OPINION: Almost every town centre has one. A rundown neglected building that has sat vacant for years. For local communities, these buildings represent a frustrating eyesore, a missed opportunity to recreate it into a business or a public space and ultimately a physical manifestation of economic decline if left to deteriorate.
For the landowner, it’s often a land banking opportunity. It’s in their best interest to keep the building empty, to avoid maintenance and upkeep costs and continue paying low rates on a diminished value – as a beautifully maintained, well tenanted property would attract a higher capital value.
It’s a stubborn problem seen throughout town centres caused by detached absentee landowners. Often based overseas, they’re differentiated from those landowners who are active and involved in the community.
Whilst most landowners demonstrate immense care for their properties (and tenants), this small group of landowners are not only physically, but emotionally, disconnected from the property they own and the impact that their persistent long-term vacancy has on the community. They don’t want the hassle of being a landlord so they let perfectly good properties sit vacant for a long time, and in turn, contribute negatively to urban blight in the area.
The impact of the ‘invest and neglect’ business practice and existence of urban blight adversely impacts the economic wellbeing of a city and has a deleterious effect upon neighbouring commercial and residential properties. Even more so in these challenging times ahead.
As a form of community protest to clean up urban blight in our precinct, members of the Parnell community brightened up a prominent neglected building (left vacant for more than a decade) with a floor-length floral window wrap to camouflage the run-down outside facade. This happened against a backdrop of numerous attempts (via the business association, leasing agents and neighbouring landowners), to contact the landowner to lease or even sell the site. He wasn’t interested and declined every offer that was brought to him. This situation isn’t unique to Parnell either.
What is incredibly frustrating is that absentee landowners do not fully realise the impact their empty and unkempt sites have on local businesses that reside there. Not only does it leave a bad impression on the community, it has flow-on effects that impact rentals by making adjacent sites harder to lease and it can lead to increased criminal activity and safety threats.
Unfortunately, when it comes to taking action against absentee landowners, current New Zealand legislation is very limiting. Councils and local authorities can’t force private landowners to lease their premises or maintain their buildings unless it is deemed a health and safety risk. And globally it would seem town centres are clearly struggling with the same issue.
From a placemaking point of view, the UK have done some good groundwork on this, first by introducing a Rating Act in 2008, to incentivise landowners to tenant their premises and now in a post-Covid era, they have set up a special High Street Task Force to rejuvenate town centres with a focus on helping communities reimagine and revitalise their high streets.
There are also examples in Scotland of community buy back schemes, and several cities in the US have developed tactics to assist city governments to address long-term vacancies. This includes measures such as Council run ‘Land Banks’ that attempt to restore thousands of vacant properties to productive use via acquisition and resale. I’m in favour of initiatives like this, but I am also very aware they take a long time to legislate.
Another initiative closer to home is Renew Australia. This national social enterprise involves placing creative projects and community initiatives in vacant spaces with short-term, rent-free leases. Activating under-utilised office and retail spaces, especially in a post-Covid world where more commercial vacancies are inevitable, is a fantastic idea. Whilst this isn’t a perfect model, as you can’t force all landowners to participate, at least they are getting pressure from another source to offer community and creative start-ups the opportunity to activate their space temporarily.
What we’re seeing overseas reinforces the fact we need mechanisms in place where local councils have jurisdiction or are enabled to take action against absentee landowners. Currently, these issues are left on our shoulders, but our toolbox is limited as we have no power to exercise any authority.
We don’t want to fall into the mindset that when buildings stay empty for so long you almost come to accept the void they represent, where the old adage of broken window syndrome starts to ring true. Blight begets blight. We can’t allow these landowners and their run-down, vacant properties to allow urban decay into our communities. It’s antisocial, and frankly, disrespectful to not care about the community you reside in.
Now is the time to have an open discussion and assessment around these types of issues as it will help bring about a more balanced solution. Landowner negotiations are a complex issue and we know there’s no blanket rule for all – however, it’s critical we find a way forward to motivate absentee landowners to activate their vacant spaces to improve the vibrancy in our neighbourhoods. This is critical in a post-Covid era. More importantly, we need council and local MP support on this. We urgently need change and the dialogue on this issue must happen now.
Cheryl Adamson is general manager of the Parnell Business Association.
Stuff 22 July 2020