Car-ied Away

So I was sitting in a ULI professional conference on “Developing Green” several months ago and made a small note to myself. “What a good idea it might be to consider the adaptive re-use of shuttered automobile dealerships.” Well, imagine my ironic delight as I read in Globe St. this morning about a new arm of a well-known brokerage firm that had been set up to deal in “work-outs” for closing car lots. Hmmm. Should have registered my idea somewhere, I guess.

Anyway, I still find the notion quite compelling. Naturally, there are as many variants in the location of car dealers as there are option packages, but some of these sites might really work if re-purposed. The ones that spring to mind are those located right on the fringe of residential neighborhoods. Now, I’m aware that today is not the most propitious moment in history to be considering the development of new ground-up housing, but every now and then something comes along that’s just too good to pass up, at least as far as land values are concerned. So a dealership that has been family-run for three generations in the same spot—what’s the land value there? Wouldn’t re-zoning for multifamily or mixed-use development on some of these properties make sense?

On the other hand, what if some portion of the vertical improvements (especially some of those bombastic, palatial homages to the muscle cars and mini-vans of yore with the soaring volumes and granite floors) could be saved and given new life with some minor tweaking? Adaptive re-use is such a wonderful exercise in resource sensitivity; it just requires the proper brilliant design team and a fearless developer. But what uses might work?

I’m thinking a school might be a good fit (at least for a dealership close to residential areas—for those located under freeway off-ramps, maybe not so much). There’s one major assembly area, then lots of support spaces around it to be used for classrooms. Actually, when I hear myself describe it that way, it sounds like a church might also be a good use, especially with all that convenient surface parking scattered around. (The really frustrating thing about a church, of course, is how much surface parking is really required. Talk about designing for the Easter crowd.)

But perhaps there’s a creative hybrid (note the subtle car reference) to be generated with one of these properties, in a mixed-use vein. I could see an enhanced neighborhood center/transit hub where the local (alternate fuel) shuttle stops to pick up people bound for the train station or other public transportation. It could be a small school, library and recreation facility with a tiny amount of retail and maybe a handful of executive suites. Then, build as much multifamily housing around this highly recognizable central element as could possibly fit, generating lots of residents to interact with this new multi-use facility.

The shuttle-to-transit provision could possibly help reduce the amount of parking required for the new residential units, as well as bring interest and activity to the re-purposed dealership building, not to mention reduce overall vehicle trips and greenhouse gas emissions. One might anticipate some municipalities shrieking at the specter of having a huge tax-generating facility re-purposed as something that makes a more modest contribution, but this is a case where the greater good—say the holistic health of the community—needs to be considered over the mere means of income.

Besides, as everyone already knows, this is not your father’s Oldsmobile.

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects. He can be reached at