OLYMPIA – City officials have begun tracking ground-floor vacancy rates downtown for the first time in recent memory, giving a snapshot of vitality that can be used for comparisons over time.
The vacancy rate for ground-floor uses downtown is 9.6 percent, and excluding the mostly unoccupied buildings on the strip of land between Capitol Lake and Fourth Avenue, it is 7 percent, said Ruthie Snyder, a downtown code enforcement officer who oversees the new data. Because retailers most often are found on the ground floor, they account for most of the data.
The vacancy rate was a pleasant surprise for some city and business representatives, who had expected it to be higher.
“It actually sounded lower … than I think everybody thought,” Snyder said.
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Experts say a healthy vacancy rate is below 10 percent – which still allows some turnover in shops.
The city’s new information is limited; it includes only the area bordered by Plum Street to the east, Seventh Avenue to the south, the western edge of the isthmus to the west and Thurston Avenue to the north.
Next, the study will look at second-floor uses, getting an idea of the low- and moderate-income housing stock downtown. That part of the study will extend north to the Olympia Farmers Market area, capturing more of what is traditionally called downtown.
“You’ll just have a complete picture of the uses in the downtown, from the bottom floor up,” Snyder said.
The survey still leaves out areas from Plum Street to Eastside Street, which are considered downtown in the city’s comprehensive plan.
The report has been forwarded to the Olympia Downtown Association, the Thurston Economic Development Council and Heartland, a city consultant that is studying downtown parking and revitalization issues.
Connie Lorenz, the executive director of the Olympia Downtown Association, said the data will be valuable.
“We had guesstimates … this is really hard numbers,” she said. “This is the first time we’ve been able to really say” what the rate is.
She suggested that people have the perception that downtown has many vacancies because of high-profile vacant buildings on Fourth and State avenues – two streets with a lot of traffic.
Structures such as the Montgomery Ward building on Fourth between Franklin and Adams streets have been without tenants for years. Across the street, the old Griswold’s office supply building that burned in 2004 remains boarded up.
Lorenz said the downtown association will track which businesses are coming and going, and feed that information to the city.
Snyder said the city’s effort grew out of a study that originally was aimed at determining the condition of city alleys as part of the city’s effort to clean them up. Two interns from The Evergreen State College walked the alleys block by block and took notes. They also took note of vacancies.
So the effort was expanded.
“This is just way too good information not to use,” Snyder said.
The city began mapping the vacancies on a computer with a new Geographical Information System, or GIS. The idea is to get “real time” information that can be used to track downtown. Vacancies, as well as uses, can be visualized on a color-coded map.
It’s information that has hasn’t been tracked in the past. Commercial real estate firms, which typically track vacancy rates, don’t do so for Olympia because the city is too small.
“I don’t know of any real comprehensive study that’s been done in the past,” said Pat Rants, president of The Rants Group, a commercial real estate company in Olympia. “I do believe there have been some other less formal studies done, like this one.”
The Thurston Economic Development Council released a report about downtown vacancies in January, at the request of the city, said Michael Cade, executive director of the council. It showed that vacancy rates wavered between about 13 percent and about 4 percent from 2007 to 2008. But there has been no follow-up report, and the information already is old.
Cade said the EDC still is receiving raw data that could be used for an updated report but that the city hasn’t asked it to.
The current survey can’t be compared to the EDC data because its definition of downtown is different.
The Olympian did its own survey in 2005. A reporter walked the streets of downtown, counting vacant storefronts. She found about 30 of them vacant – a rate of about 8 percent.
But Olympia calculates its vacancy rate differently from what commercial real estate companies do for bigger cities. Ross Moore, the director of research for Colliers International in Boston, said his company tracks some areas of the Puget Sound region with data from CoStar Group. CoStar has proprietary data about real estate vacancies.
He said Colliers doesn’t track Olympia.
Snyder said the city estimates the square footage of vacancies compared with total square footage, which gives it an accurate number.
Rants said he thought the city’s numbers were about right.
“I wouldn’t call their methodology wrong; it may be a little less formal” than numbers tracked by commercial real estate companies, he said.
Cade spoke approvingly of the city’s numbers.
“I’m confident in whatever they come up with,” he said.
Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869