Turning an abandoned big box retail space into a vibrant mixed-use development

September 12, 2016 Dean Benvenuto

Can a green philosophy developed for pop cans and cardboard work for a 127,000 square-foot retail outlet?


Retail buildings developed in North America tend to have a relativity short shelf life. While some retailers have been part of our shopping experiences for decades, others are just as trendy as the products they sell – in today, gone tomorrow! We don’t want to see large retail sites sitting abandoned due to a lack of creativity and imagination.

Retail architecture is synonymous with style, trends, and lifestyles. A community’s demographics drive the type of retail experience its customers are looking for. As such, existing retail centers typically operate under a 7- to 10-year rebranding cycle to remain competitive. To keep building costs low, developers want simple designs and building envelopes so they can meet their pro forma. This allows them to pass on these savings—in the form of affordable lease rates—to potential tenants while providing a space that can adapt to the style of the brand setting up shop and the consumers the retailer is targeting.

This creates a challenge for commercial development owners and those of us who work with them to design attractive spaces. What do you do with space that big box retailers leave behind? Can we repurpose existing retail spaces while ensuring design is flexible for the tenants of today and tomorrow as we adapt to the changing retail market?

Architects are stewards of our natural and built environment and believe in designing buildings that are permanent and sustainable, not disposable. Design needs to be flexible enough to supersede branding cycles and consumer trends. While tenants may come and go, we want to create welcoming spaces that continue to attract consumers.


Thinking outside the big box 
When Stantec was engaged to repurpose a 127,000 sf big box retail store into a mixed-use development, we saw it as our duty to preserve or reuse as many of the building’s elements as possible. We knew that we needed to be creative in the way we reinvented the use of the building to maximize the use of the building’s structure, and minimize the waste that would be shipped off to the landfill site.

The original building was constructed for Eagle Hardware in 1994. It was subsequently purchased and converted into Ikea in 1995.  In 2004 our client bought the building, and engaged Stantec to transform it into a high-end furniture store, Finesse Home Living. After 10 lucrative years as a single furniture retailer, the same developer had a bold vision to turn the building inside out, creating a mixed-use development now known as South BLVD Shops. The site had potential to attract more consumers, with a variety of interests. We had to think outside the big box store’s limitations – and get creative.

In order to turn our client’s vision into a reality, we needed to start with a partial demolition of the building. This gave us the opportunity to allow for improved site development and walkability. We then created a two-story expansion for professional and medical offices on the second floor, as well as new retail spaces on the main level. Instead of looking at a new location, our client saw the opportunity the large lot presented in a central, high traffic location. We repurposed, instead of abandoned.

The rebranding of South BLVD Shops meant removing some of the exterior pre-cast concrete panels that were subsequently crushed and recycled for the base of the expanded parking area. Today, you see a vibrant storefront featuring a mixture of rich materials to catch the eye of potential customers. South BVLD Shops is in a prime location, with three major arterial roads bringing people past the new, attention grabbing development, from all angles.

The result is the South BLVD Shops redevelopment, which has transformed the entire site into a landmark entry feature for visitors heading into Edmonton along QEII Highway. Once an inward facing development, this site now encourages customers and passersby not only to stop and shop, but to linger and spend additional dollars. They are invited to spend a few hours browsing retail stores or grabbing lunch after an appointment with their doctor or dentist, or wrapping up a day of errands with dinner.

It’s important to think about what drives shoppers - like South BLVD Shops did, when looking at future development plans. I am confident we will see this movement continue as brands we know and love adapt to new consumer habits. Whether our online shopping habits free up space or consumers want to see destinations for families to spend a Saturday – there are creative ways to bring life to commercial spaces.

About the Author

Dean Benvenuto

Dean Benvenuto is an architect and senior principal based in our Edmonton office. He's passionate about design and working closely with structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers as part of a broader integrated team.

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