Photo by iwasteela.

Julia Christensen has become the authority on adaptive community reuse of empty big box stores with her 6-year project and now recent book, Big Box Reuse. Empty stores have transformed into community centers, museums, charter schools, markets, and more. While Christensen’s project focuses primarily on the suburban landscape, we are dealing with a similar loss in DC’s northeastern Ward 5.

This past November, National Wholesale Liquidators, Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In little over a month we had two empty big boxes less than two miles apart: one at 514 Rhode Island Avenue NE in the Rhode Island Avenue Center, and the other in the Hechinger Mall at 1600 Benning Road NE. Conversations over what should next fill the space have erupted and died down many times since on neighborhood email lists.

Many residents suggested filling the dead space with higher-end retail, including the ever-elusive Trader Joe’s or Harris Teeter. However, Safeways already anchor both suburban-style strip malls. While the NWL on Rhode Island Avenue replaced the Ames department store (which took over Zayre’s) when it left the mall during that company’s death throes, we are currently in the midst of a recession. That makes the prospect of finding another big box retailer to fill 60,000+ square feet two times over in DC almost certainly impossible.

Ryan Avent, in response to Jebediah Reed’s interview with Christensen on the Infrastructuralist, envisions creating a dense, mixed-use neighborhood in place of dying strip malls. This fits with recent literature on “retrofitting” or “recycling” suburbs and is, in fact an integral part of the THINK Rhode Island Avenue Great Streets Initiative. But that project has just begun and is on an extended timeline. What do we do in the interim?

Edgewood’s ANC-5C08 Commissioner Marshall Phillips has seen the Rhode Island Avenue Center transition over the years, and he began thinking outside the box before he’d even heard of the big box reuse movement. At the March 17 ANC-5C monthly meeting, Phillips took the floor during the Commission’s “Workshop on Infrastructure Issues” and spoke from the heart of his desire to work out a deal between property manager Vanguard Realty and the DC government to fill the dark space with community services, perhaps a combination of CSOSA, an MPD-5D substation, and a larger space for the overcrowded Brentwood DMV. The DMV is constantly overwhelmed, yet Mayor Fenty is proposing to close it in his new budget.

Phillips would like to see community services rent the space for approximately 7 years. That’s enough time for the economy to rebound and the Rhode Island Avenue Great Streets to hopefully move from planning to the beginning stages of inception. Currently, Vanguard is looking for a retail tenant to sign a 30-year lease. H&R Retail manages the Hechinger Mall, and is likely looking for similar terms. Neither site is listed in the Washington, DC Economic Partnership database, though I’m not sure that would necessarily help right now.

Communities across the country are, in varying ways, reclaiming private space for public benefits. This movement, suburban in its genesis and at first glance contrary to New Urbanist ideas, sets a great precedent for what we can do with existing infrastructure here in DC, even if not ideal or urban in its form. I commend Commissioner Phillips on his vision, and hope both the community and the District government are able to work together to reopen these dark spaces as soon as possible.