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Downtown businesses concerned by number of vacant buildings

Downtown commercial vacancy rate higher than city average
Visitors to St. Albert’s downtown will soon parallel park again

St. Albert’s Downtown Business Association is concerned with the number of vacant commercial properties downtown, and hopes some landlords will consider renting or leasing to increase the core’s vibrancy. 

Association president Shannon Roche believes the empty buildings not only deter shoppers from coming downtown, but also slow new business growth and drive potential downtown businesses to other corners of the city with more attractive pricing.

The Gazette reached out to two property owners of vacant downtown buildings that are not for sale or for rent but did not hear back.

Other cities have established vacancy taxes when buildings sit empty for too long, Roche said.

“It may be appropriate where buildings are not even up for lease and are sitting empty,” Roche said. “I hope it doesn't come to that. I hope that landlords become motivated to see success in the area with long-term strategic thinking of, ‘Hey, my building will have more value.’ But we definitely need the landlords to buy in.”

Data from the city’s economic development department shows the commercial and office vacancy rate in the core is currently at 7.44 per cent.

It has risen slightly since last year, when the average was seven per cent. However, the vacancy rate is still lower than 2021 and 2022, when nine per cent of the core’s commercial space sat empty.

City-wide, the average commercial vacancy rate in 2023 was five per cent.

St. Albert does not have plans to tax property owners who are sitting on vacant real estate, according to Marci Ng, a communications supervisor with the city.

“Currently, there are no tax policy incentives in place for non-residential properties,” she said in an email. “The city does not have any bylaws or policies that would regulate commercial rental rates within our free market. In recent years, the increasing interest rates and other inflationary pressures have negatively affected financial viability for both landlords and tenants.”

Tom Dean, an agent with Lizotte and Associates Real Estate Inc., said there are many reasons why a property can sit empty. A landlord may be dealing with a technical default, which happens when property owners sign a lease agreement that is lower than it should be according to their financing. An owner may just not have the time or interest to deal with upkeep, or attracting and retaining tenants.

“They might have a deal some distance off in the future, or somebody has an option on it,” he said.

Edmonton’s downtown business association has explored putting a levy on these properties, he said.

“[Vacant properties] kill your street front,” he said. In some areas, empty buildings will become targets for vandalism.

“That has a knock-on impact to surrounding businesses … and it's not good, right? If you can just get art in the windows or something like that, at least it keeps it activated,” he said.

Downtown Edmonton has had success by encouraging window art and pop-up shops in some empty storefronts, he said.

“It's low cost, low risk to the landlord, and it's something that is hopefully a win-win for everybody.”

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