For years, the Kmart in the Chicago suburb of Waukegan, Illinois sat abandoned, except for squatters who had moved in.
But now, high school students fill its halls, library, and cafeteria – once store aisles and space for checkout lines.
The former Kmart is the new home for Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, which was recently redesigned by the local design firm JGMA. The team of architects transformed the dingy store into a bright facility, complete with all the amenities of a modern high school.
Business Insider spoke with Juan Moreno, the founder and president of JGMA, about the project. Take a look below.
Until the store closed in 2013, it was the only Kmart in Waukegan. Here’s what it looked like before the redevelopment:
The building is now the home of Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, which serves nearly 400 low-income, mostly minority students.
The empty store was challenging to convert, because the firm wanted to keep to a relatively low budget of $US10 million, Moreno told Business Insider.
“We put dollars into what mattered most,” he said.
Cristo Rey’s principal, Mike Odiotti, had the idea to move the school into the former Kmart.
He called Moreno from his car one afternoon. “On my way to school, I always drive by this empty Kmart,” Odiotti told him.
While the building measures 100,000 square feet, JGMA’s renovation spans just 60,000 square feet. That way, the school can expand in the future.
“We saw potential in this otherwise ugly duckling,” Moreno said.
One of the firm’s main goals was to “humanize” the building, which featured 22-foot-tall ceilings and no exterior windows (except for the front doors).
“What big-box stores lack are daylight. They’re often really Brutalist and tall, with concrete walls that have no sense of human scale whatsoever,” Moreno said.
The team installed windows, skylights, and floor-to-ceiling glass curtain walls that look out to a wetland. Natural light now floods the space.
The classroom walls facing the corridor are also transparent, so that passersby can see lessons taking place inside.
The main corridor, where the library and cafeteria are also located, spans 50 feet wide.
The library doesn’t contain many physical books, as most students study using computers or tablets.
From start to finish, the renovation lasted five years.
The students started classes in the new facility in February.
Before, Cristo Rey was housed inside a former Catholic chapel, which was “falling apart,” according to Moreno.
The building was also much two small.
This isn’t the first school JGMA has designed. In 2011 in Chicago, the firm completed UNO Soccer Academy, a charter elementary school with a shiny steel facade.
This also isn’t the first abandoned retail store to turn into a school. Austin Community College in Texas turned a dead JCPenney store into a new facility in 2014.
Cristo Rey schools in other cities have similar plans.
Partially inspired by the Waukegan project, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Milwaukee will move into a vacant grocery store. Philadelphia’s Cristo Rey school will also convert an abandoned tricycle factory into a new facility.
Moreno expects that American suburbs will see more renewal projects like these — especially as hundreds of retail stores continue to close across the country.
“We can’t deny that retail, in the era of Amazon, is in a crisis and that big-boxes are closing at a rate we’ve never seen. They’re likely going to be empty relics throughout the United States. It’s an epidemic of sorts,” he said. “And I think this project shows the potential of repurposing, which should inspire other suburban regions to think about doing the same.”
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