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The view from the Princess: More than 30 empty lots dot downtown Decatur, and landowner Ralph Jones says their “value is zero” because nobody is interested in buying them. He and his wife, Glenna, are asking the City Council to do something about it.
Daily photo by John Godbey
The view from the Princess: More than 30 empty lots dot downtown Decatur, and landowner Ralph Jones says their “value is zero” because nobody is interested in buying them. He and his wife, Glenna, are asking the City Council to do something about it.

How much is a downtown lot worth?
Decatur council asked for tax breaks to promote downtown revitalization

By Chris Paschenko
chris@decaturdaily.com · 340-2442

Full of potential and promise, empty lots and abandoned buildings dot Decatur’s downtown landscape, creating parking spaces and eyesores.

A Decatur husband and wife, who are restoring their fire-damaged Second Avenue Southeast building, long for a return of downtown hustle and bustle. Years ago, parking was a premium and businesses thrived from an abundance of traffic.

Ralph and Glenna Jones asked city leaders last week how much a downtown lot is worth if it has been vacant for years or if it is likely to remain vacant for the foreseeable future. They have a map showing the number of vacant lots downtown.

“Is it really worth what it appraises for?” Ralph Jones asked. “We’ve got over 30 empty lots. Several, maybe all of them, were burned out, and nobody is interested in building anything on them. A lot is not worth any more than what someone will pay for it. If it’s been on the books now for over 30 years, the value is zero.”

Charles Hough, who retired from General Motors, owns an empty lot on Second Avenue Southeast. It was a parking lot for City Park Flower Shop for 40 years. Now people from a nearby real estate office and Princess Theatre patrons park there.

Hough has the property listed with Gateway Commercial Brokerage and is asking $65,000 for 7,800 square feet or roughly $8.3 per square foot, said Hough’s agent Bob Martin.

“I’ve never done anything with the parking lot,” Hough said. “There was a building on it at one time, and the city made me tear it down. I could be the bad guy and make people pay to park, but I just haven’t seen fit to do that. It’s been up for sale for several years.”

Decatur appraiser Steve Wright said the last free-market sale of a vacant lot downtown that he knew of was in 1999, a parking lot in the 200 block of Jackson Street Southeast.

The Joneses want to make it easier to turn vacant lots into buildings, so they approached the City Council with a proposal. Can the city offer incentives to rebuild and renovate downtown buildings through a 10-year relief on taxes where major renovations have been made or new buildings competed downtown?

The idea to abate non-educational taxes would parallel what the city has done for years to recruit industry.

“It has been the practice of the city to increase taxes as soon as the owner spent money increasing the value of the building,” Jones said. “We have been advised that this is a request that cannot be fulfilled by the council, but must go to Montgomery. I have contacted (Rep.) Bill Dukes ... but would like to hear from the council concerning their options.”

Councilman Ronny Russell said after the meeting that he liked every aspect of the Joneses plan, but Council President Billy Jackson and City Attorney Herman Marks told the Joneses the city must operate within the confines of the law.

“We all agree it’s vital to the economy,” Jackson said. “And growth of the economy is worth pursuing.”

A sign of times gone by on Second Avenue Southeast.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
A sign of times gone by on Second Avenue Southeast.
Marks said the Legislature must give the city the authority to act.

“I don’t know of the authority to abate taxes for commercial development such as he described,” Marks said.

Dukes, D-Decatur, told the Joneses he would need unanimous consent from the council and mayor to pursue the matter in Montgomery.

Dukes wrote the Joneses, complimenting them on their efforts to revitalize downtown, and he promised to pursue any avenue that could be accomplished.

Calhoun project

Meanwhile, as city officials wait for more details on the tax-incentive proposal, lots remain empty and buildings remain in disrepair, perhaps in hopes the city will land the Calhoun Community College’s fine arts program downtown.

Rick Paler, chairman of the Downtown Redevelopment Authority board, said Gov. Bob Riley, Calhoun President Marilyn Beck and interim post-secondary Chancellor Thomas Corts discussed last month, among other things, relocating the college’s 300 fine arts students and faculty downtown.

Paler and Jim Page, vice president of governmental affairs for the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, said the additional traffic downtown would rejuvenate demand for retail endeavors and loft apartments. In that scenario, downtown could warrant revitalization from the private sector without government assistance.

Mayor Don Kyle said the city has offered property between First and Second avenues for the fine arts project, but the state would require more of a local commitment to justify the expense.

“I’m thinking it depends on the size of the project,” Kyle said. “To build it all up front would take more local participation than that to make it happen because it could be as much as a $30 million project.”

No time frame exists for the Calhoun project, Kyle said.

Russell said he supports studying the tax-incentive plan further.

“I feel it is definitely worthy of consideration, but more info is needed,” Russell said. “How is the city protected against possible revenue loss? How does the city identify areas, properties and structures to be included? What guidelines for a projected payback to the citizens are to be proposed? What would be threshold investment amounts? These are just a few questions that come to mind.”

Russell said the private sector should bring the council a big-picture plan to consider and modify.

“Business owners, investors, and Realtors know what is needed for property to develop,” Russell said. “They work in the market daily. I would suggest a workable plan from a unified representative group of small, downtown business owners for the city to review.”

Other downtown property owners have mixed feelings.

Randy and Judith Tardy, who bought, renovated and opened Selma’s on Second and Albany Gifts, both at 324 Second Ave. S.E., said tax, licensing and street improvements would provide incentives for developers.

‘Proactive eye’

“The city should have a proactive eye towards downtown,” Randy Tardy said. “The city has always said bring the plan to us, and we’ll tell you whether we like it or not. I have faith the city will revitalize downtown, if we can get the city to cooperate with business owners as it does with the mall and industry.”

Axel Hein, owner of Bank Street Antiques and Books, said tax incentives would not encourage him to develop his property. He said the city promised more than a year ago to install diagonal parking on the lower end of Bank Street Northeast but hasn’t delivered.

Hein said he’s shown the council his architectural plans to erect buildings between his antiques store and DeLoain New York Day Spa. He said his plans are useless until the city improves the lower end of Bank Street.

“The reason the lots sit empty is because the city doesn’t make access to the property attractive,” Hein said. “With Bank Street, all the visiting traffic is on the upper part of the street.”

Hein said New Orleans-style lighting fixtures, planters, diagonal parking consistent with upper Bank Street and signs directing travelers from major thoroughfares to the downtown historic districts of Old Decatur and Albany are a must.

He said there is another obstacle to foot traffic on Bank Street.

‘People are afraid’

“People are afraid to walk past the ... activity at the old gas station,” Hein said. “In the summer, cars are parked there with boom boxes going ... shoppers get to that point and say, ‘I don’t think so,’ and turn around and walk back up Bank Street.

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