Arlington targets vacant commercial properties downtown

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Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, January 2017
A number of darkened storefronts in Arlington’s downtown have led to a new bylaw that requires commercial property owners to register their vacancies with the town.
The bylaw, passed by Town Meeting last Oct. 19 but still under review by the Attorney General’s Office, also requires property owners to state their efforts to fill the vacancy and to maintain the property, such as repairing broken windows and addressing any unsafe conditions.
An annual registration fee will be set each year by the Board of Selectmen. Property owners who do not meet the bylaw’s requirements will face a fine of $100 per day.
Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine said the bylaw arose from concerns expressed by town officials and citizens about the number of storefront vacancies. A survey conducted last June found 17 available properties and 23,000 square feet of available commercial space in Arlington Center.
“Our goal is to get the storefronts filled – it’s not to penalize property owners,” Chapdelaine said. “The purpose is to maintain the vibrancy of our commercial districts. … My understanding is that it’s the first [bylaw in Massachusetts] that spoke specifically to retail storefront vacancies.”
Town Counsel Doug Heim, who drafted the bylaw, said cities such as San Francisco and Everett, Wash., have more complex ordinances that address the same issue of commercial vacancies. While drafting Arlington’s bylaw, he looked to those ordinances and similar bylaws in other Massachusetts communities that focus on residential foreclosures and abandoned properties.
What differentiates Arlington’s bylaw from similar vacant property bylaws and ordinances in Massachusetts is its focus on commercial properties and economic vitality, Heim said.
“We want to make sure folks have ready access to information that the town can distribute to make sure we don’t have lots of vacancies, and to maintain the vitality of our downtown and [help] the other commercial property owners as well as the tenants,” he said.
Enforcement of the bylaw will be a cooperative effort between the Planning Department and Inspectional Services, Chapdelaine said.
The bylaw allows the Planning Department to waive the annual registration fee for property owners who can either demonstrate financial hardship or choose to display public art in their vacant storefront, he said.
“If you’re going to display artwork, that doesn’t create the same vibrancy vacuum that a vacant storefront does,” Chapdelaine said. “We’re not trying to be punitive unnecessarily or penalize people who are trying to do the right thing.”
Local officials interested in seeing what other communities across the nation are doing can check the website, which tracks vacant property ordinances.
Heim said he expects the Attorney General’s Office to sign off on the Arlington bylaw in the coming weeks.
For more information, contact Arlington Town Counsel Doug Heim at (781) 316-3150.