Downtowns Become Boomertowns

Across the metro area, downtown communities are finding an important new factor in the sustainability equation - baby boomers.

In communities as far flung as Birmingham, Northville and Ann Arbor, baby boomers are moving downtown, city officials report, bringing an influx of social and economic capital into downtown communities and businesses. As Gen-Xers become homebuyers and baby boomers become empty nesters, there's a growing trend of retirement age couples who are opting for city centers instead of suburban retirement communities. In fact, the number of seniors moving downtown has become large enough that it has spawned the term "ruppie," or retired older person.

Nationwide, there are about 78 million boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 - and next year, the first wave turns 62, becoming eligible to claim Social Security benefits. State demographers estimate there were roughly 2.6 million boomers in Michigan in 2006, almost double the 1.5 million Michiganders 62 and older that year.

"Most housing development in the last 40 years is the suburban model, but the downtown model may be more suited for the single person or the empty nest couple," says Susan Pollay of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. "For many boomers, downtown is an alternative to the suburbs."

Downtown living, often considered the province of the twenty- or thirty-something, has a lot to offer to the fifty-and-up crowd, Pollay says.

"Activities like book readings, performances, poetry slams - everybody wants the same things, they just want them at different times of day," she says. "They all want safe, clean, walkable downtowns with affordable housing and the ability to join up with friends in a comfortable environment."

A downtown residents spends 10 times as much as a downtown worker does, says Lori Ward, director of Northville's Downtown Development Authority – and boomers, she says, are likely to have more disposable income on hand than their younger counterparts.

"They've raised their kids, they're not saving for the first house, they're not saving for college, they're not saving for their kids," she says.

But money's not the only resource "ruppies" bring downtown. "One thing that marked the baby boomer generation is the idea that we're here on the earth to do more than meet our own needs," Pollay says. "They're thinking of the world as a whole, and they're from a generation where everything seemed possible. This is a group that's more involved in their children's lives than some generations have been before, they're used to much more community investment and spending time in the community, they want to get involved."

Of the 110 volunteer's in Northville's DDA, Ward claims 80 percent are baby boomers. "They feel a strong committment to the community they've lived in," she adds.

In Birmingham, says Jana Ecker, planning director of the city's community development department, the city's boards and volunteer organizations are thick with retirees or older residents.

"We have something like 30 standing committees in city of Birmingham, and on all of them, historically, are seniors," she says.

Not quite seniors, many boomers may still be looking to change the way their time is spent, Pollay explains. "Many are not retiring, many want to work, and are able to make a connection with university and the people living here," she adds. "This is not a group that's going to retire on a beach somewhere. We're part of the dialogue, and all of us can think of ways to keep these people engaged. They're high achievers with high energy."

Take Fred Beal and Nora Wright, a fifty-something Ann Arbor couple who moved to the city's downtown about a year ago. She's an attorney who's volunteered time to Doula's Care, a program that assists impoverished women through childbearing and he's a developer with a long history of public service - he's been a member of the city's Downtown Development Authority, sits on the Ann Arbor Economic Development Corporation board, has been on the Ann Arbor Arts Center's board and is involved in the Washtenaw Contractors' Association. And that's not including the kid-related service hours Beal has logged.

"Now that I'm off the DDA I'm sort of deciding how to get re-engaged a little bit with the city," he says. "I'm on the presidential task force, which is a major time commitment, the zoning committee, the citizens advisory council and the homeowners association."

Beal says he and Wright wanted to move downtown for about 10 years, but with a houseful of kids, the time just didn't seem right. But the opportunity to design their own Main Street living space - part loft, part traditional dwelling - encouraged the pair to move downtown with one son still in high school.

"It's easier to go out for a drink, out to eat, to see what's going on on Main Street, go out to the YMCA, and our work is close enough to literally walk," he says.

Ecker says the city is actively courting an aging population, with two large residential projects earmarked for active seniors in various stages of the planning process. One, The Regency At Elm, should be finished by 2009, with 100 independent-living condos and amenities like exercise facilities, a dining room and pub. Developers Burton-Katzman are seeking site plan approval this fall for a mixed-use development targeting seniors. The proposed development, located on Brown Street between Henrietta and Pierce, would have 50 rental units.

"The senior market in not only Detroit but around the country is going to be growing," says Chuck DiMaggio of Burton-Katzman. "I think statistcs show that by the year 2025, 25 percent of the population going to be age 65 and over, so there's a growing demand for senior-oriented independent living units. We see a growing number of those folks who would want to live in independent living urban environments, and take advantage of the amenities our downtowns have to offer."

It's hard to quantify downtown population shifts, or what impact boomers are having on area downtowns, Wayne State University demographer Jason Booza says - the U.S. Census hasn't defined a central business district or a downtown since 1970.

"Who Lives Downtown," a 2005 report from national think-tank the Brookings Institution, documented a 10 percent growth in downtown populations in 44 cities across the country between 1990 and 2000, but doesn't offer more recent data and doesn't look at suburban downtowns.

The same report found that downtown homeownership, an important part of building a viable community, more than doubled between 1970 and 2000. Those most likely to buy, Brookings researchers found, are childless young professionals and older empty nesters.

"Baby boomers are an interesting group. From what I've read and what I've heard from people, there are usually two reasons baby boomers are choosing downtown living," Booza says. "First is the opportunity to do so."

But nostalgia can play a role, he explains. Boomers may remember growing up in a central city, or have fond memories of the days when families would travel from the suburbs to the Detroit for shopping, entertainment or other amenities the city then offered. "It's a way to reconnect with their past, and they can afford to do so," he says.

Wright says that's part of what has drawn her back to downtown. "I grew up in the 60s, and I loved going downtown," she explains. "The summer I was 13, there was a presidential election and I went downtown every day and volunteered in Hubert Humphrey's campaign... so that really did have a lot to do with it as far as I was concerned."

Boomers and the childless young are the two groups that are most often associated with downtown living, Booza says, but boomers are likely to invest more years in downtown living.

"The thing about twenty- or thirty-somethings is, the trend seems to be that when they enter childrearing years, they tend to move out of downtown," he says. "At least with baby boomers, you can expect them to be there until the very end."

Nancy Kaffer is a freelance writer living in Clawson. She has contributed pieces to Metro Times and metromode.


Dining room of Fred Beal and Nora Wright

Top view of family room

Fred Beal and Nora Wright in their Ann Arbor loft


Shelving unit and family room

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni