Vacant Storefronts: They’re Not Just For Ghost Towns Anymore

From the City of Millville way down in South Jersey to Morristown up in the northern state suburbs, downtowns across New Jersey are approaching alarming levels of storefront vacancies.

And why? Well, you can name any number of reasons, of course, stemming from the obvious economic hit that retailers have taken, to less obvious reasons like how stringent a town’s permit process is in opening a retail business.

With the closing of big-box stores like Circuit City and Linens-N-Things, whose value went from $1.3 billion in 2006 to a stunning $1 million in 2009, municipalities are going to be faced with hundreds of thousands of square feet of basically vacant warehouse space, that was, in most cases, zoned and developed specifically with those stores in mind. While it will be interesting to see how the big-box model will change in this new economy and how towns cope with breathtaking amounts of vacant space, for now, we’re going to look at the downtown.

We used to blame the Big Boxes on the highway for running Ma and Pa out of business, but what happens when the sharpest drop in consumer spending since the 1982 recession down those very Big Boxes? Will downtowns suddenly rebound? Well, without our help, it’s unlikely, but in the meantime, communities that are anything but ambivalent are starting to think out of the box as to how to fill the retail void in the form of temporary infill.

This week I had a long conversation with someone who not only specializes in retail real estate, but also consults with chambers of commerce and municipally-sanctioned special improvement districts, an arrangement where a business pays ostensibly a tax to improve security, trash pick-up, landscaping, lighting, snow removal, etc. I know our readership knows about these things, but SIDs are also known a business improvement districts or areas, community improvement districts, or business revitalization zones.

But a good town is a good town and towns are getting creative. From farmers markets to outdoor art installations, we’re beginning to see landlords work with community partners, SIDs, and even school districts, in allowing space to be used for something other than its intended purpose.

In tough economic times, with small business retailers struggling to stay afloat, municipalities and key stakeholders in those towns that have an interest in keeping their downtowns vital need to start having ongoing discussions as to how to beautify and use unused space: temporary infill.

What are some of the interesting infill projects going on in your downtown?

Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.


  1. Matthew, this is a terrific post. Reclaiming vacant properties and undertaking related revitalization is one of the best things we can do not just economically and socially, but also environmentally, since it saves resources to recycle existing infrastructure and placing more development in existing communities displaces what would otherwise be sprawl, with its much higher greenhouse gas emissions. One of my very favorite examples of great work in this area is the revitalizing community of Old North St. Louis.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.