Movin' on up

Renters rave about downtown Columbia’s hip mixed-use housing
Thursday, April 8, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:05 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Among the hottest items Cool Stuff owner Arnie Fagan sells are the apartments above his store.

“My apartments are on the Times Square of Columbia,” said Fagan, referring to his building’s location at Broadway and Eighth Street. “You can’t get a better location — period.”

When Fagan closes shop, his home is only seconds away in one of the apartments above his store. Although his situation is reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century general store owner, he’s not unusual. In fact, Fagan is among hundreds of people who enjoy living downtown.

City leaders might like to see even more people get the chance to live in apartments above downtown stores, otherwise known as mixed-use housing. After hearing a consultant’s report on affordable housing last month, they’re reviewing the recommendations, including whether construction of more downtown apartments might boost the central business district and at the same time encourage more affordable housing throughout the city.

Downtown apartments can be costly

Depending on the quality of the apartment, though, prime spots downtown can be relatively expensive compared to other locations around the city. So how do they help create affordable housing?

By increasing the city’s overall housing supply with projects downtown and without a change in demand, prices in the market as a whole would go down, Doug Frederick of J-Quad and Associates said Wednesday. The Dallas firm, hired by the city to study affordable housing issues, presented its report last month to the city’s Housing Steering Committee.

Frederick added that if students remain attracted to the convenience of downtown, they might be drawn to new mixed-use housing. That, in turn, would shift the target population for and the price of homes outside downtown — such as duplexes — that are typically occupied by students.

The problem will be finding developers to build new mixed-use housing because of uncertainty in the market, City Planner Roy Dudark said.

“It might stimulate more interest if we had one or two developers demonstrate it,” Dudark said.

To help entice developers, Frederick said, the city could apply for an estimated $1.5 million in federal low-interest loans for two possible mixed-use housing projects. Developers would then apply to the city for the aid, and those who receive it would have to make some of the apartments they build available at affordable costs, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Loans could create cheaper housing

Frederick said the loans are designed to stimulate development downtown and promote affordable housing at the same time.

Carrie Gartner, director of Downtown Columbia Associations, said such a plan would make good use of vacant space. Downtown can’t grow up, but needs to expand outward, she said, adding that she has talked to developers who are very interested in mixed-use housing projects.

“We have enough vacant lots to keep us busy for a while,” Gartner said, citing vacant property in the Flat Branch area and along Fourth through Seventh streets.

Gartner said all of the more than 250 apartments downtown are full, and some have lengthy waiting lists. The most common calls to her office come from apartment seekers, she said.

“There’s a huge demand, and it’s not just college students,” Gartner said. “It’s also young professionals and people looking to retire.”

For MU student Meredith Woerner, though, living downtown might remain only a wish. Since the beginning of the year, she and a friend have put themselves on waiting lists for several apartments downtown. At one point, they had one of Fagan’s apartments within their grasp, but confusion about another roommate caused them to run out of time to sign the lease. Now they’ll probably live in East Campus, Woerner said.

“You’ve got to know someone — that’s the key,” she said.

MU student Nate Tomasi and his three roommates lucked out. A fraternity connection landed them on top of a waiting list about this time last year. Now they’re living above Widman’s Bar and Grill on Broadway.

But they didn’t get settled into the apartment overlooking Eighth Street right away. Renovations ran behind, so they spent two months in the Regency Inn Premier Hotel.

All four said the wait was worth it, now that they’ve moved into the spacious two-level apartment that still smells of new paint. They particularly like the tiled landings in the stairways, which are unique to their apartment. From the stairs, they can gaze up through the vertical windows at an American flag atop First National Bank across the street. At the top of the staircase, they often play basketball with a miniature ball and net.

Convenience major advantage to living downtown

Convenience, not just a good view, is what makes them most satisfied with their home. Three of the four roommates work downtown — one, Jeff Aistrup, works next door at Quizno’s — and they said they’re able to fully enjoy downtown activities, restaurants and bars.

The apartment costs $1,600 per month. It’s a fair price when it’s split four ways, both for the location and when compared to housing options farther away, the roommates said.

That willingness on the part of tenants to pay extra for the amenities of downtown living could entice housing developers to look at building downtown, especially given the potential for financial assistance from the city and HUD.

“The importance of it is to try to support the vitality and level of activity in and around the downtown area by providing a more resident population,” Dudark said.

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