Cool Spaces: Loft Living in Downtown Ann Arbor

Jason Costello is a commercial real estate investor who lives and works downtown. Still in his twenties, Costello has lived in two pedigrees of lofts: he spent two years in an above-retail loft on Main Street (if you stand in front of 10,000 Villages and Shalimar and look up, you'll see where they are), and he currently lives in the high-profile, "big, concrete building" called Ashley Terrace on the corner of Ashley and Huron.

"I had two distinct experiences with downtown lofts," says Costello. "The downtown unit is literally right above restaurants, shops and bars. You walk out your front door and you can walk into a restaurant or a bar in seconds. I loved it. It was fantastic."

Indeed, though his most recent loft is one block off Main Street, Costello has maintained a lifestyle of patronizing downtown businesses and walking as much as possible. He plans on staying around the area for the long term. "Ann Arbor is my kitchen," he laughs.

Costello decided to relocate to the newer lofts located in Ashley Terrace when his company, which owned the Main Street loft he was renting, decided to sell them off as condos. "Despite the deteriorating market, there is very good demand for these spaces," he says, explaining that the above-retail spaces went for about $180,000 to $500,000.

Not All Lofts Are Created Equal

"My Ann Arbor lifestyle exists within a small radius – I can look out my window and see my office building," he says happily. Yet after living in a building with 140 years under its belt, Costello found that recently-built Ashley Terrace doesn't quite embody the loft lifestyle in the same way that his former residence did, or the way other options might. He cites Liberty Lofts, a project built in a converted manufacturing building, as offering a more in-character loft lifestyle.

"My Ashley Terrace loft is somewhat akin to living in a hotel," he says. "It is very nice, but it has long featureless corridors, and very little sense of community."

Costello, who shops and attends movies downtown, feels there could be more attractions for young professionals, yet he is quick to point out that given Ann Arbor's size, what it does offer is remarkable. He gives a nod to the two historical movie theaters, the brand new art museum, and the wealth of coffee shops, musical venues and restaurants in the area.

"Everybody always aspires to have more, but I take a more realistic approach," says Costello. "It's pretty darn good for what it is. There are a lot of towns of this size in this country that don't have nearly the cultural opportunity that this town has."

But is living in a downtown loft feasible for other young professionals?

"It's expensive whether you rent or own," says Costello, who admits that his neighbors do not comprise a young population, although they do span a diverse demographic. "In general, loft units are small for what you're paying. On a per foot basis, owners are paying twice what they'd pay for a nice house."

Indeed, it's largely cost that deters the younger professionals – there simply aren't that many high-paying jobs in Ann Arbor to support young professionals' purchasing these pricey units. But Costello thinks that it's still possible to attract them, with a few alterations -- making downtown living more accessible to the young folk will require a wider availability of modern, market-rate rental units (as opposed to market rate condominium units). And while Costello does note that some of the lofts in Ashley Terrace are rentable at the moment, he says that's only a function of not being able to sell them at this time.

A Downtown Philosophy

Ann Arbor resident Dannielle Alphonse agrees that the loft model of living has not proven to be wildly successful in attracting young professionals – it's simply too expensive, and there are too few. Although she has seen the odd college student whose parent has bought a unit as an investment, her neighbors are typically well-heeled middle-aged professionals.

Successful at a young age, Alphonse chose the loft option because she wanted to be more in touch with downtown Ann Arbor's vibrant scene. Indeed, she found the perfect spot: Located as it is at the corner of Liberty and Main, Alphonse's condo might very well occupy the very epicenter of downtown. Like any young professional, Alphonse travels – she commutes between her loft and a vineyard she co-owns on the west side of the state, where she directs marketing. Alphonse says her Ann Arbor loft is essential to balancing her two worlds – one urban, the other rural. When she's in Ann Arbor she seldom uses her car. She's one block away from her job at Vie Fit (her passion is health and fitness), and she shops almost exclusively at downtown grocers and retail shops.

"I wanted to be right in the center," she says. "It's amazing: I can get my social and event updates by looking at the banner outside my window. Downtown living and my bird's eye view have afforded me a deeper understanding of the city's endeavors, and I love that."

And where else, she asks, can one be awoken by a bag piper at 6:30 in the morning? "It's an experience you just don't get unless you're in the thick of things," she says. Alphonse has lived in her self-named "Tree House" for three years now, and has noted some of the drawbacks and challenges associated with lofts and downtown living.

"Certainly noise is an issue," she says. "With all the restaurants and bars, the nights get pretty insane. You can hear the music late at night and that's tough sometimes."

