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JGMA’s innovative Kmart-to-school conversion opens in Waukegan

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The project makes smart use of a blighted suburban eye-sore

Brian Fritz Photography

This week, students of Waukegan’s Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep officially moved into their new—and unorthodox—campus inside a converted Kmart store. Designed by Chicago-based Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects, the state-of-the-art educational facility is a brightly-colored triumph of adaptive reuse.

While the abandoned 120,000-square-foot big-box store at 3106 Belvidere Road proved to be a solution to overcrowding at CRSM’s previous 30,000-square-foot facility at Waukegan’s St. Joseph Parish complex, it also required a creative approach by its design team.

Instead of turning its back to the wetlands to the north, the designers at JGMA chose to embrace it as an amenity.

Bringing daylight into the space was key to transforming the tall, windowless structure. To achieve this, the front of the former Kmart was punched with a playful pattern of windows while multiple skylights were added to its roof. The building’s original concrete floors were polished to reflect sunlight through the glass walls of its classrooms and science labs.

The $18.5 million project wasn’t just limited to remaking the building’s interior. The exterior facade needed to signal that the site’s days as a blighted shopping center were in the past. JGMA’s low cost, high impact solution was to create a new canopy and paint the existing CMU block masonry in the school’s bright color scheme of blue, green and yellow.

Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep is one of 32 Catholic educational institutions that make up the nonprofit Cristo Rey network that serves families with limited financial resources. The schools integrate college preparatory academics with professional experience via a corporate work-study partnership.

In the case of CRSM, more than 80 Lake County companies including health sector giants like Abbott Labs, Baxter, and Takeda Pharmaceutical have partnered with the school. Project contractor McShane Construction Company as well as designer JGMA have also stepped up to mentor and employ students.

Initially occupying 53,000 square feet—or roughly half of the hulking building’s footprint—Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep will have plenty of room to grow. Future phases of the project will see the remainder of the structure converted to additional laboratories, fine arts facilities, a gymnasium, and a chapel.

With retail vacancy becoming an issue in many suburban communities across the United States, this transformative Chicago area adaptive reuse project is certain to catch the eye of other municipalities struggling with blighted malls and big-box stores of their own.

Brian Fritz Photography
Brian Fritz Photography
Brian Fritz Photography
Brian Fritz Photography
Brian Fritz Photography