Loft apartments lure residents back into the central city

Urban, sleek and architecturally striking, there’s a big-city feel to the First Street Lofts in the heart of downtown Flint, Michigan. Situated on the top floors of a seven-story, 81-year-old office building on the National Registry of Historical Places, 16 new loft apartments are attracting tenants who seek quality construction, diverse neighbors and proximity to work.

Work crews will remove protective plywood window coverings when final construction is complete on the First Street Loft unit shown.

“I can see the hospital from my bedroom window,” said Patrick Wardell, new chief executive officer of Flint’s Hurley Medical Center and a tenant of the First Street lofts. “I can lay here and fret about the hospital at night,” he joked.

Married and the father of three, Wardell opted to lease a top-floor loft while his wife remains at the family home outside Detroit until the couple’s youngest daughter completes her final year of high school.

“This is a place for me,” he said, adding that he, his wife and the family dog will consider moving to a larger loft-style apartment once they make Flint their permanent home.

Work crews will remove protective plywood window coverings when final construction is complete on the First Street Loft unit shown.

Larger, more family-accommodating loft apartments currently are being built downtown by the same development group that created the First Street Lofts, according to Scott Whipple, project manager at Uptown Developments LLC, which provided partial funding for the $6.3 million First Street project. Conventional loans, tax credits, state and private dollars, including a $500,000 grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, made up the balance of the financing. Republic Bank, which donated the property to the Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, also signed a ten-year lease and will continue operations in the renovated ground and second floors of the building.

The “wedding cake,” as Whipple affectionately calls the white, Beaux Arts-style building, also received an exterior facelift that restored its original glazed terra cotta sheathing and ornamental cornices.

The opportunity to live in an “attractive historical building” contributed to Wardell’s decision to choose a loft. A self-described “city kid from New York,” he grew up in the Bronx. Prior to his arrival at Hurley, he was senior vice president and executive director of Saint Vincent Medical Center in New York with responsibility for hospitals in the Brooklyn-Queens region.

“I believe in five to 10 years, Flint’s downtown will come back,” he said. “I watched Brooklyn and the Bronx go downhill, and I watched them come back. If that can happen in New York, I don’t see why it can’t happen in Flint.

“By doing a little urban pioneering, I like to think I’m a small part of this larger process.”

Lofts are an urban phenomenon, originating in Paris in the mid-1800s as artists sought space to create and exhibit the oversized paintings popular at the time. Purists still insist a true loft contain both living and work space — preferably located in abandoned commercial properties featuring the requisite high ceilings, wooden or concrete flooring and large windows that give lofts their unique appeal.

I watched Brooklyn and the Bronx go downhill, and I watched them come back. If that can happen in New York, I don’t see why it can’t happen in Flint.” Scott Whipple

Generally, any apartment in an urban location that features open floor plans, generous natural light and high ceilings now is considered a loft. Commercial buildings, often abandoned by businesses that relocate to more accessible, highly populated suburbs, are ideal properties for this type of adaptive re-use, according to Karen A. Bilich, author of the Lofts Fact Sheet.

Like many central cities, Flint has witnessed a decline in its downtown area despite the development of a major university campus and proximity to a variety of cultural institutions. To counter this negative trend, a downtown master plan, created by Sasaki Associates, Inc. in 2002, was developed by the Uptown Reinvestment Corporation with Mott funding. The master plan is being used as the basis for a number of redevelopment strategies, including new housing initiatives that will feed demand for complementary shops and services.

“When I began looking for housing, I realized I’d always lived in cities with a downtown,” Wardell said. “In this area, Flint is the only place with a real downtown.”

Wardell also has a professional interest in the fate of Flint’s central city.

“Living downtown sensitizes me to what’s possible,” he said. “What happens at Hurley is very tied into what happens downtown. Understanding issues related to the city’s redevelopment is very helpful to me.”

A key institution in close proximity to downtown Flint, Hurley is uniquely positioned to support the city’s revitalization efforts Wardell said. Currently, Hurley is developing a master facility and land-use plan for the campus that also addresses neighborhood development. A multiyear grant of $232,000 from the Mott Foundation is supporting Hurley’s efforts to align this work with the Sasaki master plan.

“We have about 2,500 employees at Hurley,” Wardell said. Safe, well-maintained neighborhoods near the medical center are a great incentive for keeping and recruiting high caliber staff. Hurley plans to conduct an employee survey to assess interest in purchasing or renting homes near the medical center as part of the neighborhood revitalization plan.

Wardell is convinced that “as long as downtowns are safe and pedestrian friendly,” there is a housing market for the central city.

Whipple agrees.

“Tastes are changing,” he said. “Younger people are bored by the suburbs and older people are tired of mowing their lawns. Single people are the fastest growing segment of the population. Housing choices are becoming increasingly different from previous decades.”