Vacant Sea Change

Back to my posts about the D-Crit lecture by Christopher Hawthorn. He spoke about some themes including: Atmosphere, the Worn, Vacancy, Temporary, Softness and Engagement. I’ve discussed a few of the six themes and current trends in architecture and will discuss vacancy in this post. I was kind of holding off on the topics I had the most interest in to discuss last but it seems the holiday’s are wearing me thin and I have found a wealth of other things to divert my time and ettention to. I don’t want to give short thrift to the last few topics but I’m sure I will revisit and incorporate a these into subsiquent posts, over time building upon the foundational ideas set out here.

Vacant property is perhaps the most pressing issue facing our culture today. Mr.Hawthorn pointed out that the Burj Khalifa (fKA Burj Dubai) – presently the tallest skyscraper in the world – currently sits with 90% vacancy and many office buildings in Dubai will likely remain vacant indefinitely.

Another antidote stemming from the ridiculously furious rise and stagnation of Dubai comes by way of vacant cars. Over 3000 cars, in fact, left by expatriots who, finding themselves un or underemployed – unable to pay for the apartments, cars and Dubai lifestyle – and fearing jail time for financial transgressions, flee the city leaving apology notes on their cars and maxed out credit cards in the glove boxes.

Pre-dating the completion of the Burj Khalifa and the permanent parking lot at the Dubai airport is the creeping rise in mortgage defaults, foreclosures and unsold States-side real estate. A close friend in Orlando had expressed ideas for photo-documenting the multitude of buildings, in varying states of vacancy, along U.S. Route 17/92 (which bisects Orlando) to demonstrate the level of urban and suburban degradation and disinvestment goin

g on in and around that magical Central Floridian city. Indeed it would only work as a mirror that reflects the sad state of so many other American cities today. On a more personal level, my home in Orlando – if I can still call it a home – now sits vacant, waiting for the inevitable foreclosure or the grace of a short-sale buyer to take it off of my hands.

In fact, Orlando ranks #7 in survey of “America’s Emptiest Cities” and is mentioned along with Las Vegas as a victim of the recent housing fallout. Whereas “cities like Detroit and Dayton are casualties of America’s lengthy industrial decline.” It would be easy, and somewhat simpleminded, to discount this ongoing decline of industry in America and chalk all this up to the busted housing bubble and irresponsible Wall Street suits. The sad fact is, one cannot have a discussion about vacant property in America today without mention of poor Detroit. Motor City has become the poster child for urban decay, community disinvestment and a fleeing creative class. None of this is entirely due to mortgage backed security default and/or fraud. Although the rise of Wall Street (and the service/paper based economy) can be linked, both directly and indirectly, to the decline of the industrial (production based) economy that America was founded upon.

The vacancy in America is not limited to uninhabited structures. Sadly, an all to common form of vacancy is the found in the things left unbuilt, like entire subdivisions. An alligator (in planning jargon) refers to a beast borne by speculating developers that not only ‘eats’ equity, it also eats otherwise natural land when roads are laid out and parcels subdivided far beyond the developers current finances allow to complete, hence the “speculation”. This can also lead to eerie “neighborhoods” of partially built homes that look, rightly so, as if a production line factory spat out the houses next to one another in varying degrees of completeness only to be abandoned due to lack of funding or buyers.


The Astrodome was used as an example in the initial lecture as inspired architecture that spawned this series of posts. The super structure was touted at its opening as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and was a modern structure that allowed human activities to go on unencumbered by the eratic and bothersome forces of nature, on an unparralled scale. The structure still holds poll position on the American Institute of Architects “America’s Favorite Architecture” which list 150 of Americas favorite architectural projects in America. Indeed it is a spectacle to behold and, being the first domed stadium it warrants recognition as historic preservationists attempt to have it placed on National Register of Historic Places. This would help save it from demolition, which is actually being proposed since it now sits vacant due to code and safety violations. With other ideas of converting the massive dome into luxury apartments, a movie production studio these schemes are mostly unimplamentable because they don’t sufficiently meeting occupancy code requirements.

