Trend to call downtown ‘home sweet home’ could take off in Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 13, 2014

SALISBURY — When James Abbott walked into the apartment on the third floor above Spanky’s two years ago, the recent Catawba College graduate and music industry insider couldn’t believe his luck.
“As soon as George opened the door, I was sold,” Abbott said of the 1,500-square-foot loft atop the 1858 Kluttz Drugstore Building, which George and Margaret Kluttz and Bill and Susan Kluttz restored in the mid-1980s.
With soaring ceilings, original hardwood floors and gigantic windows that reveal sweeping views of the downtown and beyond, Abbott said he knew he’d found his first home.
The 23-year-old shares his loft with a rescued Maine coon cat named “Wolfie” and is part of a growing trend among young professionals and empty-nesters to opt for urban lifestyles. America’s major metropolitan downtowns saw double-digit population growth from 2000 to 2010, more than twice the rate of growth for their overall cities, according to the U.S. Census.
The population of Salisbury’s Municipal Service District — the general downtown area that pays an extra tax and measures just under two-tenths of a square mile — grew from 532 people in 2000 to 595 people in 2010 but fell slightly in 2013 to 581.
As more Americans shun the suburbs for homes in walkable, urban areas with access to restaurants, shops and entertainment, cities are scrambling to revitalize their central business districts and come up with enough residential space to meed demand. Salisbury is no exception.
The city has proposed economic incentive grants that could cut more than $100,000 off the price of developing downtown apartments and condos. Those incentives, along with the possibility of sunsetting historic preservation tax credits, have local developers buzzing about creating downtown residential.
City incentives are “a wonderful idea and mechanism to hopefully encourage people to take more risk with ground floor and upper floors of buildings. Many of the upper floors are vacant,” developer Victor Wallace said. “We are looking at the opportunities that we have, and I have heard discussion from others of the same thing.”
In the heart of downtown, Salisbury has an estimated 41 existing residential units. Half are located in the city-owned Plaza on the Square, which has a waiting list but generates no property taxes. The Plaza, which charges between $600 and $1,100 per month for 20 units between 700 and 1,200 square feet, generally sets the rent for all downtown residential space.
Taking into account a larger area of the downtown — including the Kress Plaza and Firehouse Lofts with a total of 16 owner-occupied condominiums — there are about 83 living spaces.
But the potential for downtown residential is huge. While 26 floors currently host apartments or condos, roughly 66 more floors are available, according to a preliminary survey by the city. No one knows exactly how many people live downtown, and Downtown Salisbury Inc. has lunched an in-depth inventory to determine population, vacancies, potential residential spaces, rent ranges and more as part of a new database of downtown property.
Wallace and his family, the second largest property owner in the downtown after the city of Salisbury, are considering turning the second and third floors above the former Cooper’s restaurant — a total of 16,000 square feet — into 10 to 15 apartments.
The Wallaces currently do not own any downtown residential property. Their subdivision development ground to a halt during the recession, and now that the economy has turned, Wallace said his family is looking at the city core, not the suburbs, for new projects.
“Coming out of the recession, we are taking a harder look at things and seeing more demand, especially among younger and older people, to be in an urban environment,” Wallace said.
Developers Chad Vriesema and Bryan Wymbs already have taken the leap, buying the old Bernhardt Hardware buildings and hiring architect Gray Stout to design six upscale apartments on the second floor over retail space. Residential rent will range from $850 to $1,200 a month.
With the recently restored Hardiman Building, new Integro Technologies headquarters and in-the-works Hedrick Building rehabilitation all offering new downtown office space, Vriesema said he and Wymbs decided to go with residential at the Bernhardt because they wanted to do something different.
“To make downtown flourish, you need people living downtown, and we are right at the cusp of seeing that growth, Vriesema said.
Construction is set to begin in about six weeks, starting with one retail space and two upper level apartments on the south end. The first phase of construction will include restoring all three storefronts, as well as installing new infrastructure, sprinklers and windows — most of the originals are not salvageable — throughout the buildings.
Crews will preserve the hardwood floors, tin ceilings and staircases and add an elevator.
If all goes as planned, the first residents of the Bernhardt will be unpacking boxes in their new apartments by the end of the year. Vriesema and Wymbs have three potential tenants so far.
