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- 2013 - June - 26th -
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Oliver Barakat, a CBRE commercial real estate broker and vice chair of the Downtown Investment Authority, during a meeting earlier this month. He will become chair of the organization Monday and says he has plans to advance in the coming year.
Photo by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
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Incoming Chair Barakat has ideas for DIA’s second year

by David Chapman, Staff Writer

When the Downtown Investment Authority begins its third year in July 2014, Oliver Barakat wants to be able to look back and determine what the organization accomplished.

Barakat will be chair of the nine-member board beginning Monday.

Speaking as an individual and not for the board, he said in an interview last week one of his main points of advocacy will be for the group to establish a benchmark system of goals for the year. Those goals — whether residential, commercial, capital improvements projects or other aspirations — would then be reviewed every July, when the board's leadership changes.

"It's not an easy exercise because we have to decide what's important," Barakat said.

What those Downtown benchmarks would consist of would be up to the board, but as an individual member, Barakat, a CBRE commercial real estate broker, said he would push for reducing office vacancy rates, increasing the number of Downtown building permit applications, raising the number of bars, restaurants and cafes in the area and evaluating how many public works projects were underway or completed Downtown.

Downtown's office vacancy rate is about 21 percent, he said.

He said he would like at least one large transaction of more than 75,000 square feet as well as medium-sized leases in the 25,000-50,000-square-foot range over the next year.

"In the grand scheme of things, that's not a lot," he said.

Although there have been gains in sales and confidence in retail and residential markets in recent months, Barakat said the commercial market has not caught up, a national trend. He cites companies reducing square footage despite adding employees and telecommuting as reasons and also that unemployment figures currently do not correlate to office vacancy rates.

But, his hope for new commercial rental clients could come to fruition. Barakat says there is a handful of pending deals in the marketplace in which Downtown is a possibility.

They include "musical chairs" deals — those where companies looking for spaces could end up renewing leases at the current locations.

The authority board can aid those efforts by deciding on a targeted, transparent incentive policy and vision, another position Barakat said he will advocate and seek consensus.

"It's something a business owner, CEO or developer would prefer rather than say 'we have incentives available, come tell us what you want to do,'" he said.

Earlier this year, Mayor Alvin Brown pushed for and City Council approved $9 million for Downtown economic development use, which could be used by the authority — if it retains the fund.

In the past month, Council members in committee meetings broached the topic of using the funds toward purchase of the Jake Godbold City Hall Annex. The idea was rejected, but was an indication some Council members favor redirecting the funds, especially with budget hearings in the next several months.

Barakat said pulling the funds from Downtown would be counterproductive.

"I've had discussions with Council members who seem to tolerate that idea (to strip the funds)," he said.

He said he has informed them of certain communities that see the earmarked funds as a way to move forward on projects, including some that already have begun projects. Taking them away would "upset some momentum" of Downtown revitalization and "make them go away altogether," he said.

Another idea he will promote is the formation of a subcommittee to review all Downtown City-owned, unoccupied properties and to develop a plan for each — a goal he said he hoped could be completed in a year's time.

Such a plan would include an authority decision on whether each property or piece of land — such as the Shipyards property Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan has shown interest in developing — should retain public access or be made available to developers.

He said he knew of Khan's interest but not of details. He said that, speaking as an individual board member, he thought the Northbank site along East Bay Street should retain some public access.

Barakat said Khan's interest in seeing Downtown revitalized spurs market confidence and compares it to "almost like a bank coming in saying we want to make loans."

Although not as an official benchmark, Barakat said he would like to see Downtown's nearby neighborhoods of San Marco, Riverside and Springfield better connected, given their strength.

"Downtown can be the beneficiary of the cross-pollination," he said.

As incoming DIA chair, he was nominated to handle contract negotiations with Aundra Wallace, Detroit Land Bank Authority executive director, as the authority's first CEO.

Barakat began those negotiations last week and said Monday in an email he would have an update tonight when the committee meets at 5 p.m. at City Hall.

He ranked Wallace higher after early June public interviews and said he saw a "leader" with experience, high energy, charisma and enthusiasm from his answers that came from confidence.

"I see him as pushing us as a board instead of the other way around," Barakat said.

dchapman@baileypub.com

(904) 356-2466

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