I went into some detail about the history and current development of Randall’s Island in a previous post but didn’t mention the fact that, dispite the ambitious sports facility plans and the fact that (in 2006) over 165,670 people traverse the island daily via the RFK Bridge (fKA Triboro Bridge) the Island is vacant for the majority of the day, week, month and year. This not only leads to treacherously desolate areas near the bridges bike path connectors which are fertile grounds for muggings and assaults. But it also is a shameful waste of valuable urban space.

This sort of part-time vacancy is an idea that was thoroughly examined by Jane Jacobs in her seminal “The Death and Life of Great American Cities “. All sorts of places suffer from this under-utilization of space, from small urban parks to large suburban malls. While exurban “communities” are essentially defined by this underlying fact as commuters vacate these communities every weekday. The argument is that, although parks or often subscribed as the cure for many urban ills, an underused park actually fosters and encourages deviant behavior as it affords misfits (who are otherwise respectable folks) respite from otherwise populated areas to do as they please without consequence of being found out.

Although I don’t see myself as a doomsday pessimists in general, I’m just elaborating on current realities involving (and evolving) our modern world. I would like to include in this seemingly pessimistic post, a couple of possibly redeeming points.

I know a fellow who is currently occupying portions of building in an up and coming area of Brooklyn. Originally the setup (as I understand it) was a simple agreement with a building owner to make improvements to the exterior and areas adjacent to the building in exchange for temporary use. This agreement has expanded over time with growing trust and investment in the relationship, not so much in rent, to use of actual indoor square footage and has been rather equitable for my friend and probably equally so for the building owner considering the maintenance and real property improvements going on.

I have another close friend who founded the Long Island City Community Boathouse (LICCB). The Boathouse was created as a project of the Gowanus Dredgers, which already had 501-3c non-profit status. That said, there was little by way of budget and my friend found a willing property management company to donate space for the primary operations of the LICCB, boat storage and launch areas.

Neither one of these fortuitous examples would likely be occurring today if it where not for the high vacancy rates of commercial space in New York (although vacancy numbers are beginning to decrease, the outlook isn’t exactly peachy keen just yet). Of course if these real estate mentioned in either case above where not vacant, the property owner would surely be in no position to offer up the space for little or no financial gain. True, one day things will likely pick up and NYC real estate will once again be in high demand if not at a premium. Until then, my friends will likely remain beneficiaries of the otherwise terrible urban, and suburban, plight known as vacant space. One can only hope that the economic upswing that will surely require them to financially reimburse their generous landlords will also by then have given my friends respective business ventures the needed funds to properly pay for the space being used.

Although neither of my friends mentioned are squatters (because they both have explicit permission to occupy the space from the property owner), I wanted to mention the concept as I think it is has the potential to play a powerful role in the economic and political aspects involved with this topic. Squatting is the act of occupying real estate or some type of space that one doesn’t own, without the consent of the true owner. It is done out of both protest and necessity and is as much of a problem all its own as it is a symptom of other social and economic ills. It is not something that only happens in third world nations’ shantytowns, it happens right here in the US and all the other rich, developed nations, urban areas as well as rural. I find the phenomenon an interesting one and will stop short of endorsing the action but noting that I do feel it better to empower to people to inhabit and improve otherwise vacant property rather than to let the property or deed owner let it sit in disrepair, possibly intentionally, with the intent to pull down adjacent property values in order to make a land grab latter on (as some have said about Thor Equity, the Coney Island developers). Or for homeowners who cannot pay their mortgage due to this awful market to stay off the streets by remaining in their foreclosed home even after the eviction notice has been served. There is definitely a lot to be said about non-profit advocacy and the squatters movement in general but that will have to wait for another blog post.



Photo credits:

international squatters’ symbol,


One thought on “Vacant Sea Change

  1. 7.1% of New York City’s land is vacant and, for the most part, underutilized. This is a rate much lower than the national average of 15% (in some cities the rate of vacant land is as high as 45%). However, taken together, these properties amount to approximately 11,000 acres of underutilized land — roughly the size of Manhattan (not counting streets) –

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