Renovating upper floors for residential use makes sense, Stout said. The buildings are underutilized, and owners can generate additional income with the same property, he said.
With six apartments on the drawing board in downtown Lincolnton and four in downtown Morganton, Stout said he sees the trend growing. He said he has discussed the possibility of designing upper level residential with two other property owners in downtown Salisbury.
“They are talking about it, which they have not done in years,” he said.
Living above office, retail or restaurant space can come with problems. Months of conflict with a local restaurant and bar caused one family to leave downtown Salisbury last year.
Lack of longterm parking can frustrate downtown dwellers. While some buildings like the Plaza have parking lots, people like Abbott have to park a block or two away from home if they plan to leave their car for more than two hours during the day.
Parking on downtown streets overnight is allowed, and Cheryl Goins went out to move her car at 10 a.m. recently. She found a $5 parking ticket already tucked under the wiper.
“That’s a little aggressive,” said Goins, who lives above her shop, Pottery 101.
Mark Lewis, president of Downtown Salisbury Inc., promised to help resolve the matter.
Abbott suggests creating a parking pass for downtown residents. Lewis said the city must ensure adequate infrastructure, including parking, if officials and developers want more people to live downtown.
If a building does not have an elevator, like the Kluttz Drugstore, hauling groceries up and carrying a bicycle — or a 25-pound Maine coon inside a cat carrier — down can be tough.
“Anything you carry up these steps, even if it’s just a gallon of milk or laundry detergent, you can really feel it when you get up here,” Abbott said.
Toby Hagmaier, who lives above her shop Southern Spirit Gallery, said she misses having a yard.
But getting people to come up with any pitfalls of living downtown takes some coaxing. For the most part, they sing the praises of their urban lifestyle.
“Living downtown, I absolutely love,” said Hagmaier, who moved downtown five years ago. “I’m within walking distance of great restaurants, the theaters, the shops, everything you could want. The only reason I use my car is to go to the grocery store every other week.”
Dr. Charles Steinman said his commute to the Animal Care Center of Salisbury takes “about 30 seconds.” From the seventh floor of the Plaza, where he pays $865 a month for a 1,200-square-foot two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment, Steinman said he can see the sun rise and set, as well as look for traffic jams on Interstate 85.
“We love living downtown,” he said. “We just love it.”
Many claim they even love the noise. Abbott counted 14 sirens in one day, which he said “doesn’t bother me in the least.”
“It’s gotten to point where if I go someplace really quiet, it doesn’t seem right,” said Goins, who moved downtown in 2008. “We love downtown, love our neighbors, love the convenience.”
Downtown is still missing important elements that would help attract more residents, like a grocery store. But the city has largely resolved safety issues in the entertainment district, Wallace said, making it more appealing for residential development.
“Frankly, the neighborhood has improved dramatically in the past 10 years,” he said. “The pool hall is now a children’s theater. Two former crack houses are now Emma’s restaurant and a cigar shop. The neighborhood is much more tolerant to residential.”
The mix of condos over late-night activity at the Salty Caper and New Sarum Brewery on South Lee Street, across from the former Cooper’s, has worked well, said Stout, who developed the Firehouse Urban Lofts in 2005.
Before walking into the loft above Spanky’s, Abbott had considered downtown apartments in Charlotte and Winston-Salem. None could compare, he said.
The artist manager for Ramseur Records in Concord, representing bands including the Avett Brothers and Bombadil, Abbott works mostly from home and has filled his apartment with what he dubs “mantiques” — industrial meets mid-century modern decor like huge “E,” “A” and “T” letters from an old theater marquee that now are on top of his refrigerator. He has a Coca-Cola cooler that doubles as a sideboard.
With the scent of Spanky’s homemade soup wafting up three flights of stairs, Abbott said he eats out nearly every meal and has the specials at downtown eateries memorized.
Wolfie, whose ragged right ear reveals hardship during at least one of his previous cat lives, often perches on a kitty jungle gym to watch passersby below on Main Street. Abbott sometimes joins him at the window, waving to pedestrians and motorists who happen to glance skyward.
“When people look up here and realize people live up here, I think they’re shocked,” he said.
Developers and city officials hope the sight of people living above shops and restaurants in downtown Salisbury will become the norm, not the exception.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.