Good Question

Planetizen asked their readers for ideas about what ought to be done with the coming glut of real estate that will result from the closing of hundreds of auto dealerships around the country. The result was fairly unsurprising:

As of May 21, 2009, these were the top five ideas:

1. Ask the local residents about what the community needs (228 votes)
2. Urban gardens (213 votes)
3. Create walkable, vibrant places and improve current communities (141 votes)
4. Farmers’ markets and local events (124 votes)
5. Solar and wind energy park/vehicle charging stations (109 votes)
The first idea is the best one as far as I'm concerned, at least in the abstract. Who knows better than the locals what ought to be done with public lands? The downside is that it's fairly easy for a company with money to get a lot of influence for a fairly low investment in a few politicians--that's part of the reason Fort Lauderdale has a huge number of high-end condos with no market to support them right now. Lots of real estate developers and people with ties to them in the city and county government will do that. And we are talking about privately owned land here--I don't foresee city governments rushing to make eminent domain claims so they can turn commercial property over to community gardens, awesome as I think that would be.

The real question, it seems to me, has to do with convincing the owners of these properties to put them to some other sort of use. Local and state governments could encourage the conversion by offering some sort of tax incentives, perhaps, and the owners might be more willing to listen since it's clear that, for the near term at least, their real estate is going to be worth far less than it has been in the recent past. Commercial real estate is hurting as well in this economy, and I've got to figure that businesses looking for office space are going to be less interested in the infrastructure offered by a closed auto mall than they will be by your standard issue office building.

If state and local governments had any money right now, I'd suggest that they use the down economy to try to buy up some of this land and convert it to public use. There's a big plot of land--a former dealership--that abuts a park close to where I live. I wish the city could afford to buy that land and extend the park--it would be a great deal more attractive than a giant parking lot surrounded by fences is, and it would make the surrounding townhomes and condos even more attractive. But that's not going to happen any time soon.

Still, it doesn't hurt to start the conversation. As a nation, we haven't done a good job of talking about land use issues, and now we're going to be faced with the reality of a glut of commercial real estate that will need major expenditure to transform it into something other than what it has been. Might as well start talking about what we can do with it.

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