Alphonse speculates that parking shortages are a real limitation to the desirability of downtown living for young professionals – who are notoriously rushed. Parking and retrieving a car are difficult for everyone, but for residents the parking situation takes on new complications. Although today Alphonse has scored (at considerable expense and after being on a seemingly endless wait list) a spot of her own at a nearby parking structure, she had no such convenience in her first years.

"At one point, I could only pay for parking in a lot that required I be gone by 9 a.m., and back no sooner than 4 p.m." she says. The program assumed, she points out, that one lives in Ann Arbor but works outside of it. Moreover, a lack of nearby green areas is a liability to anyone who wants to own a dog – which Alphonse does. Still, she points out that Ann Arbor businesses are extremely dog-friendly.

"I can't think of one business that doesn't let me bring my dog inside," she says.

Alphonse strongly believes that downtown Ann Arbor is the right place for young professionals given feasible living options because it has a great deal of variety and a universal appeal.

"The added value of downtown is that you do build relationships with all the people who are trying to create a better city," she says. "I think that whatever age you are, or whatever stage in life you are, if you live in a wonderful place like Ann Arbor and you can live right downtown, it can work for everyone. You could be retired or a working professional – it just works."

Michael Nisson would agree that downtown Ann Arbor is a pretty great place. As a member of the leadership team for the Ann Arbor Region Success Strategy, he has a personal stake in making Ann Arbor a better place, and one of his projects is identifying effective ways to attract and retain young talent.

In his mid-twenties, Nisson represents a high-octane version of the demographic he is trying to bring in: he's very young, he's highly successful, and he chooses to lives in one of the most successful condominium developments Ann Arbor has seen in recent times -- a coveted corner condominium on the fourth floor of Liberty Lofts. Located on Second Street and Ashley, the former factory-turned-lofts puts Nisson within walking distance of most downtown attractions, a plus for him as he likes to go out in the evening with friends but is fastidious about not mixing any alcohol with driving.

Nisson is also abundantly familiar with Ann Arbor's real estate market – its what he does for a living. Indeed, he says, living downtown enhances his lifestyle and his business, as he is able to walk to many of his meetings and social engagements, while maintaining a pavement-level connection with the city.

Nisson describes his decision to live in an Ann Arbor loft as largely a function of his position in life with regard to commitment, family and a changing market. "I'm not at the point where I'm looking to raise a family," he explains.

Moreover, he simply loves his current set up. It's very cool. His 1,800-square foot unit is ideal for a young single man who wants to entertain friends and be close to downtown activities and businesses. Nisson believes that having more young people closer to downtown would encourage them to go out and spend their money at nearby businesses – an "everybody wins" prospect.

The importance of options

However, as attractive as the lifestyle and the condominium itself are, Nisson agrees with Alphonse and Costello that the price of a loft in Ann Arbor is simply not right or even possible for most young professionals. He has also noticed that, although sprinkled with a few young faces, his fellow tenants are also mostly older and more established in life.

Currently, the available housing in or near downtown Ann Arbor is limited to a very few options: really expensive, near and nice (like the lofts and existing residential homes), or affordable, distant and dilapidated. The problem with having so few options for newcomers is that the city limits itself demographically, attracting mostly students and retirees and little in-between. At some point, young successful professionals like Costello, Alphonse and Nisson might not choose to invest or live here.

Affordable housing is one essential, Nisson says, and events and attractions to interest the younger set are also important.

"We have to ask ourselves, what can we do to make it easier for young people to be here in the downtown area?"

Part of that answer is transit. Making it easy for people to travel between Ann Arbor and Southeast Michigan communities may be one way of attracting young residents, says Nisson. He mentions recent light rail discussions and thinks that connecting to cities like Royal Oak and Ferndale would be both very attractive and reduce the necessity for owning cars.

"Ann Arbor really doesn't have the kind of well-paying jobs for new graduates that allow young professionals to live downtown," he says. "We certainly need the jobs, but since I can't wave a magic wand and get that, we have to look at other ways."

Leia Menlove is an Ann Arbor-based writer and regular contributor to Concentrate.  Her previous story was Mastermind: Eli Cooper.


Michael Nisson's Liberty Loft Overlooks Downtown-Ann Arbor

The Downtown View of Jason Costello's Ashley Terrace Pad-Ann Arbor

Costello Does't Spend Much Time at Home-Ann Arbor

Costello at Cafe Zola-Ann Arbor

Costello at Cafe Zola Part II (but it should be part 1)-Ann Arbor

Michael Nisson's Liberty Loft View-Ann Arbor

Michael Nisson's Liberty Loft Entertainment Area(AKA The Bar)-Ann Arbor

Michael Nisson's Liberty Loft Kitchen-Ann Arbor

Jason Costello and the View Over His Shoulder-Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He wants to live in Michael Nisson's Loft.  That place is sweet.

Check out his blog too.

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