What's the Deal with that Vacant Space? 5 Case Studies from the Brighton Section of Boston, Massachusetts (a designated Urban Main Street District)

DanitaJo Talbot - Friday, March 29, 2019

Everyone who visits a downtown area has two questions: Why is that space vacant, and what can we do about it? Commercial vacancies present problems everywhere from Manhattan to Main Street, USA. The Brighton Main Streets Economic Development Committee has identified a few reasons why properties can remain vacant and brainstormed strategies to address the problem.

1️⃣ Small square footage. Example: 10 Tremont

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At only 850 SF, a property like 10 Tremont is too small for a dine-in restaurant. In those smaller storefronts you might see a restaurant that only has a takeout counter and no seating.

Interventions: Knock two of these smaller storefronts together. Recruit a popup shop. What about Amazon lockers or some other creative use? Can you think of any types of businesses that activate the ground level via foot traffic, but don’t need a ton of space?

2️⃣ Listed at a slightly higher-than-market rate. Example: 470 Washington

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The property at 470 Washington is listed a little higher than comparable commercial space in the area. That’s why you’ll see mostly chain stores going into the spot, and longer lead times to fill vacancies. Larger property owners can afford to sit on a property and wait for a tenant to come along. Chain stores take a long time to work out lease deals, too.

3️⃣ Expensive buildout. Example: 420 Market

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The iconic building at the corner of Market and Washington sat vacant for years. A bank leased it and put in huge concrete slabs for ATM machines (and other security reinforcements, such as blocking off rear egress). Then the bank’s expansion plans were struck down in antitrust litigation. Few local businesses could afford the cost of fitting out the space for their own needs. Luckily, this space is now leased. But it’s a good example of a vacancy caused by prohibitive buildout costs.

Interventions: help secure creative financing (possibly combination of crowdfunding and grants?) so an independent business afford to rehab an undesirable commercial space.What other local services, help, and incentives are available to help build out a space that needs extensive work? We are talking anywhere from $100k to $500k of funding needed.

4️⃣ Negligent slumlord-style property owners.

We won’t be providing photos or examples for this one! But, sometimes a property owner is simply greedy (a situation not limited to commercial retail landlords). They may be aggressive and harass their tenants. They refuse to make repairs to HVAC, or stop clearing snow from the parking lot. Finally, they get a reputation for being poor landlords and tenants are hard to come by. This type of landlord sometimes preys on women or immigrant business owners who may be less likely to fight back.

Interventions: this situation calls for legal or policy changes that are outside the scope of our work in the district, although we can certainly advocate at the city or state government level.What kinds of incentives or penalties would you put in place for bad landlords?

5️⃣ Property not for lease at any price. Example: 329 Washington

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We don’t know the exact situation with 329 Washington, but we know the storefronts are not available to be leased.There are several reasons that a property owner might allow a space to remain vacant without seeking a tenant, however.

  • The space is vacant, but someone is paying the lease on the empty space. This happens more frequently than you might expect. Huge corporations often close a branch but continue to pay the lease for ten years or more. All passersby see is a “problem property”.
  • The property is tied up in probate, or held in trust by a large family who are working out details of a sale. Properties may be jointly held by a LLC whose partners are quarreling, or a couple dividing assets in a divorce. These things take time.
  • Property owners are waiting for their asset to appreciate so they can sell. Or, collecting rent on the residential units above and waiting for folks to move out so they can sell the property vacant. This also takes time.

You can check out the City of Boston assessor’s database to see who owns a particular property. If the owner is a corporation or partnership, you can find more information on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts corporations database. Always feel free to contact the realtor or property manager of a building. Finally, reach out to us at Brighton Main Streets any time you want to chat vacancies. Before you know it, you’ll be in deep, joining the Economic Development committee to find solutions to the vacancy problem!


Field Report Friday: Daniel's Bakery and Retail Visioning

Aidan McDonough - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

On March 29, we met with Wanda Silva of Daniel's Bakery in Brighton.

Retail Visioning helps retailers, restaurateurs and other storefront business owners create attractive environments that work hard to help provide a great customer experience. Retail Visioning also helps business owners create compelling marketing and promotional efforts. Whether in social media, in print, in your customer service or in your shop… the power of presentation is key to your success.


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