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Saturday, July 11, 2015

An Rx for abandoned buildings

In the last six weeks I've driven around the eastern USA instead of flying overseas. I am astonished by how many abandoned buildings I saw: small and large homes, retail businesses and restaurants, offices and factories, etc. Some are dilapidated eyesores, others are relatively new and intact. Some were odd businesses that probably never had much objective chance of success, and in those cases there surely are stories of heartbreak lurking in the vacant spaces. Others reflected a changing economy, whether B2B (especially manufacturing) or B2C. Shifting highways and rail lines were an influence, too. Some are located in depressed urban or depopulating rural areas, others in areas of otherwise thriving cities that have left the 1950 and 1960s behind. But they're all empty and deteriorating. It wouldn't surprise me if there is enough empty square footage in America to house all our homeless and to employ all our idle workers.

Given that those idealistic outcomes are unlikely, what do we do with this excess real estate? Detroit's experience in razing unoccupied homes is a clue. First we must address the fact that the American society, overall, clearly prefers erecting new buildings to reusing old ones. There are many reasons: rapid evolution of building codes and occupant expectations (i.e. data networking), not wanting to pay the high costs of abating asbestos, a quest for energy efficiency. Our economy is historically skewed toward the construction of new buildings. But this preference for new can be redirected. Surely it seems like madness to visiting Europeans who customarily live, work, shop, and eat in buildings that are at least a century old. Americans, in contrast, discard buildings as disdainfully as last week's newspaper.

I propose a "construction tax" imposed on new buildings but not on reuse of existing buildings. Right away we'd see a shift toward renovation. Put the proceeds of the construction tax into a trust fund managed by each state. Adopt a law that when a building has been idle for x continuous years, perhaps 10, a city or county is authorized to conclude that the building is irredeemable — and then the local government could draw on the trust fund to seize the property under eminent domain (with due compensation to the owner!), demolish the building, return the site to grass and trees, and sell the site at auction.

What do you think?