Jodi Ackerman Frank
By Teri Currie
local artist’s multimedia project links communities across
the country that have sought creative ways to reuse abandoned
Fellowship Church in Latham is not so different from the typical
nondenominational church. People of different Christian persuasions
come together to worship their God, receive baptism, and participate
in myriad services, including youth programs for their kids
and coffeehouse get-togethers.
As a place of worship, however, there is something
rather unusual about the church on Delatour Road. The boxy
building with its plain sloping roof, storefront windows,
and wide glass-and-metal doors gives away the answer: The
church is housed in a renovated Grand Union building.
we intended to build our own building,” says Bill Minchin,
executive pastor. “However, limited availability of our ideal
property location near the Northway and in the Latham area
as well as the amount of square footage [we were looking for]
made us consider other options.”
The Grand Union building was abandoned in 1996, as the grocery
chain began to close its stores all over the Northeast. The
structure had been empty for about five years when church
officials, looking for a bigger location, bought it in 2001.
Worshippers breathed new life into it the following year.
Renovated commercial structures like this rehabbed Grand Union,
and especially so-called “big box” buildings that house Wal-Marts,
Targets, Home Depots and other superstores, have been the
focus of local artist Julia Christensen’s artistic endeavors
for nearly two years.
up in her Kentucky home of Bardstown, the multimedia artist,
who now lives in Troy, watched Wal-Mart move in and out of
three big-box stores as the superstore grew.
The town’s first Wal-Mart, erected in the early 1980s, was
torn down and replaced by a courthouse after the retailer
moved across town to open a bigger store in 1990. The megaretailer
vacated the second building when it opened an even larger
store a mile down the road this year.
reclamation of space really got me interested in how other
towns are dealing with abandoned buildings,” says Christensen,
adjunct professor of arts at the University at Albany.
Christensen started her project on how communities are reusing
the big box in January 2004 while she was a graduate student
studying electronic arts at RPI. Grace Fellowship caught her
attention for the same reasons the courthouse in Kentucky
did. It was nearby, and she was intrigued by how residents
were pursuing creative ways on their own to reuse space that
had left an empty footprint in their community. They weren’t
waiting for their local governments or commercial districts
to refurbish or replace what many times turn into town eyesores
for years to come.
Christensen has driven nearly 40,000 miles across the
United States to search out similar stories about building
reuses. During her travels, her curiosity turned into a mission
to connect communities facing the growing phenomenon of abandoned
Although the courthouse replaced the torn-down big-box building
in Kentucky, Christensen is largely focused on megastore structures
that have been converted to new uses.
She has visited nearly three dozen of these renovated commercial
buildings in 25 states, and has met the citizens who have
converted these formerly empty—and mostly less-than-aesthetically-appealing—structures
into spaces that have become a renewed part of communities.
each town I’ve visited, people are very aware of their own
situation,” Christensen says. “They’re very aware of the empty
building they have to deal with. But until I came along, they
didn’t realize that this is a nationwide pattern happening
everywhere. By sharing the experiences of other towns, I hope
to open people up to understanding alternative ideas for how
these spaces can be utilized.”
the 28-year-old hit the road, the project has taken a life
of its own, she says, in a growing collection of photographs
and videos of interviews and stories collected throughout
her travels. She incorporates these field recordings into
presentations she gives at churches, civic centers, colleges,
and city and town halls around the country about how communities
are dealing with this common situation.
Christensen also has started to exhibit video installations
in Louisville, Ky., based on her project, and has created
a Web site, www.bigboxreuse.com, which was chosen as a Yahoo!
“pick of the day” last year. She is now working on a book.
Christensen has lectured at the Yale School of Architecture,
the Stanford Arts Department, and the Los Angeles Forum for
Architecture and Design, as well as at RPI, her alma mater,
where she graduated this year with a master of fine arts degree.
Recently, she spoke at the Boor Sculpture Studio at the University
work has poignancy,” says JoAnne Carson, chairwoman of the
UAlbany arts department. “It’s a very hybrid, unique art that’s
happening more often in which artists are working directly
compared the process of Christensen’s work to environmental
artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who have involved communities
and incorporated whole landscapes, including islands, rural
villages, and metropolitan areas into their artwork.
process of [their] work also involves the real world of city
politics and regulations, land usage, and communities of people,”
As a multimedia artist, Christensen is talented in digital
photography, video, and computer-based music and sound. All
of this plays into her big-box project. She also draws from
her experience in theater as a storyteller, telling stories
to whoever will listen about her work and travel. In fact,
her initial love of art came in the form of theater. As a
high-school student, she attended the Interlochen Arts Academy,
a performing arts boarding school in Michigan, where she studied
as a theater major.
