Feb 03, 2011 Ami Olson Uncategorized
If you don’t know exactly what you have to offer, you’re already selling yourself short.
That’s the philosophy behind an initiative to create a comprehensive database of the vacant and underutilized commercial properties in the entire city of Syracuse.
As of May, the Division of Code Enforcement listed 1,650 vacant buildings in the city. In December, that number had ticked up to 1,863.
“Our goal is to know the story on every piece of commercial property in the city,” said Ben Walsh, the city’s deputy commissioner of Neighborhood and Business Development. “We want to be the central clearinghouse of information.”
Keeping up to date on that number, plus the number of properties that are used but not to their full potential, will be no small task. Using resources that already exist Walsh is optimistic that the department will be able to compile and maintain an up-to-date record of commercial properties
No small task
This is a giant undertaking, Walsh recognized, and one that has not been attempted before in Syracuse.
“Previously and for good reason we’ve primarily depended on the real estate community” to keep track of available properties, Walsh said.
But knowing the full depth of the problem of empty storefronts and unused commercial space will be critical in solving the problem.
“Having the information is the important part because you need to have the information before you can identify what the challenges are,” Walsh said.
It’s a method that worked for the Downtown Committee, a not-for-profit that essentially exists to promote living and working in the downtown district of Syracuse.
In 1997, the Downtown Committee released its first economic development report and launched its own database of commercial properties within the district, providing a working model for the city-wide clearinghouse.
The Downtown Committee’s Director of Economic Development Merike Treier said having access to that kind of comprehensive clearinghouse allows the Downtown Committee to act as a matchmaker between interested parties, like potential developers, and private real estate brokers.
She said the entire downtown district stands as evidence of how that tool has helped. The district, bordered on the north by Route 690, the east by I-81, the south by Adams Street and the west by Onondaga Creek, includes a fraction of the city’s commercial properties.
“It’s always been lucky that we had that information at our fingertips,” Treier said. “It would be wonderful to have that citywide.”
A master list of vacant and available commercial properties throughout the city has never been established, though several entities maintain records of such properties for their own purposes, Walsh said.
Fire, codes and water departments all keep track of vacant spaces for their own use, but each department uses a different set of criteria for their lists.
Using those existing records, Walsh said the city could overlay what information is already available and fill in the holes with help from the community organizations.
So far the city has already linked to the Eastwood Chamber of Commerce, Northside Urban Partnership, the Near Westside Initiative, Jubilee Homes and other neighborhood economic organizations.
The city provides a template of what the final property list should look like, and the community groups use their resources to fill in the information.
In Eastwood, Stephen Skinner of the Eastwood Chamber of Commerce said the project is young but the community is committed to improving the neighborhood.
“The Eastwood community is fed up with vacant and blighted buildings,” Skinner said. “The residents that live here are the ones that suffer most. It’s hard to lift up a community and teach a new generation to be responsible when all our young people see are buildings that are falling apart.”
One of the advantages of the citywide clearinghouse would be the ability to identify the worst problem areas in a given neighborhood, pockets of vacancies that could be targeted, Walsh said.
Skinner said the Eastwood community already knows its number one priority: the corner of James Street and Midler Avenue, where the former Steak and Sundae structure sits empty and boarded up, along with a strip of smaller storefronts.
But empty buildings aren’t the only target of the project. Underutilized properties are also a huge problem, Walsh said, most commonly a building with an active commercial site on the ground floor with empty, unused residential space on the top floors.
Just the beginning
Both Walsh and Treier recognized creating a partnership with the private real estate community could pose a challenge at first.
“Real estate is often times a competitive industry where information privacy is an important component,” Walsh said.
Developing a relationship that allows both the real estate community and the city to have the most comprehensive and up to date information can be a win-win, but it will take time, he said.