The Future Of Empty Big Boxes: WYSO’s Lewis Wallace Talks To Sarah Schindler

Feb 6, 2014

Trotwood City Council member Bruce Kettelle protests outside the Target slated to close May 3.
Credit Lewis Wallace / WYSO

In January, Target announced plans to close its store in the northwest Dayton suburb of Trotwood, prompting a strong reaction from many residents and city leaders. The larger picture for Trotwood is that this inner suburb has lost nearly 11 percent of its population in a decade, and the majority of its big box stores—once the mainstay of the town—have packed up and left.

Sarah Schindler is a law professor at the University of Maine who has studied what cities can do with vacant big boxes, which she calls “ghostboxes.”

She says one reason for ghostboxes is a reorganization of suburbs in general, as populations move from the inner suburbs to newer suburbs further outside of cities. Stores like Target will open up in places like Beavercreek or Liberty Township, OH, while closing in declining inner suburbs with growing poverty. On top of that, some key big boxes have either failed, or gotten smaller in recent years.

Ghostboxes create the same problems as other vacancies or blight—a drop in property values, a space for crime and other problems—but they are also trickier in some ways to repurpose. They generally don’t have windows or many internal walls, and they’re set back from the street by huge parking lots. Cities left with big box vacancies choose between demolition, an expense in itself, or finding investors to reuse the buildings as they are.

Schindler says some municipalities are looking back on zoning decisions made decades ago with regret. For the future, though, the decline of big box stores may mean rethinking inner suburbs—imagining, for example, community spaces, parks and gardens, or more dense and walkable urban development where big boxes once stood.

Find her whole study here.


Under Construction is WYSO’s series on growth in the greater Dayton area. We dig underneath the physical and economic markers of growth to look at the human consequences. Check back Thursdays for new installments.