Closed Business Now an Eyesore

Attractive sign covering vacant storefront

Attractive sign covering vacant storefront

Visitor Question: We have a permanently closed business in our downtown whose owner refuses to sell. He is using it as an online "liquidation sale" location twice a year. He brings in junk and sells online leaving junk, cardboard boxes, etc. in the windows. What can we do to legally remove this eyesore from our downtown?

Editors Reply: Jane, in many cities and towns, you would not have any legal options and would have to use powers of persuasion to resolve this situation.

If you do not have any local design guidelines that pertain to your downtown area, and if your zoning ordinance does not provide you with any way to tackle this problem, you are likely left with limited options.

Perhaps the easiest potential solution, if you can convince the building owner to allow it, is to offer this building owner a free window painting job that would fit in somewhat with a business district appearance and still camouflage what goes on behind the window.

If you have a local artist who could paint on the inside of the window, this sometimes turns out to be not ridiculously expensive and could actually add to the ambience of your downtown instead of detracting from it.

Less permanent methods of accomplishing the same thing are possible with a paper, vinyl, or other type of sign-making material being hung or "pasted" onto the inside of the window surface. See the attached photo from Denver, which we added to your post, for a visual clue about what we mean.

Either way, you will have to hold a meaningful conversation with the building owner. We have a couple of tips for that.

First, more than one person should be involved in the conversation, but don't have a committee of five or more people present because that would most likely make the building owner feel defensive. In addition to someone who feels passionate about the issue (probably you), choose a person who is known to be friendly with the building owner and someone who has perceived or real power. The latter could be a mayor, a prominent business person, or a banker.

Second, an in-person conversation is more likely to be successful than an online video meeting or a phone call. If you are working with an absentee owner, this may not be possible, but if the person is at all local, aim for a face-to-face meeting.

Third, strategize in advance about how to make your proposed measure seem like an advantage and a property enhancement to the owner. You say he is not interested in selling, but maybe he would like positive publicity. Can he use the image of your window painting or poster on his online storefront? If he uses social media, can the image prove to be an asset there?

Especially if you choose painting, he might even enjoy some earned media if a TV station can be convinced to come out and video the painter at work.

If you cannot work with the building owner at all, which is a distinct possibility, you are left with other less desirable options. Impacted building owners in the rest of the block, or nearby, might have to file a civil lawsuit to try to get relief, but even then, after a lot of pain and agony, the relief granted might be only monetary and not something that would resolve the problem.

A more workable, but much more expensive, option is for your city or town to condemn the building. That means that your local government would have to come up with the money to pay for it, and often the amount required is somewhat more than the real value of the property. Then the town has to have a plan for what to do with the building, and it has to make a convincing case for why this is a public purpose.

Depending on your state and its statutes and case law, it may or may not be easy to establish a public purpose and gain control of the building so that your local government or a commercial improvement district could work with the private sector to repurpose the building.

However, it is worth exploring this somewhat more radical method of transferring ownership to an entity that would assure that the building's value as part of your downtown is realized. You have to weigh the benefit to your downtown against the probable uproar about the use of condemnation.

These are a few ways of thinking about your problem, and we hope they will get you started on working toward a workable solution.

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