Living for the city

Downtown isn't just for single 20-somethings anymore. Across the West, from Seattle to Phoenix, couples and families are forsaking the quiet burbs for urban vitality

Empty-nest status loomed over Peter and Cindy Blandino in one of Phoenix's outer suburbs three years ago when friends who lived downtown innocently invited them over one evening. Recalls Cindy, "We walked to a chamber music concert in one of the downtown art galleries. Within a week, we made an offer on a house three blocks away. I've never done anything like that in my life."

"Impulsive" was radically out of character for her. But then, living in downtown Phoenix was equally unimaginable for most people — until recently. Now Phoenix is undergoing an urban renaissance, following a surge of downtown living in cities across the West.

Best established in San Diego, San Francisco, and Portland, the movement is also burgeoning in Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and several smaller cities. Urban pioneers are doing what decades of city redevelopment schemes involving convention plazas and performing arts venues and downtown malls failed at so spectacularly: investing their cities' hearts with new life.

IN SEATTLE, NO MORE "THE FAMILY THAT LIVES DOWNTOWN"

Compared with other cities in the West, Seattle never suffered from advanced downtown decay, thanks to a business-and-retail district that remained vibrant despite competition from the suburbs. Still, for decades the city's core was almost bereft of actual residents. Architect Carolyn Geise recalls moving into a Pioneer Square building in 1966 with her sculptor husband and baby; tour guides would point them out as "the family that lives downtown." Three decades later, however, when Geise rehabbed a 1914 brick box factory into dramatic, New York–style lofts, more than 100 people inquired about the 18 condos before they even opened.

In fact, one of the most surprising things about today's back-to-the-city movement is that it includes young families — the kind of people you expect to feel more at home in a suburb.

Joe and Peggy Lovejoy, 39 and 43, and their 4- and 6-year-old children were living in suburban West Seattle, when they opted to go from a 3,200-square-foot house into a 900-square-foot condo in the South Lake Union neighborhood. Surprisingly, they did it largely for the kids.

"We've been going on more 'trips' — the new Seattle Art Museum sculpture park, the aquarium," Peggy says. "There's also something to be said for simplifying and minimizing. They used to have hordes of toys — so many they didn't know what to play with at any given time. When we moved in here, we limited them to one box each. They've been playing constantly."

Whether families or singles, the new urban pioneers frequently explain themselves as risk-takers, adventurers.

"I wanted to be in the middle of all this energy," says Michelle Jones, 32, who bought a penthouse loft at 81 Vine in Belltown, one of Seattle's hot downtown neighborhoods, four years ago. "I'm a person who likes to know that life is happening outside."

Today, Seattle's city-living movement has spread to at least three epicenters: Belltown, Capitol Hill, and South Lake Union. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen's Vulcan Real Estate is furiously developing the latter, with nearly 600 new lofts, condos, and apartments open already, and 495 more in four more buildings under construction.

   
 
Seattle's new waterfront
Family fun in Phoenix
Downtown keeps it cool
Low-key fun in West Seattle
 
   
Some of these are novel living spaces for Seattle. Vulcan's Alley24, opened last year, grafted new five- and six-story office, retail, and apartment buildings onto a historic commercial laundry building, itself transmuted into new apartments. All these huddle around two internal "alleys" intended as a cultural crossroads.

TURNING PHOENIX INTO A HOMEY SMALL TOWN

Downtown Phoenix has been moribund for decades, the city and its suburbs wedded to an image of wide streets and long, low ranch houses stretching to the horizons. But seven years ago, a project converting a tired old apartment building into the Lofts at Fillmore ignited a movement that's spawning new downtown galleries, restaurants, and condo towers up to 34 stories.

Benjamin Joerg, now 36, was among the earliest to buy into the building. Since then he's traded up to a three-story loft in Willetta 9, on the northern fringe of downtown. His office, furnished with a curvaceous Herman Miller chair, a sleek glass desk, and an iMac computer, covers the ground floor, where he works from home three days a week. The second level is the kitchen and living room, and the third is a bedroom and mezzanine music studio. "I really bought into the verticalness," he says. "Every level is different, and the energy of each space is different."

Maria Radloff, also 36, recently moved from the Lofts at Fillmore to a larger close-in condo too. She says that for downtown residents, Phoenix (which just muscled past Philadelphia as the nation's fifth largest city) feels like a homey small town: She knows all the restaurant owners, buys her vegetables at the farmers' market, and walks everywhere — even in Phoenix's scorching summers. "I have a vision of downtown, and I'm living forward into that vision of a true urban lifestyle," she says.

But Phoenix isn't as far along the downtown-living amenity scale as Seattle, where two new high-end supermarkets have opened within the past year. Joerg says Phoenix still lags in entertainment — live music, bars, and restaurants. Radloff says it needs more street trees and shade structures to encourage more street life — for people and dogs. She can't take Lacey, her greyhound, for daytime walks. "The sidewalks are too hot for her feet."

There are other drawbacks to downtown living. Cindy Blandino reports that some mornings when she walks outdoors "to survey the back 40" — her backyard — she can smell the brown cloud of air pollution that she used to see from the freeways. And in many cities, families with children will find that the traditional draw of the suburbs, good schools, indeed remains in the outer orbit.

But the downtown movement has opened up more options in ways to live. It may even be a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking about "home." Whether loft, condo, or historic cottage, it's smaller but more adaptable to changing needs and fashion, closer to cultural and intellectual nerve centers of the city, and demanding less of the homeowners' time. Says Joel Contreras, a 31-year-old Phoenix real estate broker who runs a loft-focused website, "Here's the standard scenario. People move into a loft space and put everything that won't fit in a storage locker. After a year, they find they haven't missed any of it, so they have a sale."

Seattle architect Blaine Weber, whose firm, Weber+Thompson, has designed several downtown residential projects (and who lives downtown himself), says there's a longing for surroundings with the feel of permanence and authenticity. As he says, "I think we're all tired of vinyl siding."

INFO: Check out the Phoenix Loft Network and Alley24 for a peek at representative Phoenix and Seattle lofts.

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