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Auburn's empty spaces, places looking for great ideas, right occupants

Commercial properties sit empty, sometimes for several years
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - Empty spaces and empty places are sprinkled throughout the commercial landscape of Auburn and its environs, creating both a sense of mystery and unfulfilled promise. Some are old buildings. Others are relatively new. Many remain vacant for years, even decades, a ?for lease? or ?for sale? sign proclaiming their availability and long-term lack of a serious suitor. A drive down Auburn Ravine Road away from the Foresthill exit reveals one such property on the right-hand side, a replica of Old Town Auburn?s quirky Firehouse No. 2 providing a focal point behind a ?no trespassing sign.? Once the home of a thriving miniature golf course and batting cage facility, it has been vacant and looking for the right person to come along to breathe new life into it since the early 1990s. Auburn commercial real-estate developer Ron Meyer took it over in a foreclosure two years ago. The site is actually two parcels, with the small amusement park ? and zoning that would allow community uses that include a restaurant and gas station ? on the more valuable property. It?s priced at $330,000. Meyer said he?s had plenty of interest, from someone wanting to open a bar, to another person interested in turning the area into a dog-training facility. ?But no one has been willing to step up to the table (with a cash offer),? he said. Farther down Interstate 80 in Old Town Auburn, Sandy Olson of Auburn?s Lyon Real Estate is planning a renewed drive to market a 19th century red-brick building popular with photographers as a rustic setting for pictures. The empty ?Lawyer?s Row? building at 299 Commercial Street was first listed last year. Its lineage as a structure dates to the 1850s and the most recent owner ? a Bay Area architect who died last year ? kept it off the market and bathed in mystery for at least two decades. Olson said that its visibility from Interstate 80 is a plus for anyone interested in buying and there have been plenty of interested people looking at the bright brick shell as an empty canvas. The possibilities have included real estate offices, an art studio and a T-shirt shop. Despite the historic charm, the serious offers haven?t come. Olson said the building has its challenges. With a relatively low asking price of $175,000 ? down from $199,000 less than a year ago ? estimates are that another $100,000 to $150,000 would be needed to bring it up to modern standards, Olson said. That would include water, electric, and gas connections that may never have been in place at a building believed to have been vacant for much of the 20th century. ?It did have telegraph,? Olson said. Empty buildings and lots have become more common over the past few years. ?It?s the economy,? was Meyer?s succinct response when asked about the lack of movement on the market. But while some buildings are standing vacant and lots empty, others are finding new life and provide hope for the future ? both for new owners and the local economy. Olson pointed to the Robie House, vacant for two years after several years as a day spa near the corner of High Street and Lincoln Way. The building, zoned for commercial use since the 1950s, was once home to the powerful Robie family, owners of the town?s Auburn Lumber business. The Robie House has a tentative buyer interested in restoring its use as a professional office building, Olson said. Nearby, a rickety one-story wood-frame structure near the Cleveland Avenue-High Street intersection was recently torn down. The half-acre lot it sits on has been on the market for several years and the building, constructed in the 1920s, has been vacant for much of that time. Visiting from Sacramento, golf pro Eric Pollard had dropped into High Street?s Encore Music and stopped to survey the empty space where the building had been two weeks ago. ?My hope is that whatever they put up in the future, it blends into the history of the community,? Pollard said. ?This is a great town for that, among other things.? For the city of Auburn, efforts like the Central Square development have provided an impetus for growth that can help fill some of the community?s empty spaces, City Manager Bob Richardson said. And while empty buildings and lots punctuate the commercial activity around them, the city remains vibrant and attractive to many customers and businesses. ?There?s still a lot of interest in getting into Old Town and Downtown Auburn,? Richardson said.