MMA Innovation Award winner, From The Beacon, February 2018

In June 2015, Arlington had 17 vacant commercial properties in its central business district, many of which had been vacant for a year or more. By September 2017, that number had dropped to five, thanks in part to a bylaw approved by Arlington Town Meeting in October 2016.

The Vacant Commercial and Industrial Property Registry bylaw aims to reduce the number of vacant storefronts by requiring property owners to register their vacancies with the Department of Planning and Community Development. Owners pay an annual registration fee of $400 per vacant storefront, though the fee can be waived for property owners who either demonstrate financial hardship or who choose to display public art in their storefront.

The bylaw also requires property owners to state their efforts to fill the vacancy and to maintain the property, such as by repairing broken windows and addressing any unsafe conditions. Property owners who do not meet the bylaw requirements face a fine of $100 per day.

Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine spoke with The Beacon about the new bylaw in January 2017, saying that he understood it to be the first bylaw in Massachusetts that specifically addressed retail storefront vacancies.

Since implementation, the bylaw has empowered the town to have productive conversations with property owners that weren’t happening before the registry started, Chapdelaine said.

For instance, the owner of one building with four storefronts came in to meet with officials and argue against the registry’s creation, but the outcome of the meeting proved beneficial to both sides.

“We were able to discuss what he was doing to fill the vacancies,” Chapdelaine said. “He was able to talk about plans he had to fill one, and we were able to bring up other concerns. Within a week, he had the rear part of the building cleaned up. A part of that was it wasn’t a letter, or an email. It was a face-to-face conversation with someone that had an impact on the way he’s taking care of his property.”

Chapdelaine said that the registry itself might not be the right tool for every community, depending on resources, but that the collaborative effort across town departments is what’s needed to combat the problem of vacant storefronts.

“It did take a collaborative effort from the building inspector, planning and economic development, our GIS coordinator, to town counsel,” he said. “It really took a multi-department approach to implement this legally, fairly and efficiently.”

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