As strange as it may seem, there is a certain economic logic to building a Lowe's next door to an existing Home Depot. Customers are already in the habit of driving to the location to buy their lumber, hardware and other home fix-up supplies. Lowe's and Home Depot become equally convenient. Lowe's can compete with Home Depot purely on the quality of the stores. One might well drive the other out of business, but hey, who's to argue with survival of the fittest?
A few years ago—just as the recession was starting—Lowe's built a 117,000-square-foot store in Ellsworth, Maine, just up the hill from a Home Depot. Last fall the Lowe's corporation announced that the Ellsworth location and 19 other underperforming stores would be closed. Pamelia and I drove by recently and took in the sad sight of economic logic's having run its course: Where a dense forest once stood, a vast, empty parking lot now sprawls in front of an abandoned big box. Eighty-three workers lost their jobs in the closing. Nationwide, more than 120 million square feet of big box and department store space have been vacated since 2008.
I've tried to imagine alternate realities in which the builders of big-box stores and shopping centers would be accountable if those structures became abandoned eyesores. Perhaps they would have to tear down the structures—nowadays known as "ghostboxes"—and restore the original landscape. Or maybe in the construction process they could be asked to reinforce the ceiling and make the roof a greenscape, with grasses, shrubbery and trees. Or gardens. Birds and insects, at least, could make use of that rooftop environment. The roof would absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. It also would provide insulation for the building, reduce rain runoff and possibly even shade a portion of the parking lot on those summer days when the asphalt grows hot enough to melt tires.
To boost business in its garden department, a Lowe's could invite customers to its green roof for planting tips. Perhaps Wal-Mart could stock its newly forested roofs with small game and create elevated hunting areas to boost gun sales. (Just kidding.)
Back to reality. The greening of the big-box store is still but a dream. In the meantime, what do we do with the 117,000-square-foot empty building in Ellsworth?
Find a way to use it. Artist Julia Christensen, a professor at Oberlin College, has written a book called Big Box Reuse on how people across the U.S. have transformed empty superstores. Some of the conversions have been quite creative.
In Austin, Minn., home to the Hormel corporation, which makes Spam, an abandoned K-Mart was redesigned to be more environmentally sustainable and is now the Spam Museum. In Round Rock, Texas, a former Wal-Mart has become the RPM Indoor Raceway—maybe not the greenest option but a fun way to keep kids out of trouble. A Laramie, Wyo., Wal-Mart is now an elementary school. Educators in Charlotte launched a charter school in a deserted K-Mart. Other former big boxes and department stores have been transformed into churches (Latham, N.Y.), fitness and wellness centers (Princeton, N.J.), flea markets (Fayetteville, N.C.), a college library (Savannah, Ga.), a guitar center (New Orleans), a medical center (Kentucky) and apartments (Virginia).
The Ellsworth Lowe's is for sale if you have a creative idea. While it's on the market, maybe the place could at least be an indoor recreation center where people could walk for exercise during the long, cold Maine winters. Too expensive to heat it? The walkers can wear jackets. Maybe the building could house a simple skating rink?
Pamelia and I joke about what we would do if someone bought us a 117,000-square-foot building to house The Naturalist's Notebook. Turn it into the world's biggest exploratorium merging nature, art, science and never-ending curiosity? Or tear it down and bring back the forest? Either one would be be better than a ghostbox.
Want to Grow a Vegetable Garden In Your Window?
Here's an interesting way to go green in an indoor space of any size. Watch the talk below to learn how you can grow certain veggies and fruits year-round in your home even if you live in a tiny apartment or in the far northern winter darkness of Finland. Wouldn't you love to pick fresh strawberries in mid-February?
Building a Better Dinosaur (from a Chicken)
It might sound crazy—no it might be crazy—but here is a way that paleontologist Jack Horner says we could create a new living dinosaur from some of its genetic descendants....chickens: http://www.livescience.com/17642-chickenosaurus-jack-horner-create-dinosaur.html
Answers to the Last Puzzler
Here are the temperature conversions:
1) 42 degrees Celsius equals 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit
2) 5 degrees Celsius equals 41 degrees Fahrenheit
3) minus-20 degrees Celsius equals minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit
O.K., so let's try converting temperatures in the other direction: from Fahrenheit to Celsius. Again it's a good mental exercise.
Example: To convert 96 degrees Farhenheit, subtract 32 (96 minus 32 equals 64), then divide in half (half of 64 is 32), then add one-tenth (32 plus 3.2 equals 35.2).
So now convert these to Celsius:
1) 100 degrees Fahrenheit
2) 60 degrees Fahrenheit
3) (the tricky one) 10 degrees Fahrenheit