Sunday, June 7, 2009

Latest Housing Boom: Downtown Living

Published in Parade of Homes, a special section of the Lincoln Journal-Star, October 4, 2008
Copyright 2008 by the Lincoln Journal-Star. Used with permission.
This is my original, unedited version

Fourteen years ago Judith Andre was ready for a change. With her sons grown, she no longer needed her four-bedroom home on an acreage. So she sold her acreage and bought the old city mission building in downtown Lincoln.

A glass artist, Andre remodeled the main floor into an art studio space, converted the second story into two apartments, and moved into one herself. She’s never looked back. “I like to walk, and within a few blocks I can walk to a big variety of places,” she said. “We’ve got the restaurants, the movies, the university campus and Lied Center. And I like the people downtown.”

Jane Morrison worked as an accountant with BKD, often putting in long hours. Moving to the University Towers eliminated her commute and gave her more hours in the day. Now retired, she can’t imagine living anywhere else. She doesn’t even need a locker at the YMCA, because it’s only two blocks from her house. “My home is my locker,” she jokes. She parks in a parking garage on the same level as her apartment and uses a cart to carry in groceries. She often gathers with her neighbors in the building’s rooftop garden.

“They deliver my cleaning to my door, and the trash disappears at 8 every morning. I feel pampered and special,” she said.

Andre and Morrison are part of a growing population—most of them young professionals, those without children, or empty nesters—discovering the advantages of downtown living.

In the past 15 years, housing has exploded in downtown areas nationwide, said Terry Uland, president of the Downtown Lincoln Association (DLA). More than 3000 people now call downtown Lincoln home. The DLA sees constant interest in their online Downtown Living Guide, which refers people to realtors and leasing agents for downtown apartments and condos. Available places fill quickly and many have waiting lists.

“Downtown living isn’t for everyone, but there’s a growing segment of the market who wants the convenience of downtown, who wants the proximity to cultural venues and restaurants and to like-minded people,” said Uland.

“There’s a different energy downtown,” said Todd Ogden, DLA’s marketing director. “You always feel there are people around you, and there’s a lot going on. It’s a lot more vibrant.”

Randy Hawthorne, who has lived in an apartment above a business at 14th and P for ten years, loves the energy, the festivals, and the excitement of football Saturdays, as well as the fact that he can walk to work. Although he misses the green space, he makes up for it by walking on campus, what he calls his “front yard.” He parks in a garage across the street from the building.

The downtown could benefit from a grocery store in the area, Hawthorne said. Convenience items can often be picked up at Walgreens or the new Rojo’s Goods Haymarket Bodega. For larger grocery runs, he often combines shopping with other errands or social visits. But lugging groceries up the stairs “can get a little old,” he admits.

Mark and Erin Willen had always liked the idea of living downtown. When they recently moved here from Rockford, Illinois, they were pleased to find that Lincoln offered affordable apartments for rent in the downtown area. Their 1200-square-foot unit in the Continental Commons at 11th and O has exposed brick and high ceilings, like many of the downtown apartments (commonly referred to as lofts or loft-style apartments).

Like many residents, they appreciate the accessibility to the Haymarket, restaurants and the YMCA. “We drive the least now than we ever have,” Mark Willen said. He parks in a garage on 10th and P Streets, which can be a “frustrating” walk during the coldest weather, when he does drive. And it can be difficult for friends to find parking places when they come to visit.

Richard and Julia Noyes own the Noyes Art Gallery on 9th and O Streets and live in an apartment above the gallery. Richard Noyes, who is the president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, a volunteer community organization, hears from more and more residents who are choosing to live downtown because they want to get rid of their cars. “They live, work and play downtown,” he said.

Noyes is amazed at how often he sees people out walking and talking. “I’ve never had a problem downtown, and I’ve been able to strike up a conversation with anybody almost all the time,” he said.

Developers are starting to take note of the popularity of downtown living, and they’re banking on increased interest in moving to the city center. Concorde Management and Development is in the process of remodeling the Bank of the West building on 13th and O Streets into “Lincoln Flats,” consisting of 30 new condos on the second through fifth floors. Each unit will average around 1150 square feet and sell for around $200,000.

Steve Schmidt, president of Concorde Management and Development, said that judging from the trends in other cities, Lincoln is just scratching the surface when it comes to downtown living. “I think there will be a lot more of this movement back here from the suburbs. I think people are going to realize that they may not want the drive time. They may want to save gasoline. They may realize they’re just not utilizing their house in the suburbs very well, and they may not like mowing and upkeep.”

The Option, a new row house complex in the Haymarket, capitalizes on the advantages of downtown living while minimizing the drawbacks. The 13 four-story condos each have individual garages as part of the unit, making it easy to carry in groceries in all kinds of weather. To help satisfy the desire for green space, each unit includes a rooftop deck and a small gated yard.

These condos are designed especially for entertaining, said Fernando Pages, president of Brighton Construction Company, which is developing the property in partnership with Hampton Development. The first floor can be used as either a commercial space or entertainment area and is perfect for tailgate parties or receptions. The living room and dining room offer more intimate entertaining on the second floor, and bedrooms are on the third floor. The fourth floor penthouse offers a different kind of entertaining space and opens onto the rooftop deck.

As baby boomers age, the housing trend is moving more toward urban living, Pages said. Baby boomers would rather go to dinner and have a drink than go to the park and throw a baseball.

“The market for downtown living is stymied only by one thing,” Pages said. “And that is that the people who want to live downtown have to sell a house in the suburbs to do it. The desire to live downtown is very strong. There is no lack of people who would rather live downtown than in the suburbs right now.”

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