Downtown Runs High in Vacancies

Increased numbers of vacant buildings and office space in the downtown’s Special Business District illustrate the impact of the economic recession and downtown’s diminution as the city’s focal point.

Currently there are 34 vacant commercial properties available for lease in the district, but not enough bold entrepreneurs to open up shop.

Business meccas outside of downtown encompassing North Stadium, Grindstone and the Broadway Market Place push Columbia’s commercial industry away from its center because of their proximity to residential development and large corporate outlets. Their increased number of customers only attracts more development to areas on the outskirts of town because there is more space there than in downtown’s back alleyways.

According to the district’s report, 34 vacancies comprise seven percent of all downtown commercial properties. District Executive Director Carrie Gartner said in an email interview that vacancies typically make up three to seven percent of downtown business properties.

“This is the highest I’ve seen for three main reasons: the economy, historic rehab projects, which usually take about a year to complete, and a few key retirements [of businesses] that have been here for 20 years and the owner retires without passing along the business,” Gartner said.

Unfortunately, the district does not track vacancies over time so a comparison to previous years was not available.

The solution to downtown’s limited area is simple.

“We need to grow and to do that, we need to build high density–we need to build up,” Gartner said.

Looking to the sky is easier said than done due to development financing and determining whether there is a current demand for new space when there is already seven percent vacancy in existing space.

Existing tools including the city’s 2006 Sazaki plan and the Downtown Leadership Council’s 2009 report help point downtown revitalization to a higher level.

The City Council’s vote on two Tax-Increment Financing applications on Monday, July 20, will provide the first signs of a heightened intensity for downtown development should the council approve the proposals.

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