Changing the Face of Vacant Buildings

Spring 2015
Left photo: before, right photo: after. This Cincinnati building was occupied by retail and residential tenants until it was badly damaged by a fire. Although the Keep Cincinnati Beautiful arts program, formerly known as Future Blooms, usually only paints barricades on ground-floor doors and windows, in this case city workers delivered the barricades to the program’s studio before they were installed, enabling artists to paint them all there. Photos courtesy of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful

New techniques using paint, decals and more can make empty commercial buildings more attractive while protecting property values and discouraging vandalism and graffiti.

THERE'S NO DOUBT that most vacant buildings are unattractive. Traditional methods used to secure them from intrusion, crime and the elements — plywood boards or steel panels — also advertise the fact that the structure is vacant, making it a target for graffiti, vandalism and other crimes. Several innovative methods offer more attractive and cost effective alternatives.

High-Impact Painting

In Cincinnati, one group is “restoring identity” to vacant commercial and residential buildings by painting boarded-up windows and doors to look like real ones, sometimes embellished with paintings of flower boxes and awnings, for the surprisingly low cost of about $4.50 per square foot, including labor and materials. Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Keep America Beautiful, operates a grant-funded arts program formerly known as Future Blooms.

The idea for the project came from the Cincinnati Neighborhood Enhancement Program (NEP), a community development program that brings together various city and community partners to eliminate blight and reduce crime while improving communities’ overall quality of life. The arts program obtains permission from building owners before painting plywood barriers, typically only on a building’s first floor. The program’s team of artists and architects has painted more than 800 buildings in Cincinnati’s urban core since 2009.

vacant store
vacant store

Top photo: before, bottom photo: after. Home Illusions decals can be used to cover boarded-up windows in shopping centers and other commercial buildings, making the property more appealing to potential new tenants. Photos courtesy of Home Illusions

According to Brooke Lehenbauer, public awareness and volunteer coordinator for Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, “in our pilot target area of Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood with a high density of vacant property, blight has decreased by 32 percent and 21 percent of the buildings we have painted are now renovated or under construction, according to statistics collected in December 2014.” The success that Keep Cincinnati Beautiful has seen in Over-the-Rhine has driven it to expand the program to other neighborhoods. In 2015, artists will be focusing their efforts in Walnut Hills, the Price Hills, Avondale and Madisonville.

Lehenbauer notes that painting a vacant building also helps keep graffiti off the property, adding that “very few of our buildings get tagged because, first, they know we will cover it up right away and, second, it’s somewhat artistic. Most taggers stay away from public art because it is well maintained.”


Home Illusions, a company based in Burton, Michigan, just outside of Flint, makes a variety of decals — including images of glass block windows, grated windows and security roll windows — that can be affixed to vacant commercial and residential properties to make them appear occupied. These include faux windows and doors in a variety of sizes. The company also can produce its own designs at custom sizes and can replicate high-resolution photographs of windows and doors to ensure that the coverings blend into their surroundings. At only 33 cents per square foot, costs average about $40 and $70 each for windows and doors, respectively. Each decal takes less than three minutes to install over existing plywood, using either an adhesive or mechanical fasteners.

Transparent, Unbreakable Panels

Cleveland-based SecureView has come up with another way to secure vacant properties while disguising the fact that they are unoccupied. Its patented, transparent panels, made from recycled materials, can be used to cover window and door openings in place of plywood or steel, allowing owners of all types of buildings to protect their property from intrusion while letting in natural light, which also enhances marketability and safety.

SecureView panels can be cut on site to fit any window and are easy to install from the building interior using a compression bolt system. They look like traditional windows, but are virtually unbreakable. The company also makes a security door system. Since the product was launched nationally in 2014, banks and other servicers have used it to secure properties in more than 75 cities across the U.S. and in almost every state. According to SecureView President Howard Wedren, Chicago Public Schools has installed the panels at three vacant schools and the city of Detroit has used them to secure its decommissioned police headquarters. 

before and after photos of vacant store windows and doors

SecureView transparent panels, which can be used to secure both doors and windows, are both more attractive and more secure than boarded-up openings. Photos courtesy of SecureView

Chicago-based Millennium Properties r/e, an active receiver in state courts throughout the Midwest, had SecureView panels installed on the quarter million-square-foot vacant 1907 Spiegel Administration Building about two years ago and has been pleased with the results. According to Millennium President Daniel Hyman, the panels cost less than steel plates, are more attractive than both metal and plywood, and bring light into the building, allowing staff to safely and easily monitor the property. “And we don’t get calls from neighbors complaining about the condition of the building,” he added. “We’ve also used the panels at several smaller properties.”

Any of these three methods can help prevent further deterioration, discourage crime, enhance the appearance of vacant buildings and thus make those buildings easier to market and redevelop.