Thinking outside the box… A really big box

While chain stores such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart might relocate or shut down, the boxes they inhabited remain.

Sitting at the corner of Hooker Road and U.S. Highway 101, the former Costco building is 74,844 square feet of hulking steel rising above the surrounding treetops. Abandoned since 2006 for a location at West Washington Street and Ninth Avenue, the building recently has come into the spotlight thanks to Blyn resident Greg Madsen.

For several weeks, Madsen has been speaking in front of the city council regarding the possibility of the site becoming the new city hall. To Madsen’s mind, the old Costco building on 14 acres would be the perfect spot for a new city hall. With ample room for expansion, Madsen envisions it housing an auto repair shop for city vehicles and the police department, as well as tenants such as the Sequim Library and Peninsula College. The space, Madsen points out, also would provide room for separate commercial spaces.

“The vacated Costco property offers the opportunity for the city of Sequim to demonstrate an appropriate focus on ‘green’ development through the reuse of existing real estate,” Madsen wrote in a March 27 letter addressed to the city council.

While fine in theory, there’s a small problem. The former Costco building isn’t in the city of Sequim.

According to state law in order to be legal, legislative actions must take place “at an authorized public meeting held within the code city limits.” The Sequim council could opt to build a city hall in Forks if they wanted to, so long as every vote was taken in the city.

“It’s not in the city limits, even worse it’s not even in the same urban growth area,” Councilman Ken Hays said.

While Madsen expects the old Costco building, as well as the surrounding lands, to become part of the city within the coming years, the council isn’t willing to wait. Finding and/or building a new city hall has been a top priority for the council for the past four years. While some council members want to see the city look outside the box, Madsen’s box is a little too out there.

So Costco’s not going to be the next city hall, but can it be used for some other purpose, for example, a school or indoor flea market? What about the other empty commercial spaces in the city, such as the vacant Rite Aid space?

The idea of taking such properties and transforming them for another use is called “adaptive reuse.” It is by no means a new concept but it’s decidedly more prevalent on the East Coast, which is older and therefore considerably more built out. Adaptive reuse projects, however, are sprouting up across the country as big box chain stores relocate or go out of business. Their left-behind rebuilt steel and concrete shells have led to some interesting results. In Laramie, Wyo., for instance, charter school Snowy Range Academy is located in a former Wal-Mart.

“We had looked at several vacant buildings as well as modulars in town but found that the Wal-Mart building and ultimate cost to us was the best choice at the time,” Margarita Rovani, the school’s board chairman, wrote in a recent e-mail.

According to Rovani, the remodel cost $350,000, which was loaned to the school by Wal-Mart. Rovani said building by adaptive reuse allowed the school to build essentially from the ground up but without the cost of building from scratch.

Sequim Planning Commission chairman Larry Freedman said he would like to see the old Costco building turned into a college-level school geared toward high technology. Technology industries, Freedman said, are desperately needed in the area. He admits, however, that the opportunities for reuse development in Sequim are few and far between.

“It depends on the availability and the need in the community,” Freedman said. “That is not what is happening here because that’s not what we have here.”

Freedman added that as the population increases so will the opportunities for reuse. He pointed out, however, that because a project is being developed from an already existent structure doesn’t automatically mean it’s cheaper than starting from scratch.

“It depends on the project. You’re at the mercy of what’s there,” Freedman said.

Councilman and real estate agent Paul McHugh concurred with Freedman, calling the cost of adaptive reuse projects “a mixed bag.”

As for the fate of Costco, McHugh said he’d rather see the building used for its intended purpose: large-scale retail. Were Costco to be adapted as a school or Sequim’s new city hall, McHugh pointed out, such projects would be exempt from taxes, creating a huge financial loss for the county.

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