Guest Column: Tax Relief for Obsolete Retail Space

Siegel & Jennings partner Kieran Jennings discusses how vacant space should be assessed and how best to get it successfully reappraised.

Since 2001, major retailers have closed about 5,000 stores per year. Certainly there are more closings in challenging times, and in other years there are more store openings than closings. There is one constant, however: Real estate owners and operators must determine what to do with vacated space. Assessors also should weigh the impact on the property, and taxpayers should decide how to reduce taxes based on inevitable tenant turnover.

For many years, the assessing community refused to fully recognize the devaluation of a shopping center due to vacancies. Assessors argued that vacant space has worth, and that an income approach to valuation ignores the income-producing potential intrinsic to empty space. In certain instances, the assessor’s argument is true, and including an estimate of potential income for vacant space is an integral part of a shopping center assessment. But what should be done when the space no longer has value or becomes a detriment to the property?

Assessors are often reluctant to acknowledge the nominal or negative value of space that no longer adds to a property’s value. When that occurs, a financial study of highest and best use can prove that the space simply cannot be reused economically. Specifically, the property owner can show that build-out and other costs required to prepare the space for the highest and best use outweigh the potential rent the space would earn.

Take for instance a small cinema complex that must update to digital projectors or go out of business. An article in the Sept. 30 edition of USA Today described the owner of a four-screen theater who lamented that he lacked the profit margin to support the $250,000 conversion. The cinema operator’s plight should raise a question for the real estate assessor. Is the current usage designation of the space, in its current condition, financially feasible? If the answer is no, then the highest and best use study takes a look at the financial viability of either upgrading – in this example, to digital projection – or renovating the space for a different use and user.

When looking at potentially renovating and changing the use of the property, the appraiser or assessor must determine whether the conversion is physically possible. There may be demand for rentable space, but can the existing structure be adapted for that use? Other considerations include whether the use is legally permissible. A bar, hotel or casino may be a great idea, but do zoning and other laws permit the use? The proposed use should also be reasonable and probable. A conversion to a use that harms the rest of the shopping center is not appropriate.

In many secondary markets in particular, the cost of renovation may exceed the amount of rent that would be collected at market rates over the life of the potential lease. Repurposing a cinema, for example, incurs costs that competing retail properties don’t have to bear, such as the expense of leveling sloped floors, adjusting ceiling heights and removing lobbies. If the costs do not justify the change, then the appraiser as well as the owner will need to determine if the building is a detriment to the center. In some cases, the only avenue available is demolition of the property, after which the land can be held for future development.

The days of just discussing the issues of obsolete spaces with the assessor are long since over. Chinese Gen. Sun Tzu’s famous admonition, “Know your enemy and know yourself, in a hundred battles you will never be in peril,” is apropos in tax contests. A successful appeal requires knowing how the opponent ticks and what proof is necessary.

Owners are often best served in preparing for a hearing or meeting by obtaining an appraisal from a reputable third party. A critical question for the taxpayer is when, if ever, to share that documentation. Appraisal evidence properly prepared with an attorney in advance of litigation will often protect that document from individuals with whom the owner does not wish to share it, and should allow the owner’s team the opportunity to present the evidence at the time and place that is most advantageous to the owner.

The final question is, when should the taxpayer raise these arguments? Experience suggests that the taxpayer should attack the issue of obsolete space as soon as the market begins to question the existing use. Tax contests can be lengthy, and profitability – or even survival – may depend upon minimizing non-productive expenses such as taxes.

Kieran Jennings is a partner with the law firm of Siegel & Jennings, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at

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