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February 5, 2021

Hartford city councilors want to fine vacant storefront owners

Photo by HBJ Staff | Greg Bordonaro Hartford lawyer and city council member John Gale wants the city to implement a vacancy tax on store landlords.

The owners of vacant retail properties in Hartford could be fined $100 per day under a new proposal that’s already raising alarms among landlords.

The proposed amendment to the city’s existing blight and property maintenance statutes ‒ slated to be introduced at next week’s city council meeting ‒ says any storefront that has been vacant for more than 120 days would be in violation and subject to fines and liens.

That’s a significant change to the existing statute, which mandates storefronts be kept in a state of good repair and free of graffiti, but says nothing about vacancy.

In the proposed language “vacant” doesn’t just mean empty or closed. It would also include any storefront not open to the public for at least 20 hours per week.

The proposal, led by Councilor John Gale, comes on the heels of the defeat of another plan from the downtown attorney that sought to hike annual city fees on parking lot owners by thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.

The council voted to indefinitely postpone the parking proposal, which had faced opposition from Mayor Luke Bronin, LAZ Parking and others, at its last meeting.

Reached Friday morning by phone, Gale defended his new proposal, saying it could help reverse a long-running downward spiral in the city’s retail market, particularly downtown, where he said vacant storefronts abutting the XL Center are a key example of what he’s hoping a vacancy fine could change.

Gale said the plan might even spur landlords to be more creative with filling their storefronts ‒ perhaps with temporary galleries or pop-up stores ‒ and may even lead some to concede that their asking rents might be too high.

While the proposal immediately follows his controversial parking permit plan, Gale said he’s been thinking about a vacancy tax for some time, a policy that has been pursued in places like London, New York and San Francisco.

“I had everyone's attention, so it seems like why not?” he said. “We've got people thinking about these things, let’s keep that momentum going.”

The proposal is being co-introduced by Gale as well as councilors Wildaliz Bermudez and Joshua Mitchom. It was released with the council’s Feb. 8 meeting agenda on Wednesday. On Thursday, the city’s largest commercial landlord, Shelbourne Global, sounded the alarm, urging local business leaders to contact  Bronin and their respective councilors to oppose the measure.

Shelbourne Chief Operating Officer Michael Seidenfeld told the Hartford Business Journal that the city’s retail market had already been struggling before the pandemic, and that foot traffic has only deteriorated further as a result of COVID-19. In addition, landlords have no incentive to keep their storefronts dormant.

“Punishing property owners for vacant storefronts will not spur greater retail leasing activity,” he said. “No one is more motivated to lease vacant space and loses from  store vacancies more than the property owner.”

Seidenfeld said the city must pursue a multi-pronged strategy for strengthening its retail market and transforming Hartford “from a 9 to 5 city to a destination city” including a comprehensive marketing effort, business-friendly policies, a greater police presence downtown and less “bureaucratic red tape” for permit approvals.

“Coming on the heels of the parking tax hike proposal, this new proposed penalty reinforces the general perception that Hartford is anti-business,” Seidenfeld said. “The city needs to reassure people -- through common-sense policies ‒ that Hartford is a place where businesses and entrepreneurship is welcomed and supported.”

In a statement Mayor Luke Bronin said: “My understanding of the proposal Councilman Gale has put forward is that he has no interest in penalizing property owners who are working actively to fill their spaces, but wants to encourage some creative – and low cost – ways to activate spaces that remain vacant, from art displays to pop-up shops.  Having spoken to Councilman Gale as well as to a number of property owners, I think there’s room to take this as a starting point and get to a place that helps advance the shared goal of activating empty spaces in partnership with property owners.”     

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February 8, 2021

this is why hartford is the way that it is.

February 8, 2021

Never hit a man when he is down is a rule of conduct in a civilized society.

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