Fed up with vacant storefronts, residents force cities to punish retail landlords

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Coast to coast, bustling retail meccas used to embody a decidedly American pastime: shop till you drop.

But empty storefronts across the U.S. have cropped up in places that go far beyond the “retail apocalypse” that has battered suburban malls — and some municipalities are fed up.

From retail corridors nestled in some of New York’s trendiest neighborhoods to wealthy bedroom communities just outside of Boston, vacancy signage is becoming more common than glitzy placards announcing a big sale.

Local governments, wary of landlords who choose to keep their properties empty — sometimes for months and years in the hopes of landing a deep-pocketed tenant — are now responding by exacting financial penalties against these proprietors.

“There was uproar from residents over what these [landlords] were doing and how they were getting away with murder,” said Ali Carter, the economic development coordinator for Arlington, Massachusetts. “Residents just see a vacant storefront and wish it was a coffee shop or bookstore. They’re peeved.”

Arlington began its measure in early 2017. It requires landlords to register with the city and charges them $400 annually for each vacant storefront. When the fees were first levied, there were 17 empty storefronts in Arlington Center. Only six remained by the end of the year.

Larger cities, like New York and Boston, are mulling similar measures. Retail vacancies in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood were up to 11.3% in June — and some parts of SoHo have even hit 20%. In Boston, vacancy rates on the city’s high street of shopping, Newbury Street, were around 10% at the end of 2017. A retail vacancy rate of 5% is generally accepted as the industry standard for a healthy market, according to brokers.

But landlords and developers suggest vacancy fees are not the best solution.


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