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.

Fresno county is sinking, so punches holes in the ship

“You have no conceivable way of raising the money you need to build the new facilities to enhance your existing operations, much less provide for the growth.” – Mike Prandini, president of the Building Industry Association of Fresno and Madera counties (Fresno County supervisors suspend — but don’t eliminate — building fees charged to developers Fresno Bee 2015-02-10)

What he meant, I think, is that since no amount of developer fees could possibly pay for the expense to the county of greenfield development, that the county might as well just continue the practice of subsidizing greenfield development with taxpayer general funds, so as to not make the beneficiaries of new development, the developers and home buyers, pay anything at all. This is insanity.

When the ship is sinking, might as well deep-six it. Full speed ahead with development, though the iceberg looms dead ahead.

Thanks to Strong Towns for the reference.

Sacramento and the 12 strategies

Several Sacramento area people have referenced the article “12 Strategies That Will Transform Your City’s Downtown” on the UrbanScale blog by John Karras. I’d like to look a little more closely at some of the strategies. If you have information or thoughts about any of these, please contribute.

#1 Turn one-way streets into two-way streets. Sacramento, and specifically downtown/midtown, has most of the one-way streets in the region. The city does have a policy to convert some of these streets, but the effort stalled, and no one seems to know why or be willing to admit why. Several streets have been resurfaced recently without being converted, though this would be the perfect time to do it. These include H, I, 9th, and 10th. There are some costs to conversion, turning signals around or installing new signals in some cases, the the reward in walkability and retail success is worth it. The post says “One-way streets are great if your only goal is to channel traffic through your downtown, but they are bad for pedestrian activity and retail opportunities.  Two-way streets create a more comfortable pedestrian environment and have been shown to increase property values.” J Street in Sacramento is a classic example of how one-way streets reduce retail business. All those thousands of cars streaming by the most dense retail street in the region, and only small bubbles of successful retail to show for it. I’m glad Karras has this one on the top, because it is one of my strongest desires, with many blog posts: Two-waying streets in SFNew bike lanes, diets and sharrows downtownstreet changesmore on conversion to two-way streets, and Choosing streets to walk.

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Sprawl

20120419-200953.jpgThis week’s Sacramento News and Review (Thursday, April 29, 2012) has a feature story titled “Onward, Sprawl,” highlighting the impacts of the passion for growth of Sacramento County, Folsom, Rancho Cordova, and Elk Grove. I highly recommend a read. The Sacramento Bee has a short article in the Wednesday, April 18 edition titled “County kicks off plan for Hwy 16 growth,” yet another area for development east and south of the developed area of the county.

It will be impossible to serve these new developments with a functional transit system. RT is already not able to serve the sprawling suburbs of Sacramento county, and these developments are much further out from the central cores that contains most of the jobs in this area. Neither light rail nor bus service works when the distances are great and the ridership small, as it would be for these far-flung areas. Driving will increase, more and wider roads will be needed, traffic will be induced, and those people looking for respite from an auto-dominated landscape will feel a need to move even further out, to get away from it all.

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