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.