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City Dwellers

Giving up the 'burbs for downtown's bustle

Are Kalamazooans suddenly eschewing their suburban homes and yards to raise their families in downtown lofts? No.

But my family did. And we may not be the last.

After seven years of living in the Winchell neighborhood — the very neighborhood I grew up in — my wife, 6-year old daughter and I moved into a two-bedroom loft smack dab in the middle of downtown Kalamazoo. It’s now been nine months, and we love it.

It may be awesome or it may be crazy, but one thing is evident: It is not the norm in Kalamazoo. Yet.

The idea of family downtown loft living was first planted in my mind more than 20 years ago by a college girlfriend. She was born in Argentina, and I remember being dumbfounded when she told me that her middle-class family of five had lived in a high-rise in Buenos Aires. “Many families live in downtown apartments,” she said.

“But that’s not how it works,” I responded, based on my Winchell neighborhood experiences.

“Why not?” she asked.

I had no answer. I assumed living downtown as a family was reserved for the very rich or the very poor.

It wasn’t until many years later, when I lived in Aspen, Colorado, that I experienced living in a downtown apartment firsthand. The wealth in Aspen is astronomical. At some point in the town’s history, the billionaires pushed the millionaires out and down the valley. As a result, Aspen’s property values skyrocketed and the community struggled to find affordable homes for its working class. Teachers, police officers and small-business owners were pushed so far down the valley that it no longer made sense for them to continue to work in Aspen, which caused a worker shortage there.

The solution was subsidized housing awarded on a lotto system. For every year a resident lives in Aspen — sometimes bunked up four deep in a single-bedroom apartment — they receive a virtual lottery ticket that affords them an opportunity at a subsidized apartment in Aspen when one is vacated.

I met many people in Aspen whose parents were restaurant managers or bankers or construction workers and who grew up in a family of five or six there. They didn’t have a yard or a lot of square footage, but the mountains that loomed above their small apartments constituted their playground.

The evolution of downtown

When my Colorado-native wife, Melissa, and I moved to Kalamazoo in 2008, we bought a house in the suburbs because we were ready to start a family and we assumed that’s where you should raise a family. But I was struck upon my return by how much downtown had changed in the 10 years I was gone. When I was growing up, downtown Kalamazoo was not a destination. It was a place where specific destinations existed. You did not usually go downtown at night, not because of safety necessarily, but because there just wasn’t anything to do there. Sometimes we’d head down to Club Soda to see some live music, but when the show was over we’d leave downtown.

Even back then, though, a few hardy souls were drawn by the allure of living downtown. Tom Huff bought his first residential unit there in the early 1980s. Huff already owned a downtown commercial building and decided to give loft living a shot.

“I can still remember taking the family out to eat and there’d be someone sleeping in the doorway at the bottom of the stairs,” he says.
Huff now owns several downtown residential buildings, including the Peregrine Building and Peregrine Tower on the Kalamazoo Mall. He recently purchased the former PNC building on East Michigan Avenue, in which he intends to build several residential units.

It’s a different time for downtown in many ways, Huff says.

“Big companies need their employees to be mobile,” he says. “They don’t want them messing with the process of buying and selling a house.” Rental units allow them greater mobility.

Huff says he has noticed a trend of people moving back to cities, not just in the Kalamazoo area, but around the country. The U.S. has historically been motivated by equity, he says, and home ownership has traditionally been a wise investment.

“America is different than many other countries in that we’ve always incentivized purchasing a home. It’s not as easy to buy in other countries. Here, Fannie (Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie (Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp.) have always had a push for people to own their own homes,” Huff says.

The recent housing collapse, however, stirred doubts about the security of home ownership, sparking a return to rental living, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Those doubts may be one reason behind the expanding demand for rental units in downtown Kalamazoo. Huff’s downtown residential units have lengthy waiting lists, and he’s confident the PNC building units will fill immediately.

While Huff’s typical tenants are single, young professionals or an occasional empty nester, he and his staff have noticed some interesting trends.

For one, more couples are seeking units downtown. “It wasn’t that long ago that we only had one couple in all our units,” says Janine Scott, the Peregrine Co.’s leasing manager. “Now we have six, and I’m getting more calls from couples than ever before.”

Another thing Scott has seen is something my wife and I also found when we moved downtown: The majority of downtown residents seem to be women. Scott says that more than 50 percent of Peregrine’s units are occupied by females. In my own building, almost all of our neighbors are women.

“People have a perception that the downtown is unsafe,” Huff says. “It’s just the opposite.”

My wife and I agree; we have never felt unsafe, even at night. The restaurants and nightlife keep a steady stream of foot traffic on downtown’s main thoroughfares until very late, and the streets are well lit. There’s a
noticeable police presence, and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety reports that crime rates downtown are rapidly declining every year, dropping 30 percent from 2013 to 2014 alone.

New neighbors?

Huff is among several developers with plans for new residential units downtown in the near future. Steve Deisler, president of Downtown Kalamazoo Inc., estimates 1,400 new residential units will be developed downtown during the next five years. Residential development is expanding into Arcadia Commons West, in brownfield redevelopment lots just north of downtown and in buildings on the Michigan Avenue corridor and the Kalamazoo Mall.

