What’s Spanish for “parking garage”?

Perhaps this situation supports the case for what I’ve been calling an “emptiness tax”:

In Downtown Austin, blight manifests itself in the primary forms of:
1) parking lots (or razed lots)
2) parking garages
3) chain link fence
4) perpetual disrepair

The Northeast quadrant of Downtown Austin takes the cake for parking garages. The area is desolate and completely void of human interaction. Unimproved parking lots are scattered throughout Downtown. It could easily be argued that Downtown Austin blight reaches its zenith on 6th Street. (slideshow) Broken doors, windows, tattered chain link fence, destroyed ATMs, it’s all there.

As I see it, the problem of blight is rooted with the owner of the property that is creating or hosting the blight. The economic behavior of hoarding undeveloped property in the CBD is contrary to the density goals of Downtown Austin stake holders. It is also contrary to the city’s and county’s goals of collecting ad valorem taxes. Perhaps more importantly, razing your lot and wrapping it in chain link fence is contrary to the sense of community.

As an example, Marriott, while it won’t be building in the Austin CBD for a year or two, has already torn down a pair of storefronts on the location it plans to use, prompting this complaint:

Downtown Austin is pockmarked with vacant lots and surface parking lots. We badly need a mechanism for discouraging property owners from warehousing vacant lots downtown. The solution is not to shut out all redevelopment to eliminate the risk of this kind of behavior. What we need is a vacant-lot surcharge or something like it. A surcharge calibrated to compensate the other downtown property owners, businesses and visitors for the very real cost of blighting a block. This might encourage property owners/developers to leave existing buildings in place or to fill in currently vacant lots, even if the structures are inexpensive and small.

Whether such a surcharge would be legal is a question for another day…

Establishing a surcharge of this sort might be easier, at least on our side of the Red River, than changing the property-tax laws. If blight carries with it externalities, and I believe it does — at the very least, it imposes costs, in the form of lower property values, upon the blighted neighborhood — to me, at least, it does not seem unreasonable to call upon the owners of blighted property to provide some form of reimbursement for those costs.

(Title adapted from a photo caption at the first link.)


  1. Tatyana »

    2 February 2009 · 9:52 am

    What would be the possible mechanism of “calibrating this surcharge to compensate other property owners”? If city just impose a fine or surcharge, it will go the way of taxes- disappear in treasury vaults, and never reach the actual people it was supposed to compensate.

  2. McGehee »

    2 February 2009 · 2:34 pm

    warehousing vacant lots

    A fascinating concept. I wonder how much I could charge to let people warehouse their vacant lots in my basement where they won’t be a public eyesore?

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