Looking at ways to ­address retail vacancies, blight in Concord

Over the years in Concord, I’ve had many conversations with neighbors and friends about various shopping centers that have vacant storefronts and properties that are in less than desirable shape (to put it nicely).

I have also had many discussions with my colleagues on the Planning Commission and City Council members about certain shopping centers or buildings with these vacancies.

Most of the time, I hear words like “blight” or “eyesore.” And, there’s often frustration that the city isn’t doing something about it.

A challenging issue

On one hand, some folks fiercely defend their rights as property owners to do (or not do) whatever they want with their property. As a property owner, I understand and respect property owner rights, but I also believe the city should have the tools and ability to encourage (the carrot approach) or require (the stick approach) a certain level of upkeep.

The city has codes that address blight with fines, but what constitutes blight is not always clear. The city has no mechanism to address vacancies. But should it? I don’t know the right answer.

San Francisco recently addressed this issue with Prop. D to establish a graduated annual tax on vacant commercial properties in certain areas. Because the measure was a tax, it needed a two-thirds vote. It passed with 69.8 percent voting yes. Prop. D seeks to address one reason behind neighborhood commercial vacancies: landlords who intentionally keep properties vacant to hold out for a higher-paying tenant.

Would a vacancy tax work here?

I don’t know if this is the case in Concord. Would a vacancy tax encourage landlords to make improvements to their property to attract tenants? Would it encourage leasing at a more reasonable rate? Or, would it penalize landlords already struggling to attract tenants?

Aside from landlords, commercial vacancies can be caused by a number of other factors, including the high cost of construction, the lengthy process to get a construction permit and low consumer demand.

The city has struggled to find the right approach to blight and vacancies. I’d love to hear your ideas and would be happy to share them with our City Council and staff members. Drop me a note at the email below.

Jason Laub is Chief Operating Officer at RAD Urban and is a City of Concord Planning Commissioner. Email questions or comments to jlaub.concordplanning@gmail.com