Owners of vacant 'big box' stores get creative with new uses, renovation

NORTH BAY - Owners of large spaces left vacant by retrenching and liquidating retailers are getting creative to fill the vacancies.

For example, vacant Linens 'n' Things store in Rohnert Park is being recreated for indoor kart racing; an ethnic grocer is angling to open in a closed Circuit City location in San Rafael; department store chain Kohl's is refitting former Mervyn's stores in San Rafael, Napa and Ukiah; and specialty grocer Trader Joe's is reworking a shuttered bookstore in Larkspur.

The trouble with filling vacant "big box" and "medium box" stores is the dearth of expansion plans among major retailers and the challenges with dividing large buildings into spaces small enough to appeal to a wider array of grocery and discount tenants that are in the market, according to Jeff Green, a Mill Valley-based retail feasibility consultant who has worked with Macerich on the repositioning of the Mall at Northgate in San Rafael.

He's been traveling the country to various shopping centers with one or more vacant anchors and counseling owners and buyers on the future value of the centers. Mr. Green predicts the nation's retail square footage will decrease by at least 15 percent by the end of 2010.

"We were probably overstored by 15 percent in square footage nationwide, so when the market balances out we will have 85 percent of the square footage we had in mid-2008," Mr. Green said.

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