In the end, Christensen prefers to let her audiences decide
for themselves on what the art is in her big-box reuse project—whether
it’s in the photographs or videos and movie clips, in the
creation of her Web site, in her presentations, or in the
interactions between the audience and Christensen.
project has attracted the attention of the Center for Land
Use Interpretation, which explores land and landscape issues
through research and art exhibition. The organization is headquartered
in Culver City, Calif., and has a satellite office in Troy.
is the only person we are aware of who’s looked at the [big-box]
phenomenon systematically, up close, and on a national scale,”
says Matt Coolidge, CLUI director.
Although it is based on what she considers an important social
issue, Christensen doesn’t think of her work as a form of
activism, but as a project that allows her to collect and
disseminate information, leaving the interpretation to her
is a contentious topic for some, I know, and I steer clear
of taking political sides,” Christensen says. “I try to keep
my presentations open-ended so that everyone can take part
in the discussions. I want to involve activists [against Wal-Mart]
in my work. But, I also want to involve people who shop at
Wal-Mart and other big-box stores, because these buildings
are relevant to everyone. Some love big boxes, some hate them,
some could care less, but nobody really likes the empty big
The big-box store is generally defined as a large, freestanding,
warehouse-like building with one major room. Stock comes off
the truck and onto the shelves, so there’s no need for backroom
Some of these superstores close because of lack of business,
but more often, says Christensen, they move into bigger and
better space across town. As a result, they frequently leave
behind their original quarters, which often remain empty for
There are few public statistics on the number of empty big
boxes or the rate at which they are being abandoned. But Christensen
suspects that communities are dealing with thousands of such
structures in the United States. For example, she says, “Wal-Mart
alone generally upgrades to a new store in five to seven years.
So the turnover rate on these buildings is astounding.”
Wal-Mart’s real-estate Web page alone recently listed more
than 350 buildings for sale or for lease.
Some of the converted commercial structures that Christensen
has visited, such as Grace Fellowship, are not really considered
big-box buildings. Still, Christensen felt compelled to include
them in her project.
I was talking to people about big boxes in their towns, they
would invite me to look at something. I would get there and
it would sometimes be a grocery store in a strip mall or a
department store,” she says. “But I’ve included all those
experiences, too. All the locations included are a reflection
of the public’s idea of the big box, and the experiences offer
ideas that can inform the discussion about the big-box phenomenon
in the United States.”
story is completely different,” Christensen adds. “Each place
offers a different look at how these buildings are being renovated
For example, Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte, N.C.,
has been operating in a renovated Kmart since 2000. The school
exemplifies some of the underlying challenges of remodeling
a big commercial building. Having new electrical and structural
elements helps. So do the vast parking lots designed to accommodate
our vehicle-driven society.
Still, Christensen notes, “the fact of the matter remains:
Big-box buildings are very, very big. The process of taking
a roughly 100,000-square-foot room, breaking it into several
smaller rooms and hallways, and getting the building ready
for a drastically different use is a major project that involves
major money and time.”
Currently, the school is using about half the space in the
old Kmart, with the renovation being done in stages. “One
day, this empty half will house a new cafeteria, gymnasium,
and more classrooms for the school,” Christensen explains.
Also, since big-box retailers are generally wired for lights
along the shopping aisles, often the hallways in renovated
big boxes, as in Sugar Creek, resemble aisles running directly
from one end of the building to the other. And since the large
building does not have much outer wall space for windows,
the school has had to add skylights all along the hallways
to invite in more sunlight.
The building renovations share other similarities. The
exterior, including the roof, doors, and even the signage,
usually differ little from the original look of the commercial
structure. “Generally speaking, the exterior of a big box
building is the last thing to be renovated. The function of
the building always comes first,” Christensen says. In fact,
she adds, many times any exterior renovations that are done
are minimal. Maybe a coat of paint, and a new roof if absolutely
Studying the reuses has offered an interesting portrait of
the changing face of America today, Christensen says.
fact that towns have churches that see a Wal-Mart or a grocery
store fit for use is a new insight into how downtowns are
changing in this country,” she says. “As towns become less
reliant on everything being within walking distance, and more
reliant on access from the highway, these structures are becoming
the new town centers. Religious and many other organizations
are taking advantage of that.”
A main reason for thinking about reusing big-box space is
a practical one, Christensen says. When a big-box retailer
moves into town, stoplights are put into place, roads are
built, and exits off the highway are constructed so that consumers
have easy access to the store. When the retailer moves across
town, all this infrastructure is left in place, making the
location ideal for any number of civic uses.
Grace Fellowship, in the former Colonnade strip mall in Latham,
epitomizes many of Christensen’s big-box observations. The
storefront facades, which once held a Chinese restaurant,
a book store, and a day-care center, have remained virtually
the same except the replacement of some large storefront windows
with smaller ones and a touch-up of paint where absolutely
The dull, whitish-gray building—its original color—matches
the vast lot of faded parking lines. The only dab of color
comes from a few yellow, orange, and purple mums alongside
the metal sliding doors that lead directly to the sanctuary.
