Living in Downtown Johnson City: Investments beginning to pay off with residential growth

Nathan Baker • Nov 17, 2013 at 10:49 AM

As cities seek to re-enliven their long-dormant downtown areas, they’re looking to young professionals and small families to take up residence in trendy apartments in newly rehabilitated buildings, hoping the influx of tenants and disposable income will help kick-start investment.

Diana Stewart is a shining example of one of those high-prized tenants.

She attended graduate school at East Tennessee State University, and in the past few years, has bounced back and forth between the Tri-Cities and her hometown in Indiana, but a job offer from a tech-heavy marketing company brought her back to Johnson City in September.

“I’ve been back a few times since I left, because I have friends and family down here, and I knew I wanted to live downtown because of all the revitalization,” Stewart said Friday in the open kitchen of her fourth-floor suite on Tipton Street. “I’ve lived in the Tree Streets before, and it was quiet and quaint, and I loved it, but I knew I wanted to be in the middle of stuff where I could just walk to do stuff and not have to worry about it.”

In the past two months, Stewart said she’s slowly been exploring her new urban environs while not at work, sampling some of the new restaurants and joining a 24-hour gym downtown.

“The streets are noisy at certain times, but all in all, I can’t complain,” she said. “I love being able to go downstairs, have a drink and not have to worry about driving home, I love going to the farmers market and I just joined Fitness Energy, so everything I need is pretty much down here.”

Washington County Economic Development Council Revitalization Director Shannon Castillo said those are the sentiments that prove the public and private investments made over the past few years have started to pay off.

Savvy business will follow a stable, sizable customer base, and having a mixed-use downtown area places both daytime office employees and residents mere steps away from the stores that offer them services and goods.

“The more people we have downtown, the more demand we have for other amenities,” she said. “When people live downtown, they’ll shop here, they’ll go out to eat here, they’ll go to art galleries here — it creates kind of a self-contained area where the residents benefit from the businesses and the businesses benefit from the residents.”

The quality and variety of businesses will attract more customers and residents, which will ultimately catch the eyes of potential developers interested in investing downtown, Castillo said.

Brandy McKinney, General Manager and Principal Broker for the Urban Redevelopment Alliance, said demand for downtown residential real estate is currently outpacing supply.

The URA manages and markets more than 50 residential units in a handful of rehabilitated buildings downtown, nearly all of which are occupied.

“There’s a great need for residential apartments and condos downtown,” McKinney said. “Everything that we have right now is 100 percent occupied, and we’re being contacted all the time by building owners who want to build more.”

According to a count by URA, there are approximately 275 residential units in downtown buildings, a mix of owner-occupied and rentals.

Demand is so high that McKinney said URA’s Paxton Place, a 26-unit apartment building at the intersection of South Roan Street and State of Franklin Road, is nearly full before it even opens next month.

Other developers are also active in or near the downtown area.

The top two floors of the Tennessee National Bank building, at the corner of East Main and Spring streets, are currently being converted into either eight or 16 studio apartments by Nugen Developers, and on Cherry Street, behind the Sylvania building on South Roan, Todd Carter is nearing completion of two buildings housing 15 units.

But with the influx of new residents, Stewart, McKinney and Castillo all agreed one thing is needed downtown.

“It would be nice to have a place to get groceries down here,” Stewart said. “Just a little shop where I can get milk and bread and a few other convenience items.”

Castillo said the WCEDC has long understood the need for a market in the area, and hopes the new dwellers will entice one to open soon.

“The more residents we have downtown, it raises the need for shopping,” she said. “I really do think that we’ll get one one day soon.”

That said, Castillo said there are “no real leads” right now for interested grocery stores.

Another dilemma that usually arises in the course of a downtown resurgence is where to find adequate parking.

Stewart said at her building, which is managed by URA, a private parking lot is available for some renters.

“I’ve never really had a problem parking,” she said. “Our lot is right across from the front door and it’s pretty well lit, so I’ve never felt unsafe at night.”

But McKinney said the finite number of spaces could eventually lead to conflicts between residents and businesses or the rise of paid parking.

”There’s not a lot of parking right now,” McKinney said. “Paxton Place has a private lot, and there’s a fairly large lot on the other side of State of Franklin, but sometimes the police will enforce towing the night before the farmers market is supposed to be there. I definitely understand the struggle between residents who live downtown and businesses who want their customers to be able to park near their shops.”

Some of those concerns should be alleviated a bit when the farmers market relocates next summer to its new location at the head of Founders Park, but McKinney said residents new to downtown living will have to get used to the unique dynamic.

“A lot of people don’t understand the concept of living downtown,” she said “Typically, in a downtown situation, you have to walk a little bit to get where your building is. That’s just something people are going to have to realize as the downtown area gets more popular.”

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