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?