Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Look Back at the Downtown Housing Trend

Inspired by some good discussions over at Dayton Most Metro as part of the Greater Downtown Plan, and an especially good thread on The Merc, here is a look back at 20 or so years of trying to bring housing downtown.

Starting with what was there already. The count starts at the bottom. In 1980 the last tenants were evicted from the Arcade, leaving three market-rate rental buildings downtown. The old Newcom Manor, Mattis Towers (4 efficieny units per floor), and Eva Felman, the last of the old bachelor flat style of downtown housing (mostly one bedroom or efficiency units).

There were also two penthouses, atop the old Elks Building and the Center City Offices. Since these were private residences of a sort they are not counted.

And a graph of how market rate housing grew, by building and year of opening, showing the 93 unit baseline, with additional units during various periods, ending up with around 700 market rate units downtown.

Early Attempts at Housing: Cooper Place and The Landing

Planning for new downtown housing started back in the 1960s and then really accelerated in the 1970s for the site now called the Landing. The original developer, in 1980, was supposed to be Oxford Properties, which was experienced in urban projects. Instead the first development to market was Cooper Place.

Cooper Place planning probably started in the early 1980s and was sort of an experiment to see if there really was a market for downtown housing. The development was subsidized by the city with $300,000 in Federal funds + infrastructure improvements. The developer was from Columbus (Wallick Development), and the project cost (in 1980s dollars) $2.9M.

Units in Cooper Place didn’t sell that well, with the developer having to rent them. It turns out the larger and more expensive units sold the best, which sort of sent a market signal that there was a demand for more deluxe units..

After Cooper Place came the heavily subsidized Landing (of the $17.9 development cost $11.3 came from the private sector), built in two phases by a St Louis developer. Nearly all rental it was the first downtown adaptive re-use project, converting the YMCA tower into rental apartments.

CityShape/CityScape & the 1988 AIA Charette

Lofts and downtown housing got their start in various ways. One was the CityShape/CityScape urban design lecture series co-sponsored by the Miami Valley Arts Council and the local branch of the American Institute of Architects (or AIA).

These lectures led to a charette by architecture students from the four Ohio architecture schools during the 1988 Ohio AIA convention in Dayton. The important thing was not the charette (which produced some interesting designs), but the visioning exercise that preceded it.

Participants were members of the community who had attended the CityShape/CityScape lectures. It was during this exercise that the Webster Station area surfaced as an area of high interest, so it was chosen as the study area for the student teams. Yer humble host was there, and recall the participants were quite interested in the potential for loft housing and other kinds of housing in this area, particularly the stretch of 3rd that would become the site of the Cannery and The Merc. So this was perhaps the "start" of Webster Station as an area of interest.

The Living City Project

This was, I think, sponsored by the City, but brought in others. The Living City overlapped with CityScape/CityShape for a few years. Living City was an ongoing urban design project + storefront studio + meeting place, seeding the idea of reviving downtown. The materials from the project can bee seen at this Flickr binder. And its worth surfing into, too. One of the events sponsored by Living City was a series of Loft Walks in 1992, to try to generate interest in loft housing conversions.

The combination of CityScape/CityShape and Living City, combined with the success of the Landing apparently did drive some interest in very early loft development, and might have been the starting point for the push to convert the old Beaver Power Building, as a local official mentioned this effort began five years before 1998, which would put the start around the time of the loft walks.

The Downtown Housing Loan Pool and Ramping Up Production

Also shown on the above graph is the two-year period in which the $33M Downtown Housing Loan Pool was established by local banks, but faciliated by the Downtown Dayton Partnership. This pool assisted in the financing of the first two large scale loft projects, The Cannery and old Beaver Power Building, now known as St Clair Lofts. Both of these projects had long lead times before construction was underway, probably due to the difficulty of setting up financing (on the graph the tick mark on the St Clair II and Cannery bars show construction start).

The loan pool would be responsible for some subsequent projects as well (including 90% of the financing for the Ice Avenue Lofts). Then the fund disappeared from press reports. Today it is questionable if this pool still exists.

It should be noted of the larger loft projects attempted the first to market, St Clair Lofts, went bankrupt, as did the conversion of the Ludlow Manor (AKA Schwind Building) subsidized efficiency apartments. Nearly all of the new construction and conversions after the Cannery were for relatively high priced condominiums, not rentals. The only rental to open after the Cannery was the 10 unit Park Place across from 5th/3rd Field.

After the bankruptcy of St Clair Lofts and the Schwind project no new units have opened downtown, pretty much marking the end of the downtown housing craze.

Three loft projects predated the big early 2000s wave. These are the pioneer loft conversions downtown.

Loft Pioneers I: Bill Collett's Loft.

This was the very first loft conversion downtown, and perhaps should not be here since this was sort of private project, akin to a penthouse. But for history, this was it. And I've met the owner. First time in the old Changes gay bar, as Collett was gay, having recently relocated back to Dayton from either NYC or Chicago. So Bill brought the loft concept with him and worked with building owner Ginger Blosser to try to convert the top floor of this building to a loft aparment, which took about three years due to city inflexibility.

The loft was open to the public on the 1990 Mothers Day house tour and was probably the first time the average Daytonian saw a loft, but I've been in it for two private gay events (a benefit for a gay/lesbian political group and the Natalie Barney Dinner). The views of downtown are fabulous!

Loft Pioneers II: The Wise Building

The Dayton Daily News reported in 1992 that plumbing contractor Tom Razauskas was working on converting the upper floor of this little west 5th building into two loft apartments. The lower floor is probably well-know to old comix fans as the former Dragons Lair comic store. Razauskas was predicting completion in 1993, but the finished loft wasn't open until 2005 for an open house, which was well-attended. Another event developing the buzz around downtown housing.

Today the storefronts are vacant, but the loft is still occupied. A nice feature of this building are the multiple roof decks and the rear garage.

Loft Pioneers III: Lofts on St Clair.

Probably the most important of the early lofts because of its impact on future things. This was a larger conversion (6 units) and it was a condominium, foreshadowing most of the future development. And the developers, Rain & Williams, went on to develope other lofts. It's unclear how long the development period was, when it started, but the project was underway and compelte in 2005 or 2006, when it won a preservation award.

It's unclear whether all six units are residential or if some are being used as offices.

The Downtown Housing Boom and Market

The press reported more than once on a 500 unit number as the market for downtown housing. This would be on top of what was already available at The Landing, Cooper Place, and the three older buildings.

One can see how the two big early projects moved the numbers up fast. Then a series of smaller projects built inventory incrementally. Performance Place is a special case as this is a new high rise condo tower, orginally planned to be a hotel, that was originally pitched to a very high-end market that didn't exist, so prices dropped into the range of the other units shown here.

The projects are a mix of new construction and conversion. The last two projects in the works, The Merc (adaptive re-use) and Litehouse ("green" new construction) should move the inventory pretty close to the 500 unit market projections of over 10 years ago, if they do make it to market (technically the Litehouse is on the market since a model has been built).

There are no public market surveys to show if there is a market for additional projects, so we might not be seeing much more housing downtown.

The Developers

One of the issues with downtown housing is that conventional developers shy away from these projects. The city was originally going to start with small non-traditional developers and smaller projects and the strategy did work for a bit.

An example is Bill Rain, who was a partner on the pioneer Lofts on St Clair. Rain moved to larger projects as he gained experience until meeting his match with the Schwind building, which illustrates the risk factor, on how a difficult project or miscalculation can sink even an experienced developer.

One can see some other examples, like the parnters in the Litehouse being the partners at the Firefly Building, or a partner in the Cooper Lofts being a partner in The Merc.

For non-traditional developers there is R&L Trucking out of Wilmington, who was behind converting the old Ramada Inn high-rise into condos (West First), now renting as apartments. A project that in itself is sort of unexpected.

The Others: Social Welfare Housing

The above charts makes it seem that these are the only housing units downtown. Actually there is a lot more. Three big high rises (two converted old prewar hotels and a modern apartment tower) provide 526 subsidized social welfare units for the elderly and perhaps the disabled and poorer people. There was more until Ludlow Manor (Schwind building) went out of the inventory due to the failed renovation (which was to include about 40 subsidized units).

Perhaps the unaknowleged neighbors of downtowns' new lofty people? This graph shold demonstrate that without a doubt that downtown is really a shared mixed-income place

And this social-welfare population would count, too, if one is looking for a market for basics like drug stores and groceries.

One of the notable things is that after the promising start there were two bankruptcies and new development ceased. There were no new developers after 2004 and of the past developers only four chose to move forward on new projects and one of the four went bankrupt. That bankruptcy actually reduced the total number of units downtown because a building under construction was left empty.

This seems to indicate we are at the end of a small boom era in downtown housing, and this end came even before the current economic problems.

Or instead of an end we are "on hiatus". Whether this is the case depends on if there is still a market, or if the market is really larger than was originally thought.

1 comment:

Jefferey said...

Thanks! Mattis Towers looks like a place I lived in in California, but smaller. I thought it was empty, but recall seening people going in a while back.

I think they could use more buildings like that for cheaper rentals. They could rent to the DDC people or similar younger folks who want to live in town, but dont need a lot of space.