What do you do with an abandoned Wal-Mart in the middle of a sea of concrete? Turn it into an award-winning library and community center, of course.  

At least that's what the city of McAllen, Texas, on the Mexican border, decided to do with a structure whose sole purpose had been to cram as many goods as possible into an impersonal space for one-stop shopping.

The city's decision to take an empty big box store and repurpose it into a civic landmark exemplifies a national trend that is a godsend for struggling hamlets as well as religious and educational institutions. As the sluggish national economy strangles tax revenue and other funding sources, large deserted retail outlets in once-thriving but now financially hard-hit communities are perfect sites for makeovers into eye-catching commons facilities that can be used by local residents. The potential result is a cash saving, newly functional space that provides decorative uplift for the community.

Among big box stores undergoing this transformation are:

  • A Food Lion grocery in Denton, Texas, which was turned into a library;
  • A Wal-Mart in Pinellas, Fla., owned by Calvary Chapel. The church moved into the Wal-Mart space after years in a converted Winn-Dixie grocery outlet;
  • A Wal-Mart in Laramie, Wyo., which is now Snowy Range Academy, a charter school; and
  • A Wal-Mart in Greenfield, Minn., which Ridge Community Church is expected to move into.

"The reason communities opt for converting empty big box stores rather than tearing them down or letting them sit idle is usually economic," said Jack Poling, managing principal of Minneapolis-based Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle Ltd., one of the designers of the new McAllen library.

"It's generally less expensive to acquire and convert an empty big box store than to acquire a site and build new," he said. "In addition, big box sites usually have ample and convenient parking and rectangular floor plates with high ceilings that lend themselves well to reuse for various types of buildings, one of which is certainly libraries."

McAllen paid Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) $5 million for the property, which was developed in 1980, and spent an additional $19 million in renovation costs. In other cities that have constructed libraries recently, the cost of the land and site preparation alone has been double that. Overall, McAllen spent 25 percent to 33 percent less than the average cost of building a library from scratch.

In the seven months since the new main branch of the McAllen Main Library was opened, membership increased by 25 percent, according to city officials.

"Especially now that we're into summer, the librarians say it's like spring break every day in there," said McAllen Deputy City Manager Brent Branham, the city official in charge of overseeing the city's three libraries. "Our goal was that when you walked in to the space, you didn't feel like you were walking simply into an old Wal-Mart with a new façade. It's a testament to our city council that they approved the additional money for what they called the 'wow factor.'"

And it is a wow library, serving a South Texas metropolitan zone of about 1.7 million people, including McAllen's 130,000 residents - ranked as the poorest metro area in the country with about one in three households below the poverty line. The 124,500 square foot space -- more than two American football fields -- was first stripped of its industrial dropped ceiling and non-supporting interior walls. Then, the structural walls and ceiling were freshened with white paint.

The giant floor space was divided into three sections: one for adults, one for children and a third for meeting spaces and staff areas. A laser-cut wood ceiling divides the space in the north-south direction while porous orange elements separate the three areas east-to-west. At the intersection of these two visual dividers is the primary service point, so that it's roughly equal walking distance from any part of the library.

So-called mega pendant signs in bright colors hover over lounge areas designed so that that they can be seen from far away. Patterns and colors were taken from local plants and animals and the migratory species that pass through the area. There's also a café, art gallery and a 180-seat auditorium. The city's computer network is connected there and can be used as a backup IT center if the main network is knocked out in this hurricane-prone region.

Normally there's a line outside waiting to get in every day -- at least 30 to 40 people. It really picks up in the afternoon, said the library's director, Kate Horan. The design is such is that the colors are engaging and energizing. They make you want to explore different areas. I was in the teen room for a few hours on Thursday night. They were reading, collaborating; a few were watching our current film series.

Horan said 73,000 items (mostly books) were checked out of the library last month, or about double the number of items checked out in June of last year from the old main branch.

"Our summer reading program has started," she added. "Moms are coming in and checking out 60 books at a time."

In the children's section, the youngest are greeted with picture-book bins they can rummage through. A bit further in is the tween section for more advanced readers. The idea, said Horan, is that as the children get older they move toward the more advanced reading areas.

The library is also approaching 1,500 e-books, which users can download through the library's website.

Last month, the International Interior Design Association named the McAllen library Best of Category for libraries of over 30,000 square feet.

Julia Christensen, assistant professor of integrated media at Ohio's Oberlin College and author of Big Box Reuse, a book about how abandoned large retail properties are being repurposed across suburban America, said the biggest challenge in reusing these properties is contorting the building's internal and external infrastructure -- everything from roads and turning lanes to heating and air conditioning ducts -- to meet an entirely different set of needs.

"The original electrical structures of the buildings (may be) designed for aisles in one large room," said Christensen via email. "So although the community is able to reuse the site and assert its own needs -- and potentially overcome the memory of what the building once was -- there are circuits that were laid down initially for the corporation's own (very specific) needs. In that sense, the corporate memory often exerts itself beyond the reuse."

For the McAllen library, one such challenge was the parking lot. Ample parking has become a good selling point for the new library, because, according to Deputy City Manager Branham, the old main library downtown lacked sufficient parking spaces. But the big Wal-Mart store had too much parking for the library's purposes and the city had to invest a hefty sum to break up what Branham called the sea of concrete around the structure. Now, the former gray and hot expanse has landscaping features -- shrubs, bushes, flower beds and trees -- and a fountain.

For McAllen and many other communities, the arrival of big-box stores decades ago meant that they had come of age, that their metropolitan areas were large enough and their local consumers sufficiently spendthrift to warrant attention from Wal-Mart and its ilk. At that time, it would have been impossible to believe that the future held anything else but relatively high times. When that forecast proved false, it's fortunate for these cities that the big-box players are unwittingly able to perform a civic service even as they leave behind big, empty boxes and move on to more lucrative pastures.