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Diego Bernal Wants to Occupy Downtown: Options for addressing vacant property problems

Photo: Photos by Ben Judson, License: N/A

Photos by Ben Judson

The Kress building’s vacant top floors at 311 E Houston

Photo: , License: N/A

The Hedrick building at 601 N St. Mary’s

Also, before the empty building plan gets rolling, the CCDO will roll out a renewed marketing campaign for City-owned parking lots, including better signage and an app to help residents and visitors alike find street and garage parking downtown (hallelujah!). That may help ameliorate the parking woes that deter so many locals from hitting up Downtown on their off hours.

But these creative initiatives will only go so far in drawing people downtown; to have a truly vibrant Downtown, vacant buildings must have a more permanent solution.

Bernal hinted that previous attempts to rein in absentee property owners may have been thwarted: “That is against the interest of … a very powerful, well-connected, deep-pocketed, aggressive group,” he said, referring to those with enough cash to purchase the multi-story office buildings, no easy investment even if the property is in disrepair and sold at a fire sale price.

The key to a successful approach, both Bernal and Houston believe, will lie in a variety of tools, some carrots, some sticks and some basic marketing and education. They may not have a lot to go on. As a 2011 Brookings-Rockefeller paper focused on vacant land and abandoned properties pointed out, many metropolitan areas have recently faced similar eyesores blighting redevelopment efforts. “Unfortunately,” wrote paper authors Alan Mallach and Jennifer S. Vey, “weak and antiquated state laws governing tax foreclosure, land banking, code enforcement and other areas make it difficult for local governments to address vacancy and abandonment, and prevent them from unlocking properties’ productive potential.”

Under Texas’ local government code, the only way a municipality can take action on a vacant building is if it can be proved to be dangerous or it hasn’t been properly secured. Governments and authorized organizations can also take buildings that owe five or more years’ worth of back-taxes into receivership.

State law does allow for municipalities to define minimum standards of use and occupancy; however, few Texas cities, including San Antonio, have elected to make more stringent minimum requirements. Our current property maintenance code has a scant sentence dedicated to vacant non-residential buildings, which refers readers back to the City code for buildings, which essentially mimics the State code briefly detailed above. And that’s about it.

Funny enough, if you’re the owner of a one- or two-family dwelling, either unoccupied or occupied, you’re subject to many more regulations in San Antonio, from code compliance to absentee owner registration to the infamous Dangerous Structures Determination Board, which the Current covered extensively in 2010.

Bernal said that the effort to augment the city code will likely require a revisiting of the dangerous buildings and distressed properties code.

COSA may also want to evaluate the City of Dallas’ Downtown Vacant Building Registration Ordinance, which requires owners of such properties located in Dallas’ central business district to register their buildings, pay an annual $75 fee plus an inspection charge of $185 and an additional fee per square foot of the building, in addition to maintaining liability insurance on the property with an annual damage limit of no less than $2 million. There’s also a stipulation that these owners submit a plan to the City covering any necessary code violation corrections, a maintenance plan and a plan for the eventual redevelopment or sale of the building. Every six months, the plan must be updated and re-submitted. The ordinance also raises the typical Class C misdemeanor fine (maximum $500) mandated for code violations to a maximum of $2,000.

It’s not huge, but it’s a start.

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