Reporter’s Notebook: Vacant Industrial Buildings – How Many Are Out There?

Outside the former Harris Marcus furniture factory in Chicago (Ken Fager via Flickr Creative Commons)

Given the thousands of old industrial properties in the United States, especially across the Midwest, you might think city governments know the number of vacant commercial properties within their municipalities.

Think again.

In reporting my story about one man’s quest to convert a former meatpacking plant on Chicago’s South Side into an urban farm, I tried to figure out how many other empty industrial buildings there are in the city.

But Chicago city officials don’t keep track of vacant commercial properties.

“We wouldn’t consider a commercial property a vacant building as long it is being marketed and secure,” Buildings Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said. No laws requiring the city to keep track of vacant commercial properties, as there are for empty residential properties.

“Our focus for the past few years has been the vacancy crisis in residential homes,” McCaffrey said.

Officials in Gary, Indiana said the same thing. They don’t keep records of vacant industrial properties are within city limits.

(I wish I could tell you if this was the same story for the city of Detroit. But the city didn’t return the numerous emails and calls I made in the past two weeks trying to find an answer.)

“I think most of our recording of vacant and abandoned or problem buildings come through complaints,” said Vanesse Dabney, executive director of the City of Gary’s Department of Redevelopment.

Dabney said anyone with a complaint about a problematic building can call the city at (219) 886-1531.

Peter Strazzabosco, spokesman for the City of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development office, said the city views its role as to being “responsive” to the private sector when it wants to convert empty buildings.

To that end, one of the biggest incentives the city offers is property-tax reduction to any new owners that take over buildings vacant for at least two years. Strazzabosco said the “widely used” credit – officially known as the Class 6(b) property tax incentive — can reduce property taxes from the industrial tax rate of 25 percent to 10 percent for 10 years.

Although that’s the most popular, there are other credits, as well. Many people, including John Edel, who I profiled in the Plant story, also take advantage of money via the much-discussed tax increment financing districts that are throughout the city.

One Reply to “Reporter’s Notebook: Vacant Industrial Buildings – How Many Are Out There?”

  1. Well, put some thought into this Mayor. It is indeed an opportunity for entrepreneurs to re purpose these buildings.  It is sad that the city does not track what buildings are vacant. Perhaps the alderman can assist in putting together a map, with the TIF overlay.. to attract prospective business or social services. We are all getting tired of waiting for someone else to fix our ecconomic woes. If we took the cues from people like Mr. Edel.. the 99% could leave the banks out of the equation and a true shift in business by the people then becomes possible. Thanks for the enlightening story. I hope to see more entrepreneurs take up this idea!

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