Matt Vernon, owner of The Vernon Group, recently purchased the Mall Plaza building, at 157 S. Kalamazoo Mall, with the intent of converting its upper floors into residential units. Like Huff, Vernon has seen movement toward downtown living. He already owns another building on the mall: 327 S. Kalamazoo Mall. Morrison Jewelers is on the street level, and Vernon converted the upper level of that building into a community-based office cluster called The Bureau. The intention for The Bureau is to give entrepreneurs and start-ups an affordable and collaborative place to begin businesses downtown.

“It’s no secret that the demand is there,” Vernon says. “People want to be downtown.”

Vernon began taking reservations in August for the new units he’ll build in the Mall Plaza building, which won’t see completion until sometime in 2016. He says he expects his residents will be young professionals, newlyweds and empty nesters, but he’s not ruling out interest from families.

DKI’s Deisler likes the idea of attracting families. “It would be great to have more families down here,” he says. “It’s just a new mindset.”

In addition to incorrect perceptions about safety, Deisler says people also have concerns that parking downtown is difficult. Many downtown units include just one parking spot, and there are several units that don’t include any.

But is this a deal breaker for families looking to move downtown?

It’s not for Chad Koehler and Beth Brissett. The couple and their 1-year-old son, Jack, currently live in a downtown loft. “Almost everything we do is downtown. We don’t even use our second car,” Brissett says.

“We keep it in a lot, but we finally just canceled the insurance on it.”

Koehler works at Gordon Water Systems, on downtown’s southern fringe, and can easily walk or bike to work in decent weather. Brissett is a stay-at-home mom and says they walk just about everywhere. They can bank, dine and shop without leaving their block. They get the majority of their groceries at the People’s Food Co-Op, which is walking distance from their loft.

“When we found out we were pregnant, we had a talk about whether or not we should move,” Brissett says. “Everyone tells you you’re supposed to get a house in the suburbs. At first we decided we didn’t want the stress of a move while I was pregnant, so we’d wait until after Jack was born. But then we decided to stay. We’ve just shifted from going to some of the late-night downtown places to the more kid-friendly places.”

Koehler and Brissett live in the same development as my family: The Metro, owned by MavCon properties. Development of The Metro involved a major renovation of several adjoining, dilapidated buildings, and now features modern one- and two-bedroom units. Our two-bedroom unit has 15-foot-high ceilings, which give it a very open feel. We are on the “balcony side” of the building and enjoy sitting outside listening to the music coming from events at Arcadia Creek Festival Place. Mercifully, our unit is soundproof enough that when the Irish Fest hits its ninth straight hour of bagpipe solos, we just close the doors and windows to stifle the noise.

Deisler says downtown residential units have a 98 percent occupancy rate, and, given the waiting list for downtown units, we feel lucky to have landed ours. My wife saw the listing the day it was posted, and we literally committed over the phone.

People have called us everything from crazy to awesome to ridiculous, and I’ll be the first to admit that downtown family living isn’t for everyone. It was our daughter’s interests that tipped the balance in our decision. A high-energy child who loves dance, theater, art and music, she’ll take a wood floor and a mirror over a sports field any day. Our location couldn’t be better. We walk to the Wellspring/Cori Terry & Dancers studio for her dance classes, to The Civic for theater camp and to the Epic Center for music lessons. As for outdoor recreation, we head to the playground at Arcadia Creek Festival Place regularly.

We also appreciate the diversity she’s exposed to. The Arcadia Creek Festival Place playground attracts families from just about every neighborhood in town, so she plays with kids of all ages and backgrounds.
We’ve had to talk to her about things unique to downtown living that many kids don’t have to think about, but discussing the safety of your surroundings is important no matter where you live. Our daughter sees panhandlers and people sleeping on benches on a daily basis. We’re a few blocks from the Rickman House, Ministry with Community and the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, and she often encounters people suffering from mental illness, addiction and other problems. She’s even heard her share of colorful language while sitting out on our balcony.

We’ve had to have mature discussions with her about the different types of people in the world. And while we feel downtown is safe, we’re a long way from letting her walk the neighborhood as we might have let her on the little cul-de-sac we moved from.

People ask us all the time about schools. We’ve been able to keep Sienna at the school she attended before we moved. We have to drive her to school now, but it’s important to us that she keep the friendships she’s established there.

More good than bad

For us, the pros of living downtown outweigh the cons.

We do not miss yard work. Gone are the Saturdays spent mowing, weeding and raking. A community garden fulfills Melissa’s gardening itch, and my weekends are now free and clear.

We’ve worried that downtown might lose its allure in the winter, but downtown residents say it’s easy to get outdoors. When people in the ‘burbs are snowed in, the heated Kalamazoo Mall sidewalks allow an easy snow-day trip to Climb Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo Public Library or the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.

I’m amazed at what downtown Kalamazoo has become in the seven years since I’ve moved back. The microbrewery scene has exploded, and the nightlife is vibrant. The activities on the mall, at Arcadia Creek Festival Place and around our neighborhood seem to be growing exponentially. This summer we had lunch in Bronson Park on a Friday and got to choose from several food trucks while people around us picnicked, played bean-bag toss and listened to a band on the Bronson Park stage.

For this Kalamazoo native, it’s exciting not only to see all the activity and energy in downtown every day, but also to know my daughter calls it her backyard.

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