commentary (2006-01)

The Edge of Nowhere

Downtown residential development marches on

The Edge of Nowhere

by Matt Edens

"Yay! More condos I can’t afford….” That’s how one local blogger greeted the announcement a few days back by private developers planning to fill a massive hole in the heart of Gay Street’s old commercial district with 70 brand new loft condos and 20,000 square feet of retail space. Odder still, that single bit of bitching was the only reaction I could find anywhere to the announcement. Which is interesting, considering that, just a few short years ago, people scoffed at the idea of a Gay Street crowded with luxury lofts. In the blink of an eye, downtown has gone from dead to overdeveloped—at least in some minds.

Personally, I think we’ve still got a ways to go. Downtown’s stock of derelict loft buildings may be rapidly diminishing and condo developers have moved on to converting some of downtown’s older, half-empty, B-class office buildings into residential, but there is still lots of empty and/or underutilized space in and around downtown. Some are surface parking lots. Others are the sites of government projects that never quite got off the ground. Projects that plug those holes, like the Central Station Lofts, represent downtown redevelopment’s logical next step—even if it is somewhat astounding that we’ve reached that threshold a little more than three years since the Sterchi Building kicked downtown loft development into high gear.

But while downtown redevelopment has come a long way, and the market’s momentum doesn’t seem to be letting up, it’s hardly time to rest on our laurels. Filling in downtown’s vacant space is only a first step, reweaving the inner city’s fractured urban fabric is the greater challenge. Which is where our friend the blogger and all those wannabe urban bohemians priced out of downtown can play a role. Because, while I’m not at all bothered by the rising prices of downtown real estate, they do have something of a point. If downtown becomes an exclusive enclave, disconnected from the inner city that surrounds it, can its revitalization really be called a success?

Bohemians, by settling in less-expensive areas adjacent to downtown, could be crucial to bridging that gap between downtown’s emerging haves and the inner-city’s have-nots. Typically college-educated but chronically short of cash, they have a foot in both camps. Even if, from the perspective of most low-income inner-city residents, the line between them and loft-dwelling yuppies is, at best, a blurry one. 

Few things better illustrate the point than the recent bellyaching about the perceived “gentrification” of downtown. And I do mean perceived. The vast majority of the buildings that have been converted to lofts were long vacant beforehand. So, rather than being disgruntled over rising prices pushing people out of their homes—the classic definition of gentrification—the complaints come from people priced out of buying one in the first place. Coupled with that is the charge that the “yuppification” of downtown is stripping it of edgy diversity to sanitize it for the sake of upscale inhabitants. At least that seems to be the implication behind our blogger friend’s comment that he wants to “know what downtown will look like by the time I can afford to live there. Will it be a place I want to live?”

Well, if affordability, diversity and edginess are what he wants, all three abound in many of the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. (Just last week, the Urban Renewal column featured a fully restored two-bedroom bungalow in Parkridge priced at $79,900, and you can still find fixer-uppers for much less.) But, in my experience, the mere mention of Magnolia or Mechanicsville is often all it takes for a twenty-something with an indie-rock t-shirt and a shaggy slacker haircut to suddenly turn as conservative as anyone from Cedar Bluff—particularly if they grew up around here; out-of-towners often carry less baggage.

Which makes me wonder: Just how edgy was downtown even before all the luxury lofts “ruined” it? The haunt of attorneys, bankers and government bureaucrats by day and often largely deserted by night, downtown’s “edginess” was mostly the result of a few rundown buildings and a handful of homeless. In other words, downtown was more romantic than real. Which may be what some of the bitching is ultimately about: The make-believe becomes harder to maintain if, instead of heading to the suburbs at the end of the day, the bankers and attorneys go home to their lofts.