Activating Underutilized and Vacant Properties

Our guest blogger, Ben Levenger, is an AICP planner, registered landscape architect and Certified Economic Developer. He is the president of Downtown Redevelopment Services, LLC, a boutique planning firm specializing in assisting communities through comprehensive downtown planning and building adaptive re-use projects throughout the continental United States. He has provided services in over 30 states and continues to consult for federal agencies on best practices for economic development initiatives.

Main Streets are the origin, the heart of Virginia communities. It is where history begins, and yet many Main Street buildings are vacant or not reaching their full potential. As Main Street and community organizations, you have decided to reinvest in and revitalize your community core to meet its ever-changing needs and demands. A critical element in this process is helping activate underutilized and vacant properties to meet the needs of residents and visitors. After witnessing the lack of necessary processes or information in community revitalization, we began working on a new strategy called – Property Activation Reports. This strategy was created to evaluate, plan and implement a sustainable future of the underutilized downtown property. Outlined below are highlights about the process, goals, and benefits of the process:


The goal of the property activation reports is to create an actionable plan that will guide property owners through the process of realizing their property’s highest potential use and maximizing their return on investment. Detailed goals include:

  • Strategizing spaces and available uses for the entirety of the building
  • Preparing a diversified and attainable matrix of tenants
  • Documenting needed upgrades and improvements
  • Outlining opportunities to partner with the local Main Street or municipality for grants to undertake critical projects
  • Preparing a framework for property renovation, including timeframes and resources necessary
  • Outlining where partnerships between local agencies and private owners can be utilized


Preparing an easy-to-follow and documentable process will help each community implement the property activation reports effectively and efficiently. Outlined below is a high-level review of the process. Additional detail can be provided to individuals or organizations interested in implementing the process.

  • Review business and building inventories
  • Compiling a list of vacant properties
  • Preparing an educational event to engage the property owners
  • Preparing property activation plans (available for download), including offering assistance to individual owners
  • Gathering documentation and reports
  • Preparing a database and reviewing for prioritization or implementation assistance


The benefits of partnering with your downtown property owners on this process are far-reaching. However, outlined below are highlighted benefits. As every community is in a different part or step in the downtown revitalization process, the benefits will differ by community.

  • Solidified and identified owners vision for each property
  • Influence for the main street program to help program the downtown
  • Identification of partnership opportunities for grants
  • Stronger working relationships, including all parties, understand their unique responsibilities in the overall process
  • Working together, the municipality, property owners, and other stakeholders can plan for Main Street growth and efficiently allocate resources
  • A group of vested, engaged, and active property owners creating a sustainable local ecosystem that will make their community feel like “HOME”.
  • Increased square footage utilization within downtown buildings
  • Expanded upper floor and non-retail window spaces
  • Improved tax base (sales and real estate), offering additional revenue for municipalities or community organizations

This Property Activation Report process is not a penalty or citation, but rather a helping hand to provide technical assistance in creating a better future for everyone. This process is a first of its kind, helping empower local organizations to make critical steps in the overall property activation process. Ultimately, downtown revitalization is a multi-faceted process that requires many groups to work together. The property activation reports will help bridge the gap between property owners and municipal or main street staff, helping each other understand one another’s goals and how each group can benefit from one another. If you need additional assistance, Downtown Redevelopment Services is ready to help guide you through the entire process and develop an individualized plan to reach the property’s highest potential use and maximum return on investment. If you would like to learn more about our Property Activation Reports, please visit our website or email me at


The first person or community to contact DHCD ( about wanting to receive this service will be awarded a technical assistance grant, totaling $2,500, to address vacant property-related concerns in their downtown. This special offer is open to all Virginia communities!