The red Colonnade sign indicating the mall entrance is still
left protruding out among the few trees along Route 2.
were going to put up our own sign with Grace Fellowship on
it, but we just haven’t done it,” says Wanda Evanchick, senior
Still, what’s on the outside has not hurt the church’s popularity.
Since Grace Fellowship moved to its new location, the size
of the congregation has more than doubled, from 600 to 1,500.
Inside, it’s a little harder to imagine, unless you’ve shopped
there in the past, the hustle and bustle of people pushing
metal shopping carts through aisles of food under unforgiving
fluorescent light. The church transformed the Grand Union’s
entire shopping area—deli, dairy and seafood sections, and
all the rest—into its 1,500-seat sanctuary.
The high ceiling, layered with acoustical panels and dotted
with soft lighting, offers a reverent atmosphere that doesn’t
give anything away. The wide stage that serves as the altar,
with two large LCD screens on either side and theater lighting
directly above, looks out onto rows of plush folding chairs.
One building renovation that added a new dimension to Christensen’s
project is the Jen Library at the Savannah College of Art
and Design in Georgia, which Christensen considers “one of
the most exquisite libraries on any college campus in the
South.” The interior design is based on the aesthetics of
an Italian cruise ship of the 1940s. Student sculpture and
other artwork hang throughout the 85,000-square-foot building.
The library was not in the big-box building Christensen expected
to see. It’s in a large, early 20th-century building centered
in historic downtown Savannah. Built in 1925, the building
was home to at least five businesses, including Levy and Maas
Brothers department stores, before the college purchased it
in 1996 and completed renovations three years later.
The library led Christensen to understand more about downtown
revitalization and shifting civic centers. As big-box retail
centers continue to flourish directly off the highway, the
businesses that once made up the centers of towns and cities
often disappear as a result. When churches, schools and other
community groups retake big boxes that are a stone’s throw
from the exit ramp, suburban sprawl becomes even more pronounced,
further depriving downtown municipalities of sustaining vitality
the town of Savannah, which is known for its beautiful architecture,
we see adaptive reuse of old buildings at its finest,” Christensen
said. “The Savannah College of Art and Design occupies more
than 50 buildings in the historic downtown district of the
Not all the stories Christensen has documented about big-box
reuses have happy endings. The RPM Indoor Raceway in Round
Rock, Texas, which offered go-kart racing, closed its doors
this summer after two years of operation.
The raceway was constructed in a 92,000-square-foot Wal-Mart
building after the superstore opened at a new location directly
across the street. To Charlie Gifford, a techie from nearby
Austin who was part of dot-com bubble bust of the 1990s, the
space was part of a solid—and fun—business plan.
The biggest draw to the location for Gifford was the abundance
of thriving retail outlets largely built around the headquarters
of Dell Computer Corp., one of the largest employers in central
was difficult to imagine a better location,” Gifford says.
The closure of the raceway brings to light the complicated
deed restrictions and lease deals involved in securing many
commercial spaces. Gifford leased the building from a realtor,
who bought it with the initial intent of having RPM as a tenant.
In the end, overhead costs—$43,000 a month in rent alone—of
being a single-user in such a large space caught up with RPM.
Since the raceway occupied about 70,000 square feet, Gifford
tried to sublet the additional square footage to potential
tenants, which included several restaurants, a rock-climbing
gym, and an indoor laser-tag gaming company. All were already
sublet tenant I presented, the landlord refused to sign off
on the sublease,” Gifford says. “As it turned out . . . the
landlord had a different agenda for the property. His intent
became clear much later. He used our business to land-bank
that property until he could find tenants to his liking—first-rate
national chain tenants.”
Within two weeks of RPM’s closing, a Gold’s Gym had signed
a lease to rent the building.
The issue of taking advantage of lease options received public
attention closer to home when Price Chopper in the Troy Plaza
on Hoosick Street closed in April 2002. The store retained
its lease on the property even after it shut its doors, making
it difficult for any other store to consider taking over the
site. After a public outcry, Price Chopper’s parent company,
Golub Corp., relinquished the lease and a Midland Foods grocery
eventually took over the space.
Christensen recently returned to Troy after traveling throughout
the summer to Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and other
states. She’ll hit the road again in December, first heading
to the South and then to the West Coast, where she will take
a teaching job at Stanford University next spring.
is about communicating, and that’s what Julia continues to
do with this piece,” says Kathy High, chairwoman of the art
department at RPI. “She has approached her project in an open-ended
way without a particular political agenda, which has made
it possible for all kinds of people to become involved. She
has given a platform to those who would have otherwise never
associated themselves with one another.”