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March 19, 2014

THOMAS: Lack of home sweet homes downtown

— Finding an apartment with all the desired amenities is difficult enough. Finding one in downtown New Albany or Jeffersonville without shag carpeting and fluorescent light fixtures is nearly impossible.

Add a small, yet well-behaved, pooch to the mix and you’d have better luck finding Jimmy Hoffa.

Jeffersonville and New Albany are ripe for downtown apartment development. Both are experiencing business growth — New Albany is ahead in the game with its burgeoning culinary scene — but the residential boom has been more of a bust.

Or if it’s happening, it’s creeping along.

That must change if either city wants to realize its lofty downtown revitalization dreams.

Exhibit A: Our state capital.

A study released in November by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute and commissioned by Indianapolis Downtown Inc. shows that downtown Indianapolis serves as the state’s economic engine. And its residential boom, particularly in apartments, is providing the oil.

The vast majority of the city’s $600 million in new residential construction underway is in upscale or student-oriented apartments, according to the study, and Indy had 3,775 units being built in 2012.

It’s more like crickets in our river cities. I should know. I’ve been looking for six months. Couldn’t Southern Indiana become a microcosm of Indy?

“There are things going on that have more people interested in living downtown, so it’s certainly an area that could use either some nice apartments and or just homes, like townhomes, in general,” Mike Kopp, vice president of commercial sales and leasing for RE/MAX FIRST Commercial Group in Jeffersonville, said about New Albany. “I know the city likes ownership, but whichever one we could get would be helpful.”

With it “becoming hip and cool to be in downtown New Albany,” as Kopp puts it, and media outlets calling it “the next Highlands,” now is the time to strike. While the economy continues to catch its breath, Kopp said banks are actually looking to invest in apartment projects rather than new homes.

Construction has happened in fits and starts in New Albany. River View, the proposed $42 million mixed-use project just east of the YMCA that included condos, would have done wonders, but fizzled financially in 2012. The Coyle property on Spring Street also is a prime spot, but a recent deal also fell through, according to Kopp.

Smaller, more intimate projects are underway. But it’s not enough.

“We are in constant contact with potential developers for construction of market-rate, high-density housing in the downtown shopping district,” New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan said in an email, adding that the city is moving forward with other projects geared toward young professionals, millennials and families that “will provide an incentive for a private sector partnership to fill the demand for downtown housing.”

Constant contact is one thing. Doing something is another.

Just ask Matt Bergman, who built a 10,000-square-foot living space in downtown New Albany that includes a freight elevator with original wood gates and a 1,600-square-foot rooftop garden in a circa-1848 building.

“I think there are significant economic development implications for investment in residential spaces in the urban setting,” said Bergman, assistant professor at the University of Louisville’s Organizational Leadership & Learning Program and a board member of New Albany’s Urban Enterprise Zone Association. “There are also incredible gains to be made by entrepreneurial developers.”

Back to Indianapolis: Of the 26 percent of the residents of downtown apartment complexes who previously lived in other Indiana counties, 61 percent are under the age of 30 and work in professions that might be associated with college graduates, according to the study.

Sure, Indianapolis is a major city, but downtown Jeffersonville and New Albany could be that catalyst for change in Southern Indiana. You better believe there are plenty of professionals working in Louisville under the age of 30 with good jobs and the cash to plop down on a modern, funky apartment, say a stone’s throw from the Exchange or Bank Street Brewhouse or the Big Four pedestrian and bicycle bridge.

Louisville has finally taken note of Indy’s residential success and has gone on an apartment binge, which includes the massive, 40-acre RiverPark Place complex right on the river, as well as 200 apartments in the newly announced luxury Omni Hotel development and the $30 million Axis Apartments near NuLu.

Attracting residents to those units is the way to help foster and sustain growth.

Kopp has his eyes on Jeffersonville, too, which is also sorely lacking in modern downtown apartment options. He’s trying to entice developers to the Market and Spring streets area. A mixed-use development with condos nearby on Maple Street is taking shape.

Still, it’s not enough, same as New Albany. When Kopp started his efforts in 2005, his initial hope was to attract 600 to 1,000 new residents downtown. He has now revised that number to 500.

“I think that would be pretty substantial,” he said. “Obviously, more would be better.”

You’re darn right.

— Jason Thomas is an assistant editor at the News and Tribune. Reach him via email at jason.thomas@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2127. Follow him on Twitter @ScoopThomas.

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