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.