Vacant buildings

I find it interesting when something I’ve been thinking about but not written about suddenly shows up in Twitter and news media. Specifically, vacant buildings. Not talking about buildings that have been vacated during the pandemic, which may or may not see future use, but buildings that were vacant pre-pandemic, oftentime for years. The Sacramento central city has a lot of vacant buildings, most of them commercial spaces such as offices and warehouses, but some housing and retail as well.

The CityLab article The Case for a Duty to the City raises the issue and possible solutions to empty and underutilized buildings. It was highlighted in a Strong Towns UpZoned podcast “If you have a property in the city, you should not leave it empty.”, which brought me to it. And then today an article in the Sacramento Business Journal Cassadyne plans 50-unit apartment project in Midtown Sacramento (sorry about the firewall), about replacing empty parking lot with housing and an unused warehouse with parking.

I don’t have a solution for unused/underused/vacant buildings. Certainly the city should do everything it can to encourage adaptive reuse of functional buildings, or replacement when the building is no longer functional or can’t be repurposed for any use that is economically viable. But I’m also mostly a libertarian about property use, believing that people should do what they want with their property (while still not believing in the whole concept of private property). So I don’t think the city should force any particular development or use on a property owner, but sending economic signals that letting a building sit vacant is not in the best interest of the city, that is a valid function of a city.

Vacancy taxes or fees are one of the actions that has been proposed in other cities, particularly cities in Europe. I have mixed feelings. These might turn a project that is barely viable for a property owner into a decision to sell the land to a bigger developer who might be even less likely to move forward with productive use. So if there were to be a vacancy tax in Sacramento, I’d want an exclusion for any property that is owned by an individual rather than a corporation, or properties that are only a single traditional parcel (that has not been aggregated into a large parcel). That might actually encourage corporations to shed their small properties back to the market, so they could be picked up by smaller infill developers. More about small versus large developers, and preservation of traditional parcels, in a future posts.

Not knowing much specifically about this development proposal, I tend to think that the developer is providing too much parking, which will be underutilized, and which will promote vehicle ownership and use. But… I don’t think the city should prohibit that. It should, however, send a message that unproductive uses such as unneeded parking will have a cost, some sort of tax or fee on land used as parking. Or requiring that parking be unbundled from rent. Or requiring that the parking be available to the public through metering. Some policy that sends a message that excess parking is a societal harm rather than something to be promoted.

1500 S St infill

The house at 1500 S Street, and commercial building at 1506/1508 S Street, have been razed in preparation for a new development.

1500/1506/1508 S St, Sacramento

I am curious about redevelopment/infill projects in the central city because they have the potential to increase housing, allowing more people to live in the central city, improving economic vibrancy for businesses and property/sales tax for the government. At the same time, I know that perfectly viable Victorian houses have been torn down for redevelopment, so I’m not always in favor of these projects.

The house at 1500 S Street had been unoccupied for years. Same with the commercial building at 1506/1508 S Street. Houses on three adjacent lots were razed sometime between July 2015 and February 2018. As much detail as I was able to gather from Zillow and Google Earth historical imagery is below. I think it is interesting that the houses had survived for 95 years, 103 years, 101 years, and 108 years, whereas the commercial building lasted at most 36 years. So many commercial building are disposable, often not built to last, and not worth modifying or reconstructing. The house on the corner, 1500 S Street, looked to be in poor condition. I don’t know about the other three houses.

  • 1500 S St, house 926 sf, lot 3200 sf, 1926, gone 02/2021
  • 1506/1508 S St, building, built after 12/1985, gone 02/2021
  • 1512 S St, 3,129 sf, lot 6400 sf, 1915, present 7/2015, gone 5/2018
  • 1516 S St, 1,177 sf, lot 6400 sf, 1915, present 7/2015, gone 7/2016
  • 1522 S St, 876 sf, lot 6400 sf, 1910, present 7/2015, gone 2/2018

The combined lots sold for $5,125,000 in 2019.

The information I was able to find about plans for the location are: Anthem Acquires an Infill Project in Sacramento, Anthem Properties submits plan for site near R Street Corridor (2020-04-27, firewalled), and Downtown Sacramento Partnership 1500 S, all indicating a mixed use building of eight stories.

1500 S Street, from SacBiz

Sac Opportunity Zones

Opportunity Zones are something I’ve never paid much attention to, and don’t understand very well, so what follows is just information from a new report, National Opportunity Zones Ranking Report, by LOCUS and Smart Growth America. The report selects two of the 46 designated opportunity zones/census tracts in the county for ranking, 06067000700, western downtown, and 06067001101, eastern downtown and midtown, as shown on the map.

On the  ‘Top Opportunity Zones for Smart Growth Potential’ list, 0700 is in the ranking 3 band (of 6), and 0101 is in the ranking 4 band. On the ‘Top Social Equity and Vulnerable Places with High Smart Growth Potential’ list, 0700 is ranked 6 of 50, but 0101 is not on the list. On the ‘Top Opportunity Zones Markets for Office Asking Rents’ list, Sacramento is ranked 8 of 10, but it isn’t clear whether this is one or both census tracts. On the ‘Top Opportunity Zones for Office Asking Rents’ list, the two Sacramento tracts are ranked 47 and 47, with asking rents of $31.14 per square foot. On the ‘State (Top 10) Opportunity Zone Snapshots’ list for California, Sacramento 0700 is ranked 3 in the whole state.

