City declares war on blight

By John T. Miller on February 19, 2018

A top priority for the City Council in 2018 will be cleaning up the many outdated retail centers contributing to urban blight in the city. The abandoned Blockbuster center downtown has been boarded up for several years. The Council is out of patience with property owners who ignore the decaying properties and vows to stepped-up code enforcement and to apply strict timelines for cleanup (Photo by Tamara Steiner)

The Concord City Council has set its sights on combating increasingly shabby conditions at many shopping centers and strip malls.

A staff report at the Jan. 23 meeting highlighted urban blight, such as vacant and boarded-up storefronts, a decided lack of curb appeal, along with inadequate lighting, landscaping and signage.

When Concord staff prioritized goals in April 2017, top on the list was cleaning up the outdated shopping centers scattered on many of the town’s main arteries. Some have been in the city’s sights for decades.

Since last spring, the city has been researching and identifying retail properties that would benefit from increased investment to improve property maintenance and site conditions.

“When I went door-to-door seeking election in 2016, I heard over and over about the aging of our shopping centers – how the residents would like to have more viable shops to patronize,” said Councilwoman Carlyn Obringer, who helped spearhead the drive.

By September, the Housing and Development (HED) Committee presented ideas to identify issues contributing to the decline of retail centers and develop strategies to improve conditions and/or redevelop them.

According to the staff report, a lack of reinvestment can cause retail centers to fall into disrepair. Poor conditions can deter customers, while also attracting less desirable activities like loitering and panhandling – which further perpetuates the decline of these properties.

Many of the poorly maintained and underperforming commercial properties were developed when standards were far less rigorous. With the passing of the 2012 Development Code in Concord, a number of these properties are legally nonconforming. They may, however, be out of compliance with property maintenance.

The HED Committee recommended a four-part program to help revitalize key commercial properties, beginning with enhanced code enforcement – especially with issues related to public health. They also proposed strengthening the Vacant Building Ordinance, stating that property values suffer when vacant buildings are boarded up or poorly maintained. The committee is considering a tax or a Vacancy Building Registration Program to dissuade commercial vacancies.

The recommendations included adopting retail investment attraction strategies, such as encouraging owners to redevelop properties with a residential use above commercial storefronts and utilizing the city’s membership in trade associations and Websites to promote investment and development.

George Fulmore, a Monument area community activist, urged caution. “My fear here is that this kind of effort could go off the rails, leading to demands for ‘improvements’ that are not in sync with the needs or expectations of Monument residents,” he said.

Fulmore said he was worried about gentrification. “I don’t expect to live in a city where everything looks clean and new and orderly.”

Concord Mayor Edi Birsan expressed concerns about equality in the definitions of retail centers and blight. His comments recalled the tradition of using the word blight as a pretext for projects that led to massive displacement, as in the 1950s uprooting of thousands of families in Pittsburg’s historic Hill District.

Obringer noted that it would be best to bring needed improvements to these shopping centers before breaking ground on the Naval Weapons Station development.

“We’d like to move quickly on this, starting first with enforcing code violations and setting priorities on budget expenditures,” Obringer said.

Examples of rundown centers include Bel Air at Treat Boulevard and Clayton Road, the Terminal Center on Clayton Road near downtown and the Blockbuster center downtown.

Bob Freitas, in-house counsel for Myron Zimmerman Investments, which owns the Bel Air center, spoke during public comment. He asked for leniency on code enforcement at the mostly vacant shopping center, which has a trail of code violations from 1986 to the present.

The city paid the center $300,000 for 24 parking spaces lost due to the widening of the intersection. The money is sitting in an escrow account until Zimmerman submits renovation plans.

Freitas said center officials are waiting to see if Staples renews its lease. He asked the council “not to put the hammer down too hard” in the meantime.

That request didn’t sit well with Councilwoman Laura Hoffmeister.

“I’ve heard these empty promises the whole 20 years I’ve been on the council,” she said. “I’m not willing to cut you any slack.”

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