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Downtown residents enjoy low cost of living, want more retail

More retail outlets would enhance city, residents say

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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.

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Mieko Di Sano moved to downtown when she took over last year as the executive director for Symphony Orchestra Augusta. Di Sano, who said she was immediately attracted by her apartment's large windows, would like to see more retail outlets downtown.   JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/STAFF
JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/STAFF
Mieko Di Sano moved to downtown when she took over last year as the executive director for Symphony Orchestra Augusta. Di Sano, who said she was immediately attracted by her apartment's large windows, would like to see more retail outlets downtown.

“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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countyman
19159
Points
countyman 05/24/13 - 04:15 pm
3
7
CBD

''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.''

I'm glad to hear Augusta is finally moving forward, and private developers are covering half of the cost. I think people need to realize Columbia did the same thing back in 2008. They now have Mast General on main street, and urban outfitters coming to the Vista...
http://www.citycentercolumbia.sc/pdfs/DowntownStrategy_3-31_08final-adde...

Let's remember the exisiting advantages and take control of them. We have Broad, Riverwalk, Savannah River, 8th street plaza, and the common.

WTFH
94
Points
WTFH 05/24/13 - 11:32 pm
4
3
I live downtown

I have lived downtown for almost six months and love it. I have not experienced any crime and I walk everywhere. I agree that we need a small grocery store or even if a drug store opened up. I would love to have a place to walk and buy a gallon of milk and some snacks. I know it may be tacky, but last week in Richmond, VA I saw a Waffle House that was in their downtown that took over a historic building...it was well done. The only problem with one of those would be the drunks leaving the bars...need to have a security there all night. We just need to have more breakfast options in downtown...lots of great lunch and dinner places, but I want to go somewhere besides a coffee shop for breakfast...something that I can walk to.

countyman
19159
Points
countyman 05/25/13 - 12:39 am
1
6
CBD= Great place to live, work, and play!!!!

The CBD, and the urban core is growing stroing in 2013.. The 25 acre development near Kroger in the Medical District will help out in terms of access to the grocery store nearby. I would like to see Target/Publix renovate the Woolworths building, or Train depot on Reynolds in the CBD..

Gage Creed
15770
Points
Gage Creed 05/25/13 - 07:40 pm
3
2
SSDD Same Spin Different

SSDD Same Spin Different Day.....You know...I could have swore someone told us about the bustling real estate market downtown and how the prices compared to Summerville or other affluent areas...but this article lauds the affordability of the apartments. I guess the author of this article must be mistaken.

countyman
19159
Points
countyman 05/25/13 - 08:43 pm
1
5
Everday

Lol, the person quoted in the article is comparing the housing in all of Augusta versus Savannah and Atlanta. Both of those cities do have more expensive real estate compared to Augusta.

The same few people gave me and [filtered word]H thumbs.. They're only mad because we actually live downtown, and love it..

Nobody cares if the same few people dislike Augusta, but don't get mad when others don't share your personal opinions...

I never said the prices were comparable against Summerville, West Augusta, or Forest Hills. It's not my fault the prices in the CBD are richer than North Augusta.

Why do the same people always have to attack any positive comments?

Riverman1
79588
Points
Riverman1 05/26/13 - 10:20 am
4
0
People moving into renovated

People moving into renovated buildings with apartments is a good thing. Downtown is different and there's definitely a market for young singles. I also agree fast food restaurants of various kinds would be a plus in addition to a grocery store. A store could keep several existing store fronts and remove interior walls to make it work without losing the historical character.

dstewartsr
20388
Points
dstewartsr 05/26/13 - 10:44 am
4
0
I know two people who live downtown

... and like the people quoted in the article, they love it. Both work at the hospital and the closeness to their job is a plus. They're both day workers, so the whole Augusta-in-the-wee-hours thing is not a big concern. I like their places as well; very retro and spacious. But, both, at separate times have come to me asking about weapon permits because of small, but troubling, incidents. In one, it took over an hour for a deputy to respond to someone trying her door in the middle of the night.

Gage Creed
15770
Points
Gage Creed 05/26/13 - 12:46 pm
4
1
Once again, those with a

Once again, those with a disposition to spin, compare non-similar objects to achieve a predetermined outcome. You notice there will not be a comparison of the CBD and Hammonds Ferry or CBD and River North.

GnipGnop
11540
Points
GnipGnop 05/26/13 - 10:42 pm
2
1
Ahhhhhh

The joys of living off the back of property tax payers....maybe one day (we can hope can't we?) there will be a fair property tax system and the people downtown will have to pay their fair share too!!!

GnipGnop
11540
Points
GnipGnop 05/26/13 - 10:56 pm
3
1
The CBD

residents only make up about 5% (or less) of the entire population. Why is it after consolidation county tax payers didn't get free trash service and lower water bills as promised? I think the whole vote should have been nullified because of the fraudulent numbers the city put forth to voters.

daphne3520
950
Points
daphne3520 05/28/13 - 10:52 am
0
0
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