There’s a world just overhead that many don’t suspect is there, and are surprised when they see it.
It’s the world of downtown loft living, and when newbies are initiated into its possibilities their astonishment is more often than not immediately followed by intrigue.
“I can’t believe it. This is really nice. Who would know this is here — you’d never look up to see it,” said Madelin Blackwell, a member of Ironton’s Well Read Hatters club, which made Saturday’s Downtown Living Tour in Ashland the destination for their monthly meeting.
She and her compatriots were checking out the Winchester Avenue loft of Matthew and Samantha Pierzala above the Print My Threads shop between 16th and 17th streets.
“This is ideal for a widow or a single person. Everything you need is here,” said another club member, Doris Wood.
Those are the kind of comments Ashland Main Street executive director Danny Craig said he heard over and over during the tour, during which a handful of downtown properties were thrown open to potential buyers, investors, and the merely curious.
He organized the tour knowing most people in the area have had little exposure to urban living spaces and don’t know the potential behind all the upstairs windows on Winchester Avenue and its side streets.
The tour included both finished dwellings and bare-bones buildings, which Craig said was intentional so that visitors could grasp the scope of change from decaying commercial property to upscale residential.
The 600-square-foot Pierzala loft is an example of the first, sparely but expensively furnished, with exposed brick walls and a rooftop patio.
The former Nobil Shoe building, now owned by the city and soon to be put up for sale by sealed bid, shows potential buyers what to expect. The bare-shell building will require complete fitting out, from plumbing, electricity and ventilation to interior walls, floors and other finish work.
The immense upstairs is bare to the brick walls but has new windows the city installed. The city also replaced the roof, poured a new foundation and added support beams to make the building structurally sound, according to economic development director Chris Pullem.
For buyers, the bare-bones state actually is an advantage, said Paul Castle, who owns and has renovated a number of downtown properties. Typical upper-floor downtown properties have been unoccupied or used for storage for years and would require stripping of interior components anyway.
The irony is that the empty-shell look tends to spook potential buyers. “But if it’s already torn out, that’s half the work,” Castle said.
Castle’s 15th Street loft shows what thoughtful design can do. His home incorporates exposed brick walls — which are the norm in loft design rather than the exception — hardwood floors, large expanses of window glass, an uncluttered layout and upscale, modern appliances.
Another mental stumbling block for potential investors is the value of downtown lofts, Castle said. People fail to recognize that the cachet of downtown trendiness translates into dollar value and that lofts aren’t the same as typical apartments. “It’s a mindset. People don’t understand that these high-end rentals get high rents.”
The going rate for two- to three-bedroom lofts is in the $1,100 per month range, he said.
Renters and buyers are paying for a lifestyle, according to Castle. “It’s the whole atmosphere of living downtown. It’s a tremendous neighborhood. I have four banks, five restaurants and two parks within walking distance. I ride my bike to the movies and the mall. There are so many things downtown to do.”
And there is no grass to mow or trees to trim.
In progress next door to Castle is Ricky Hayes’ soon to be completed home and photo studio on the second floor of a building Castle owns.
Hayes is leasing the space; he designed and is doing the finish work himself. Once interior framing is up he will incorporate reclaimed materials for the rest. Already stacks of silvered vintage barn siding are stored on the floor.
The tour also included another of Castle’s properties and Crawford Shockey’s second-floor space.
Craig hopes the tour will ignite more interest in downtown residential development. He believes that would spur commercial enterprises,such as small groceries, delis and eateries, to serve a growing downtown population with money to spend.
That in turn would bring more people downtown. “I want downtown to be the happening place to be,” he said.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2652.