Anyone who walks the streets of Boston in 2019 can tell it’s an exciting time in our city. While Boston has its challenges, we are fortunate to have a historically low unemployment rate, thriving industries, and a growing population. Our city’s vibrant small business districts are both a cause and a consequence of this prosperity. Yet visiting those business districts presents a paradox: why do some storefronts on bustling main streets remain vacant year after year?
Boston, like many high-cost cities around the world, faces a persistent problem of long-term vacancies. As the old problem of urban blight recedes, prosperity brings with it an opposite challenge: commercial rents too high for local small businesses to fill empty space. Periodic vacancies of a few months or even a year are a normal part of a bustling business district, and no landlord should be begrudged the occasional turnover necessary to bring their property to its best use. Yet vacancies of five years, ten years or even longer in otherwise prosperous business districts have no place on a healthy main street.
The causes of long-term vacancy are many, from charging a rent that is too high to keep a tenant, not offering a property for rent while waiting for its value to rise, using losses from vacant space to offset taxes, changes in retail from online commerce, or even the City permitting process. Some of these challenges can be tackled by local government, while others are beyond our power to address. What is clear is that no matter what the cause is or where the vacant property is located, vacancy creates holes in the fabric of our neighborhoods. At it worst, vacancy creates a negative spiral: perennially empty storefronts reduce foot traffic, which hurts neighboring businesses, which can then create more vacancies. In one block on Boylston Street with multiple vacancies, small business owners have reported a 25% reduction in revenue as vacancy spreads.
At the Boston City Council hearing I hosted on the vacancy problem along with my colleague, Council President Andrea Campbell, we heard from residents, business groups, and city officials eager to solve this issue. We learned that while long-term vacancy is at times due to the economic and tax incentives of a large landlord, it is also a result of legacy owners unfocused on benefiting from their property. The hearing highlighted the efforts of Arlington to tackle an epidemic of vacant storefronts in their downtown area through a modest $400 annual fee. The popular policy brought landlords and the city’s economic development department to the table, reducing Arlington’s downtown vacancies by 40%.
Boston needs similar tools in our economic development toolbox-- not to penalize landlords, but to benefit the small businesses who should have access to vacant space. Such policies win high marks from residents who deserve thriving main streets in their neighborhoods. My hope is that any vacancy fee would raise $0, as landlords of long-term vacant storefronts step up and do the right thing. In turn, the City should partner with them by streamlining the permitting for pop-up locations that activate the streetscape while waiting for a long-term tenant. When a restaurant deal at the Roslindale substation fell through, the landlord and local main streets organization came together to bring pop-up beer halls to the space temporarily. The resulting foot traffic has benefited every business in the area while helping local brewers like Turtle Swamp Brewery test out a second location.
Not every main street is like Roslindale Village, and others like Dudley Square or Egleston Square may need more carrots than sticks to end long-term vacancies. But this vacancy initiative, and the data collection to accompany it, will help us think differently about the space within our shared city. With Boston’s property in such high demand, letting storefronts sit unused for years is a disservice to the neighboring businesses and people being priced out of Boston. I foresee new business owners given a chance, pop-up art galleries and studios, new services for our neighborhoods, and more uses we have yet to imagine if we succeed at replacing vacancy with vibrancy in the City of Boston.