Big box affordable housing?

vacant walmart

Walmart Realty lists 583 properties for sale or lease. There are 9,300 big box properties set to be closed in 2019.

This is a Request for Ideas (RFI). Since I first posted this story, there’s a project brewing in Colorado Springs, Colorado that I was contacted about and cobbling the pieces together.

The main beef I hear about cohousing is about the price of the homes. I agree and have been talking to anyone who’ll listen to me about how to lower the cost of cohousing through retrofit options.

I happened to be having a facebook conversation with a colleague who I hadn’t been in touch for many years. In fact, I can’t remember where or under what circumstances we met. Nonetheless, when I mentioned about my interest in converting an abandoned big box store into affordable housing, she responded she had a similar idea about retrofitting abandoned commercial buildings with housing, “Why not Colorado Springs?”

There are plenty of vacant buildings sitting empty around the country, now that storefronts of all sizes are becoming obsolete in favor of on-line retail and pop-up stores. The COVID-19 lockdowns are likely to force even more of them out of business.

Do you want to get up off the couch and help solve the affordable housing issue? It doesn’t matter where you live, because housing affordability is an issue everywhere.

walmart rehabit

KTGY Architects + Planners in Los Angeles came up with some renderings about what their “ReHabit” places could look like.

What’s the project? The idea originally came from an article called “Re-habit: Transforming Big Box Retailers into Housing for Homeless.” While housing homeless people is definitely a population in need, my more general concept is for other housing configurations like co-op rental housing and owner-occupied cohousing meeting the needs of other demographics, which include most people who can’t afford a place to live.

The most well known shopping mall retrofit is the Arcade Providence, that’s now apartments in Providence, Rhode Island. There’s an old convent in Denver that was retrofitted into a cohousing community, so the idea isn’t that “out there” and unproven.

Site Location: While the project would fit anywhere there is a vacant big box store, some places are better suited for a pilot project than others:

  • Low Cost Cities and Neighborhoods: There are 9,300 big box stores slated to close in 2019. There are literally hundreds of big-box stores currently for sale or lease around the country. The city of Colorado Springs and the business community are in conversation about the potential benefits of down-zoning so as to create more mixed use opportunities in commercial districts that would include affordable housing options. Like most places, there are plenty of expensive housing options, but not so much on the affordable end. The ideal pilot project is a property that has been fallow for many years and there is an owner willing to be an equity partner and cash out at the end. Rather than attracting more businesses, these days, that’s a nonstarter. But, adding more residents to a slow commercial area provides more vibrancy from more customers frequenting existing businesses like food stores, coffee shops, and other retail.
  • Existing Cohousing: There are some locales better suited to the cohousing concept. Likely those would be places where intentional communities currently exist. Colorado Springs fits that bill with the Case Verde cohousing community located there at 1355 Lindwood.
  • Zoning: Cities and towns with wider open zoning and land use regulations that allow mixed uses by right, or are silent on mixed use development are more inclined to be accepting of a retrofit affordable housing development. From my conversations with Colorado Springs officials and realtors, there is little if any mixed use development, a Planned Unit Develop (PUD) district has been seldom used, which is part of the impetus to create zoning districts with more flexibility.
  • Advocates: There should be at least one “burning soul” interested in the project. That would be my friend, who has garnered the ear of the city of Colorado Springs Community Development Office; several city council members; and now myself. I’ve been in touch with a realtor who is helping inventory potential sites. The Cohousing Association of the United States (CohoUS) can provide some technical assistance. Other helpful resources would be from the local housing authority and other affordable housing advocates.
  • pollard coliving profile

    A pedestrian-friendly coliving space is planned for the former Pollard car lot in Boulder, Colorado.

    A Live Example: Jim Leach from Wonderland Development; architect Bryan Bowen of Caddis Collaborative, and myself, a community development gadfly with ECOS, are planning a pedestrian-friendly and car-less co-living project consisting of co-op rental units and owner-occupied cohousing condos in Boulder, Colorado called the Boulder Co-Living Community. The location is 3/4 of an acre of property owned by the city of Boulder.

Coincidentally, a regional cohousing conference is being planned in Colorado Springs in mid to late July depending on the COVID-19 self-distancing protocols. The conference would be geared to real estate professionals, local government officials and bankers. One topic would be the Colorado Springs cohousing retrofit pilot project.

This could be a pretty good activity that a community could Get Up Off the Couch and take on as a project.