Empty Stores are a Hard Sell
Friday, February 2, 2001
By Evan Halper
INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF
The suburban landscape is littered with these rotting carcasses - big, boxy, wide-aisled reminders of stores that once teemed with wild-eyed bargain hunters.
They went by names such as Hechinger, Caldor and Service Merchandise - expansive stores that ushered in an age of seemingly unlimited discount purchasing potential.
But the jobs-hungry communities that ardently lured them, that believed the corporate mantra of the 1980s that "economies of scale" made those companies indestructible, now find themselves faced with the graffiti-strewn mess left behind when the economy rolled right over them.
The towns are saddled with the prospect of spending millions to demolish the buildings, letting them rot or tackling the nearly impossible task of peddling them to someone else. And the salvation being dangled in front of these hard-pressed communities, once again, is even more gigantic models.
Today's cavernous Home Depots and Costcos average more than 120,000 square feet, or at least twice the size of the last wave of "big-box" stores, so large that they are not interested in moving into the previous generation of boxes.
Some towns have seen enough.
Officials in Bucks County's Buckingham Township, where no big boxes even exist yet, are so alarmed that they have a defensive requirement that anyone who wants to build such a project must put money in escrow to cover demolition costs should the structure ever become vacant.
"Large, vacant buildings are not a good thing for a community to have," Buckingham Supervisor Henry Rowan said.
Just ask officials in Middletown Township, Bucks County. They are stuck dealing with three of the abandoned monsters. Bradlees, Hechinger and Best stores have all bailed out in recent years, leaving a wake of unsightly vacancies.
"You have these buildings that were built for a single use and nobody else wants them," said Middletown Township Manager John Burke.
From the deserted Caldor in Wilmington to the desolate Carrefour in Voorhees, more than 4.5 million square feet of abandoned superstore space sits empty in the nine-county region, according to a local survey by CB Richard Ellis, an international commercial real-estate brokerage.
That is the equivalent of about 62 standard-size old Hechinger stores - more than 100 acres of indoor space.
The number does not take into account the latest casualties since Christmas: 10 Bradlees, two Office Depots and a Sears will close in area suburbs in coming weeks.
"Too many big boxes," says a November report warning of a market glut by the Lend Lease Group, one of the country's largest real-estate management firms.
"There are five different places to get 100 pounds of dog food."
That big-box glut has forced many aging stores to go belly-up. And after the merchandise is cleared off the racks, their buildings sit behind.
The abandoned behemoths have become an eyesore on the landscape and a financial and security liability for local governments helpless to do much about them.
"It's not easy to find substitute uses once these boxes are abandoned," said Patty Elkis, a senior planner at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
"They make the whole area look bad and people stay away."
Even some thriving chains are dumping their outgrown buildings in pursuit of bigger spaces, leaving the empties behind.
Wal-Mart Stores is trying to rent or sell 388 vacant sites nationwide, 30 of which went on the market in the last six months. They include three stores in Maryland, one in Delaware and one in Western Pennsylvania.
"Wal-Mart has buildings for sale all over the country," a company Web site boasts (www.wal-martrealty.com). Wal-Mart spokesman John Bisio says the vacancies are "the sign of a healthy economy" and a company providing more jobs than ever as it creates 200,000-square-foot regional supercenters.
Critics do not see it that way.
"It's extremely wasteful and harmful to quality of life to have all these empty stores sitting around," said Al Norman of Sprawl Busters, a Massachusetts-based national advocacy group.
Wal-Mart so far leads the way in dumping outgrown empty stores. But the nation's leading retailer is by no means the only one.
Empty Hechingers, Bests, Bradlees, Caldors, Service Merchandises and others are spread over the Philadelphia region.
Consider Voorhees. It has been struggling to find uses for its gigantic empty Carrefour store for years. The old I. Goldberg there also is empty, and Sears announced early this month that it was leaving town.
Planners say the empties produce barely any tax revenue, yet they are security risks, attracting vandals and vagrants.
And the empties are unsightly. Parking lot pavements are cracked and filled with holes and landscaping is littered with weeds. Torn marquees and faded paint leave sites looking like gritty industrial warehouses amid what are supposed to be bustling commercial districts.
Kevin McClernon, vice president of CB Richard Ellis, says the problem is not overbuilding but the failure of the box chains to think outside the box.
"Until people get creative, you are going to have these boxes sitting around," he said.
His company tried to get Lowes Home Improvement Centers to build its planned Middletown store on a lot where old Hechinger and Best stores now sit empty. Lowes chose to start from scratch on an empty field on the other side of town - a site just across from the abandoned Bradlees.
Burke said the township would like to see Lowes move into the vacant store but was powerless to do anything about it. Company officials say they have no interest in moving into someone else's old shell.
"We build from the ground up," Lowes spokeswoman Suzanne McCoy said. "Existing facilities just don't fit our prototype."
McCoy said every Lowes store was exactly the same size and shape.
The only variation is what side the garden center is on.
It is not just other retail stores that are loath to occupy the abandoned sites. No one else wants them, either.
"These are not like old buildings in the middle of Philadelphia that can be reused as condos," says Donovan Rypkema, an economic development consultant in Washington, D.C., who warns communities about the sprawl risks big-box stores can bring. "They are crappy buildings. There is no logic in reinvesting in them at all."
There have been a few exceptions, however, to that rule.
Willingboro is transforming an old eyesore of a shopping center into an economic anchor for the community. Tenants will include a $6 million town library, a satellite campus of Burlington County College and a mail-order pharmacy operation.
Life also is being infused back into the mostly abandoned Levittown Shopping Center.
A New York developer is tearing down the dilapidated structure to rebuild a brand-new shopping plaza.
And some creative chains have been able to move into the old, smaller boxes.
Kohl's refit nine abandoned Clover stores here with its shiny, modern layout.
"If you're creative, you can do things," said Elkis of the regional planning commission. But she and other planners say such redevelopment is becoming the exception lately when it comes to big boxes.
"They are often just left as white elephants," Elkis said.