Northern cities respond to demand to live downtown

In the last few years there has been a marked increase of people moving or wanting to move into downtown living units. Here's how the new urbanism is arriving in two cities in northwest Michigan.
Like a proverbial homing pigeon, people are circling back to the downtown areas in northwest Michigan. Once considered as a lost cause of boarded up buildings, sacrificed to the gods of urban sprawl, downtowns are once again a hub for shopping, nightlife, and doing business--and most recently to live.

To live?

Yes, the trend has definitely taken hold for young and old alike to live where the action is, and the action is downtown, at least in the two largest cities in northwest Michigan: Traverse City and Petoskey.

"They want to have coffee in their favorite coffee shop, be recognized and known at the bookstore, eat out at restaurants that are close enough to stroll home from afterward," says Becky Goodman, Downtown Petoskey director. "And they want to shop local because they understand the importance of supporting local business."

Goodman says it's the young professionals and retired baby boomers who are seeking to live downtown. What makes downtown Petoskey so appealing, perhaps surprisingly, is that everything is within walking distance.

"Petoskey has a Walkscore of 100," says Goodman. "This is the highest score that can be achieved and it is pretty rare to find it," she adds. "This score means that someone can live here and not depend on a car for daily life and errands." In fact, she says one of the comments she often hears from potential downtown residents is they want to live somewhere where they can park the car and leave it.

Goodman says this is a positive trend for downtown districts.         

"More people living in downtowns means more people shopping and dining in downtowns.  It means more feet on the streets at all hours which translates to safer streets," says Goodman.                 

A quintessential example of downtown living in Petoskey can be seen in two studio apartments built by the owner of the Ruff Life Pet Outfitters building. One of these apartments faces Howard Street, where Goodman says there is always something going on to watch from above, and the other faces beautiful Pennsylvania Park. She says the interiors of these apartments are truly something to die for.

Hospitality workers have always wanted to live close to their jobs downtown, according to Goodman, but it has only been trendy to live downtown for the last three or four years, so there is room for growth--and in fact, it may be a challenge to meet demand.

"We currently have two projects that are going through the state's rental rehab program that I think will produce a total of 12 units between them," says Goodman. "And there is a plan to build some pretty high end second and third floor condos over a new tap room that is opening on Mitchell Street this fall.  The challenge is to convince the building owners that this is a good investment for them."

It appears that in Traverse City the trend to live downtown took hold a few years earlier. Most of the existing buildings have been rehabbed and rented out. However, there is no mistaking it; the trend will continue in Traverse.

"A lot of young people work downtown and would rather not drive to work," says Rob Bacigalupi, executive director of the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority. He sees a similar trend of young professionals and retirees wanting to be a part of the downtown vibrancy, which in Traverse City includes 58 restaurants, the State Theatre, Old Town Playhouse, an expansive waterfront park, and many specialty shops that sell everything from books to extreme sporting gear.

"The lifestyle is the number one thing that attracts people to live downtown," says Bacigalupi.

The Rivers Edge development in Traverse City offers the best example of downtown living. Condos ranging from $200,000 all the way up to $600,000 have attracted young professionals as well as retired baby boomers.

"Rivers Edge tapped into retirees who had a house on the lake, but enjoyed coming to town, liked the lifestyle and cultural amenities," says Bacigalupi, adding efforts are underway to build less pricey living units. The challenge to building these mid-level units is in the high price of property in Traverse City, he says.

There is a lot of unmet demand in Traverse City from people wishing to live downtown and some roadblocks to rehabbing buildings for residential living. Building codes make it expensive to rehab some buildings. Bacigalupi says building owners find it easier to rent out their spaces for retail stores, rather than tenants, which comes with the usual headaches of being a landlord. And, there's the issue of space available.

"There are no more second or third floor spaces left to rehab," says Bacigalupi.

But Bacigalupi says Traverse City has the space to construct more downtown housing, in fact, construction will start soon on Uptown-Riverfront Townhomes on the Boardman River at the corner of State and Pine streets across the river from Hannah Park and the History Center. The location is in the heart of downtown and will include 10 townhouses along the river and several live-above-work units along the sidewalk on State Street.

The trend to live downtown is spreading across the country like ice cream melting on a sidewalk. 

"Millenials are seeking out urban living, young people want to live downtown," Bacigalupi says.

Neil Moran is a freelance writer in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and owner of Haylake Business Communications. You can find him on Twitter at @moranwrite.
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