Downtown residents enjoy low cost of living, want more retail

More retail outlets would enhance city, residents say

When Mieko Di Sano moved to Augusta last summer for a new job, she considered living in neighborhoods outside of downtown before choosing to rent a 1,500-square-foot loft on Broad Street.

“Honestly, I walked into my place and all I saw were windows,” said Di Sano, Symphony Orchestra Augusta’s executive director. “I was sold.”

With hardwood floors, 12-foot ceilings and exposed duct work, Di Sano found the loft apartment in the Sylvester Building near Eighth and Broad streets charming. It’s also affordable and close to work.

Di Sano, originally from San Jose, Calif., finds the downtown environment appealing, having lived in several cities, from Los Angeles to Washington D.C.

“Most of the places I’ve lived have all been kind of similar to this where I could just walk around,” she said. “I could walk to bars and restaurants, ride my bicycle. One difference is that there’s no grocery or anything down here. I’m hoping that will change soon.”

Margaret Woodard, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, seems to believe it will.

Earlier this month, authority board members, who are appointed by the Augusta Commission, approved a $60,000 contract to an Alabama retail consulting group for a study designed to bring businesses downtown. The three-year study is expected to be funded in part by private investors.

“We don’t have everything that a residence would need, but we’re getting there,” Woodard said.

Woodard said a retail resurgence is the next step to revitalizing downtown Augusta. The first phase, attracting residents to live there, has been achieved during the past five years, she said.

Through surveying downtown property managers and tracking new housing projects, Woodard estimates that 99 percent of downtown rental units are occupied. Woodard said she focuses on contacting the four or five major players in downtown development, such as Rex Group and Haltermann Partners.

In a five-year span, more than 150 rental units have been added to downtown’s housing stock, Woodard said. About 108 of those market-rate apartments were either created in the past two years or will be finished this year, she said. Many are the result of historic renovation projects by private companies that are eligible for loans through the Georgia Cities Foundation.

“There’s kind of a rebirth of living in the downtown area again,” she said.

Caren “Ooollee” Bricker, owner of Vintage Ooollee at 1121 Broad St., agreed with Di Sano’s assessment that a greater retail component is needed downtown.

Bricker and her husband, John, have lived in a 2,600-square space above the vintage store for 15 years. The couple now own the building.

The Augusta native said she loves the ease and convenience of downtown living, and while she’s noticed a recent boom in the restaurant and bar business, she thinks, like Di Sano, that retail is lacking.

“That’s the one thing that we’re really missing,” she said. “I wish we had a grocery store and a drugstore down here.”

Woodard said bringing residents downtown to live is only half the battle ­– convincing them to stay presents a different challenge.

The majority of downtown transplants cross the spectrum, she said, ranging from baby boomers to medical students to young professionals. A greater emphasis also needs to be placed on developing green space, more amenities and transportation options, she said.

“What we need to look at is once they’re here, how do we keep them here before they need the swing sets and the school systems,” Woodard said.

Merry Land Properties managing partner Tennent Houston has operated in Southeastern cities such as Columbia, Savannah, Ga., Greensboro, N.C., and Charleston, S.C. He said downtown Augusta has “probably the most consistently high-occupancy market” that he’s encountered.

“While some people prefer suburban living, there’s a large segment of society today that just loves to live where they can walk to coffee shops or restaurants or bars,” Houston said. “You just get an experience in a historic neighborhood that’s unlike anything else available.”

His three buildings from the 900 to the 1200 blocks of Greene Street, which average about 25 units each, remain full, he said.

Houston attributed the relatively recent boom in downtown living in part to the area’s growing medical and military community.

“It simply makes good financial sense to renovate old buildings and put them in service,” he said. “Prior to that, people really had to love an old building and do it, in part at least, as a labor of love.”

Cities of a similar size to Augusta also have seen a familiar trend. In Chattanooga, Tenn., which has a downtown population larger than Augusta’s, rental units remained about 99 percent occupied, said Kim White, president of River City Co., which is in charge of Chattanooga’s downtown development.

“Rents are rapidly rising,” White said. “We do not have enough apartment stock to keep up with the demand.”

In Augusta, the low cost of living was a big incentive for Di Sano and artist Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman Jr. to move downtown.

Since 2010, Zimmerman has rented a one-bedroom apartment in The Cobb House, where rent ranges from $520 to $755. Zimmerman, who is from Augusta, has lived in Savannah and Atlanta and he said those cities can’t compare to Augusta in terms of affordability.

Zimmerman said he’s just a two-minute walk away from his job as a graphic designer at Wier-Stewart, an ad agency on Broad Street.

“I like being in walking distance of stuff instead of just houses,” he said. “There’s no place I’d want to be. If there is a heart of Augusta, I’m in it.”

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