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From the Roundtable: Worries about commercial vacancies must broaden beyond The District

From the Roundtable: Worries about commercial vacancies must broaden beyond The District

Al Germond

Another structure was added to Columbia’s roster of empty buildings recently when Everett’s restaurant wound up its affairs, taking with it another stream of sales tax revenue.

While there’s been concern about sales taxes falling short of projections—and about the resulting effect on funding for government operations—the community seems lethargic and disinterested about the growing list of unoccupied commercial structures, such as the Everett’s building.

Right now, the spotlight of concern is concentrated on downtown Columbia because it’s the city core as well as the hub of both city and county government operations. Salutary efforts to restore and maintain the downtown area find a cadre of developers who’ve been buying and restoring some of these older buildings, often finding creative new uses for many of the orphan structures.

While focusing on the city center is important, I’m also concerned about the pattern of vacancy and under-utilization of structures along an inner belt of streets lying less than a mile or two from the city center. While investors and developers deliberately leave some buildings unoccupied while tracts of land lie fallow, buildings such as the former Everett’s restaurant could end up sitting vacant for a long time for one reason or another.

Of course I could be stung, as I write this a few days before going to press, with the announcement that another restaurant will occupy that building; the location is simply too good to pass up.

Thinking of prime locations, imagine a renaissance at the northeast corner of Providence Road and Business Loop 70 East and the vacant building where Dell Cornell Lincoln-Mercury operated for many years. With the adjoining one-time King’s Food Host Restaurant site to the east, this tract would seem an ace for development if not for the Missouri Department of Transportation’s driveway restrictions—to wit, no access from Providence Road. I predict an astute developer will merge this property with the tract north of it that fronts on Nebraska Avenue, and—voila!—there’s another access.

I’ll leave it up to you to determine which unoccupied building or vacant tract of land is an eyesore. Visitors frequently ask why such-and-such building is empty or why some piece of property seemingly blessed as an ideal location for some enterprise just sits there with a “for rent” or “for sale” sign in the window. I know some property owners grow tired of—perhaps even resent to the point of anger—the relentless stream of questions about a particular address, but it is their business to, within the law, do with their holdings as they please. So there they sit.

What we’ve seen—and it’s hardly unique to Columbia—is the laudable effort to salvage and maintain the city’s core while mega-scale shopping facilities have developed on the city’s periphery in response to bursts of further-out residential development. At the same time, a “rot” of sorts has sprung up just beyond the city center on, say, Business Loop 70 in areas that never have been either chic or glamorous but still are prime because they are readily accessible.

The ongoing resurgence of downtown Columbia recalls a time not very long ago when many buildings were on the market at a beggar’s price and owners would have taken almost any offer that came along. The opposite is true today, as an ambitious crew of younger developers not only snaps up these buildings but takes aggressive chances flirting with the rules—as was the case with the Great Ninth Street Balcony Imbroglio.

I—and quite a few others—would love to know the vacancy percentage of commercial property, but I’ve been told that investigating and reporting that number would be a statistical exercise no agency—government or otherwise—could afford to take on. While I know the commercial real estate vacancy rate continues to rise because I pass more and more for-sale and for-rent signs across the community, here’s hoping we don’t allow this temporary (I hope) situation to fester and get ugly.

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