What does this all mean? Well, I’m not sure. I hope that other people will chime in. I do note the following things:

  • The emphasis for Sacramento is on office space. I don’t think that is a good measure of a livable city, particularly one whose downtown is already overwhelmed by state offices. What downtown needs is people, not offices. But if the investment opportunity is in offices, that is what we will get.
  • The population of western downtown, 06067000700, is small, 2798 in 2012, and for 06067001101, 2082, though because it is much smaller 0700 has a population density of 13,990/sqmi while 1101 is only 3,413/sqmi.
  • Why do the other 44 opportunity zones in Sacramento county not show up? It could be because the have less opportunity for smart growth investment, or it could be because they have significant challenges on the SEVI (Social Equity + Social Vulnerability) scale. I’m not sure. See all the Sacramento region Opportunity Zones on the map below.

There is an interesting opinion article in the SacBee California Forum from May: Sacramento has its best shot in years at outside investment. Seize the opportunity. California has an interesting website at, but it doesn’t really answer my questions either.

Driving a stake through LOS

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research has completed the first step in replacing level of service (LOS) with vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as the primary measurement for determining the CEQA impact of development on roadways by drafting the replacement language. This process was specified in In the second step, the Natural Resources Agency is holding a public process to implement the changes, and you can participate. Two meetings have been scheduled:

Date: March 15, 2018
Time: 1:30-4:30pm
Location: California Energy Commission, Rosenfeld Hearing Room
1516 9th Street, Sacramento, CA 95814

Los Angeles
Date: March 14, 2018
Time: 1:30-4:30pm
Location: California Science Center, Annenberg Building, Muses Room
700 Exposition Park Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90037

You can also comment by email at

I hope that you will support the changes either in person or by email. The use of LOS has caused incalculable damage to roadways and to livability throughout California. CEQA, originally intended to protect the environment, as been used instead as a weapon to harm the environment and encourage sprawl. Urban infill could rarely meet the requirements of LOS in CEQA, but suburban development almost always could, so what we got is square miles of suburban and exurban sprawl, and very little infill. This change to VMT will at least level the playing field, and may make sprawl more difficult. I don’t know how much opposition there will be, but there are several interests that would like thing to stay just the way they are: engineers who want to build highways instead of transportation systems, greenfield developers who make huge profits while shifting costs to society, and cities and counties (you, Sacramento county, and others) who want to preserve their ability to encourage and subsidize far-flung development. If you like cities, if you like livability, if you like infill, this is one of the most important things that can happen.

Of course, this is only the second step in driving a stake through the heart of LOS. The third step is to ensure that all cities, counties, and regional agencies remove LOS as a tool in planning development and transportation. The legislation and these regulations will prevent exclusive use of LOS by any entity, but it does not preclude use of LOS as a additional criteria. LOS must be eliminated completely. The most important question in transportation and development is what kind of world we want to live in, and though VMT is only a tool for achieving that, it is far far better than the tools we currently use.

For all the details of the Natural Resources Agency process and regulation, see the CEQA page and the notice of rulemaking.


Within hours of Amazon announcing a competition to create a second headquarters, HQ2, mayors and governors all over the country were saying “Me, me, choose me.” Including Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. This is a mistake!

I don’t have anything against Amazon, they are a company with a business model that has been remarkably sucessful. I shop there, at least when I can’t easily find an item locally. Their prices are often remarkable. Yes, and I also feel hesitant or guilty each time. But this isn’t about Amazon.

I’m also not against jobs. And I’m also not against development, though I certainly prefer small-scale development to large-scale development. A headquarters with 50,000 employees is something that would overwhelm all but the very largest cities. Sacramento is not among those cities. 

What this is about is about a city (and regional and state) economic model that says we can’t get anything good unless we soak the taxpayers for a subsidy. In this case, Amazon is asking for a huge subsidy from whatever locale “wins” the competition. 

On the positive, Amazon includes the requirement: “Direct access to rail, train, subway/metro, bus routes”. But they also seem quite willing to be in the suburbs, on a greenfield site, only asking within 30 miles of the city center. In the case of Sacramento, that includes Davis, El Dorado Hills, Roseville. Ack!

The RFP then gets to the heart of the matter, money!

Capital and Operating Costs – A stable and business-friendly environment and tax structure will be high-priority considerations for the Project. Incentives offered by the state/province and local communities to offset initial capital outlay and ongoing operational costs will be significant factors in the decision-making process. 

Incentives – Identify incentive programs available for the Project at the state/province and local levels. Outline the type of incentive (i.e. land, site preparation, tax credits/exemptions, relocation grants, workforce grants, utility incentives/grants, permitting, and fee reductions) and the amount. The initial cost and ongoing cost of doing business are critical decision drivers.

In other words, we will consider you if you come up with a bigger bribe than anyone else. I doubt that Sacramento can compete in this arena, but more to the point, no one should be in this competition. Amazon is a very successful company. They don’t need our subsidy to be successful.

So, back to the title #JustSayNoToAmazon. I’m not suggesting that Sacramento decline on its own. I’m suggesting that big city mayors show some true leadership, meet with each other, and, as a unified whole, decline the Amazon offer. This is a chance for Mayor Steinberg to show some real leadership and not just be a booster for failed economic models. 

Articles and posts on the Amazon plan are proliferating, but let me suggest two: