The 'lofting' of America
Down with the yard and two-car garage! In cities of all sizes, people of all ages flock to the loft.
September 17, 2003: 4:57 PM EDT
By Sarah Max, CNN/Money Staff Writer

BEND, Ore. (CNN/Money) - Last year Bill Bertram, 50, said goodbye to his 3,000-square-foot house and sprawling lawn in the suburbs and headed downtown to a newly converted loft apartment ? complete with 18-foot ceilings, skylights, floor-to-ceiling windows, even a roof-top garden.

Is the new pad in Soho? Tribeca, perhaps? Actually, Bertram lives in Wausau, Wis. (population 38,000), where the downtown is thriving, and the waiting list for new loft apartments is growing.

Because the developer of the building, Compass Properties, received low-interest loans through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there is a limit to how much rent it can charge during the next five years. Bertram is renting his place for about $600, a bargain compared with similar properties, but cheap rent is just icing on the cake.

"I don't have the hassle of cutting the grass," said Bertram, who lives in his "funky" digs with his 17-year-old son and would happily buy the loft if it were for sale. "And a lot of the activities I enjoy are right outside my door."

In Omaha, Neb., meanwhile, students ("the ones who can afford to drive new Range Rovers"), empty nesters who've ditched their big houses, and young professionals who want to be close to the heart of the city are moving into lofts.

"We're seeing a lot of people who want to live downtown in historical buildings or in newer buildings that have a loft feel," said Tammy Barrett, co-owner of NuStyle Development, which has developed about 30 such buildings in Omaha.

Indeed, the same attributes that first attracted New York artists to loft apartments decades ago ? high ceilings, open floor plans, natural light and great locations ? are now appealing to people of all ages, in cities of all sizes.

But it's not just about big windows and exposed beams.

"The loft symbolizes the excitement of urban living," said Alexander von Hoffman, a senior fellow at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies and author of the new book "House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods"

Urban Revival
The 2000 Census marked a turning point for many cities across the country. For the first time in decades, the data showed people moving into, not out of, the city.

In Atlanta, where the suburbs swelled and the downtown dwindled, the Census showed that for the first time in 30 years the city population grew. Between 2000 and 2003, according to a recent report by the Atlanta Regional Commission, 16,000 new residents moved into the city of Atlanta, a growth of about 4 percent.

"The fashion for loft living started in New York and slowly caught on in other cities, but it's quite striking to see in Atlanta," said von Hoffman.

Houston is another city where the once-snubbed urban center is booming. "For the first time ever,our inner city growth equaled or exceeded that of the suburbs," said Jeffrey Brown, design principal at Powers Brown Architecture and adjunct professor of design at the University of Houston College of Architecture.

Because Houston doesn't have a lot of historic buildings that can be converted into lofts, developers have been building what purists call "faux lofts." The Dakota, Gotham, Manhattan, and the Strand are among the many new loft buildings with old-fashioned facades.

Unlike loft pioneers, who wanted a cheap place to live, today's residents pay a premium for exposed brick. Rent in the Dakota, for example, ranges from $875 to $3,500 a month compared with $600 for the average rent in Houston. Sale prices in the Manhattan start at $295,000 for 1,232 square feet and top $1 million for 4,182 square feet. Not a bargain, considering that the median single-family home in the Houston area was recently $137,000, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Who's buying? There are the usual suspects ? single professionals. But couples with children are also staying in the city rather than fleeing to the suburbs, and baby boomers are fleeing from the suburbs, and their high-maintenance homes, to be close to shopping, restaurants, and the arts.

"I'm amazed at the number of older people moving in downtown," said Brown. "The coffee shops are packed with people in their 50s just hanging out."

Still, the trend of urban living isn't necessarily driven by specific demographics, said Terry Shook, co-founder of Shook Kelley, a design firm in Los Angeles and Charlotte, N.C.

It's a mindset.

"There are people who crave social interaction, who want to be near the center, who value the urban experience over the perceived security of a single-family house," Shook said. He noted that Charlotte's downtown population has grown tenfold from just 800 in the early 1990s to 8,000. "It cuts across all economic spectrums, race and age."

Big-city living minus the big city

Not everyone can (or wants to) pack up and move to the city. So why not bring the city to them?

Small towns and bedroom communities are revamping their city centers or creating new ones from scratch.

"On a smaller scale the suburbs are reproducing what the cities have," said Brown. "People are interested in getting away from driving everywhere and instead centralizing their life."

There are numerous examples of communities creating mixed-use developments where residents can walk out of their loft-like apartments to the local wine bar or coffee shop, window shop on pedestrian streets and feel like they're part of a modern Norman Rockwell fantasy.

One such place is Birkdale Village in Huntersville, N.C., about 15 miles north of Charlotte. "It's a commuter neighborhood, but people say they are moving there to feel as if they are part of something larger than themselves," said Shook, whose firm designed and planned the development, nominated for the Urban Land Institute's 2003 Award of Excellence.

In small cities like Wausau, there is also an emphasis on creating a sense of community, by reviving the downtowns that already exist. Loft apartments have an important roll in bringing people back to city centers, according to Mark Craig, general manager of Compass Properties.

"I have a house and a yard, but part of me wants to move into one of the lofts," he said.

Why? "Well, they're just so cool."