former Hechinger store on Minnieville Road will soon get a new life as a giant auto dealership.
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors approved restrictions this year that would make it harder to build big-box stores, using the empty Hechinger store as an example of retailers that build huge, ugly buildings and then abandon them without regard to the effect on the community.
Last year, Prince William had four empty shells that used to house Kmart, Ames, Lowe's and Hechinger. The 184,204-square-foot former Incredible Universe store in Woodbridge sat empty for four years.
The Hechinger building is now likely to be held up as an example of a creative reuse of a dead box.
On Tuesday, old signs that had advertised cactuses and African violets were down in what used to be the former Hechinger nursery. The area around the store has been cleaned up. Gone are the dumped mattresses and smashed toilets. Instead, metalworkers were outside assembling the entrances, drywall installers were walking around on stilts and foremen were poring over blueprints, hoping to get everything ready for the opening next month.
"The biggest challenge has been changing it from what was just a big open space,'' said Don Hopper, chief financial officer for the Cowles auto dealership.
The company will keep its current location on Route 1 for its Suzuki and used car sales while switching its Ford dealership to the new location. The building has enough room for a second dealership, although Hopper said Cowles is focusing on getting the building open before negotiating with any automakers.
Cowles bought the building for $8.2 million; the improvements will cost an additional $5 million to $6 million. When it opens, Hopper said, the dealership will have a giant service facility that can also repair commercial trucks. The old Hechinger nursery will be turned into a car washing area.
The building is so large it can accommodate many display cars, perhaps as many as 100, instead of the three or four in some dealerships.
The new zoning ordinance requires retailers that want to build free-standing stores of more than 80,000 square feet to gain permission from county supervisors and meet a variety of design, site and size restrictions.
The new dealership will join other reuses of big-box stores in the county. The Incredible Universe building in Woodbridge was converted into office space for General Dynamics. Another nearby Hechinger store was converted into a Best Buy. When Swedish furniture giant Ikea replaced its outlet in Potomac Mills mall with a much bigger one, the old Ikea was converted into a multiplex cinema.