How To Slow the Wave of Commercial Vacancies

Empty storefronts depress property values and suppress small business growth. What can cities do to fill these vacancies?

May 24, 2022, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

A vacant department store in Coolidge, Arizona.

Chris Curtis / Shutterstock

Writing in Next City, Ilana Preuss outlines a set of solutions for reviving urban commercial properties left vacant in recent years. “Our downtowns had suffered from commercial vacancies long before the pandemic, but COVID-19 expanded the problem dramatically,” Preuss writes. This matters because “Vacancies have a major negative impact on our downtowns and neighborhood centers, depressing surrounding property values, encouraging more neglect and suppressing the growth of small businesses.”

But how to fill these “debilitating vacancies?” Preuss has some ideas. “Fortunately, we know a lot about how to grow local businesses, especially small-scale manufacturers, and prepare them to make the transition from home-based or shared space enterprises to brick-and-mortar stores. The challenge is to match their needs with those of the owners of vacant storefronts.”

The article outlines the varied reasons why storefronts remain vacant, from renovation costs to mismatches between business needs and available properties. “Against this backdrop, innovative approaches are needed,” Preuss writes. “One option is to increase the adoption of vacant property ordinances, which typically impose added fees on properties left vacant long-term.” Cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C. recently imposed vacancy taxes, for example.

“Another option is to use tax increment financing or other local funding vehicles to provide matching grants to property owners for storefront buildout with signed tenants, as does Longmont, Colorado’s Downtown Development Authority.” According to Preuss, “This option can be applied in markets where the cost of construction isn’t justified by current lease rates, and it can make storefront space affordable to small businesses.”

The article lists other options, such as encouraging local ownership of commercial properties and investing in land trusts, which can work well in different markets. Moving forward from the pandemic, Preuss asserts, requires taking steps to revitalize downtowns and move forward as the pandemic eases.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022 in Next City

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