Out of the Box

Schools and universities are riding a construction wave that shows no sign of slowing anytime soon. However, for many institutions in various areas of the country, the biggest challenge is not getting funding for the construction — it's finding an appropriate site.

Numerous school districts and higher-education institutions are finding a dearth of appropriate and available locations to build needed schools, forcing innovative — and sometimes unpopular — ways to secure and utilize sites. Among the solutions: build up rather than out; construct schools much larger than recommended instead of creating smaller schools on multiple sites; build with little or no open space; and resort to the dreaded “eminent domain” to get needed real estate. Others are going shopping — literally — at sites that once housed “big-box” retailers.

For a number of school districts and higher-education institutions that find themselves in the difficult spot of needing to build schools in areas with scarce available land, going the big-box route has proven to be a solution — and has resulted in some unforeseen benefits. While purists may cringe at the thought of housing children in what once hosted thousands of bargain hunters, many education institutions are finding that with the right planning, vision and program, revitalizing these once-abandoned sites not only provides inviting environments for learning, but also pumps new life into the community.

With hundreds of vacant big-box stores littering the suburban and rural landscape, many communities are stuck with empty buildings that are eyesores, attract crime and vandalism, and bring down property values. Having an education institution move in to the neighborhood is a welcome addition — and re-establishes the school as the “center of community.”

Will we see a rush by schools to occupy vacant big-box retail space as buildable sites become more scarce? Probably not, but for many education institutions in land-strapped areas, the option deserves a closer look.

For those who do take the initiative, there will be a variety of challenges that require a unique vision and dedication. The end result, however, has the potential to be a win-win for students, the institution and the community.

SCORECARD

As education institutions find it more difficult to locate suitable sites for schools, some are taking advantage of vacant “big-box” retail spaces as a way to not only meet space needs, but also revitalize communities. A quick look at the nation's largest retailer — Wal-Mart — and the vacant stores it lists as currently for sale or lease:

369

Total number of Wal-Mart buildings currently for sale or lease across the United States.

37

Number of states that have Wal-Mart buildings for sale or lease.

32

Number of buildings available for sale or lease in Georgia, one of the more rapidly growing states in school-age enrollment.

38

Number of buildings available for sale or lease in Texas, which is projected to grow in K-12 enrollment by more than 11 percent through 2013.

150,060

Size, in square feet, of the largest Wal-Mart building currently for sale (located in North Charleston, S.C.).

Source: Wal-Mart Realty

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