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The new downtowners:' More choose to live, play and cocoon in center of Asheville

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11/5/2007 - The new downtowners:' More choose to live, play and cocoon in center of Asheville
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ASHEVILLE Living between two grocery stores and amid a banquet of good restaurants, Susan Griffin has about everything her family needs to live downtown.

A resident of The Aston, a 14-condominium building on Church Street, she can walk to the French Broad Food Co-op on Biltmore Avenue or to the Grove Corner Market at the Grove Arcade. She takes her dry cleaning to Swannanoa Cleaners, not far away on Coxe Avenue.

I just rarely get in the car, she said.

The Griffins, who moved into their new home from Minneapolis three-and-a-half years ago, are one of the many new downtowners, recent transplants who have driven the surge in condo building in the central business district over the past few years.

Developers have built, begun or proposed at least 774 condo units in the last three to four years, according to a tally of the largest individual projects. The new and under-construction units range in price from the $100,000s to more than $1 million.

Urban energy

Ashevilles vibrant downtown life, which attracted the Griffins, was one reason why readers of Southern Living magazine named the city the Southeasts top mountain destination. Outside magazine this year called Asheville the best Southern city of its size.

Arts, food and a rich culture of people-watching make downtown attractive to retirees, baby boomers and young professionals looking for low-stress, high-excitement places to live.

By the end of 2001, 95 condominium units and 48 apartments were under development, heralding the beginning of a building boom that has likely added hundreds of part- and full-time residents to downtown, said Alan Glines, an Asheville city urban planner. The 2000 census revealed that 1,351 people lived in and around downtown, but it also included inmates at the Buncombe County Jail.

Since 2001, several projects have been completed (such as 66-unit Lexington Station), approved (the 23-story Ellington) or discussed (Ravenscroft, with 250 condos and 100 hotel rooms).

Downtowns real estate market remains hot despite the slump in housing prices nationwide, said Chuck Tessier of Tessier and Associates, a development service company that specializes in downtown properties.

With much of the interior of downtown built out, developers are beginning to look toward the southern end of downtown, buying property down Coxe Avenue that is home to warehouses and large open spaces.

If youre seeing a parking lot downtown, youre seeing an endangered species, Glines said.

Childless couples, young parents

Most of the new downtowners are childless, either retirees or younger couples and singles, Tessier said. Theyve primarily moved here from out of the area and, if they work, work in professions such as graphic design that require only a fat Internet connection.

When you see terrorism in the Northeast or wildfires in the Southwest, it fuels migration to places like Asheville, Tessier said. Were the high ground.

Rick Townley, 57, is typical of the new downtowners. Last summer, he moved into a one-bedroom, 950-square-foot unit at the Sawyer Motors building that he bought for under $300,000, he said. A single dad whose son had grown up, Townley, a business technology manager for a company in Florida, likes Asheville much better than Tampa, where he was living.

This is one of the most beautiful small cities Ive ever seen, and the people are phenomenal, Townley said. I truly hope that the influx of people like myself, I guess wont ruin whats here. I can walk almost everywhere. Close proximity to other people is to me more desirable than living alone on a mountaintop.

Though thousands of people work downtown, and hundreds visit the area each night, not all the new residents live there full-time.

Second homes

About a year ago, Stephanie Monson, in the city economic development office, looked at tax records and compared the addresses of the properties billed to the addresses of the people to be billed. She found that a third of the people who own residences downtown live somewhere else, making many of the downtown residences second homes.

When Public Interest Projects sold 18 units in the renovated Penneys building several years ago, eight went to people who wanted them as second homes, said Harry Weiss, Public Interest Projectss urban projects director.

Nathan Bests family is one of only six who live full-time in the 18-unit Oxford Place, near Barleys Taproom on Biltmore Avenue.

Weve got a young professional who lives in Spruce Pine and comes to Asheville on weekends, Best said. Weve got a coup le that operates an inn in the Bahamas and spends summers here. We have several baby boomer couples that are still working elsewhere.

Dashing to the store

Best, a commercial broker and developer, and his wife, Joan, arent typical of the new downtowners. Residents since February, theyre young parents. Every day that little Jackson has preschool, Joan Best takes him down the elevator and strolls him over to Central United Methodist Church, where hes enrolled.

Then, if need be, shell walk uptown to the Grove Corner Market for groceries. If its Wednesday or Saturday (and summer), shell walk down Biltmore Avenue for flowers and vegetables at the farmers market outside the French Broad Food Co-op.

Maybe shell walk to Pack Library to rent some movies for the family to watch at home. Every morning, she and her husband get coffee at City Bakery, not a block away from their front door. And at night, they get take-out from Mamacitas or Limones, nearby restaurants where they know the owners by name.

Its nice to see some businesses that cater to people that live downtown, Nathan Best said. The Eagles Market convenience store, right around the corner from Oxford Place and open late, means Best has a place to go if theres no beer in the fridge.

Words getting around, J. Neal Jackson said inside the Eagle Street store. He and his mother opened the store right before Bele Chere in summer 2006.

After a while, you recognize faces, Jackson said of his downtown regulars.

Across Eagle Street, Mamadou Gaye opened The Spot Convenience Store in 2006, and now most of his regular customers are downtown denizens who stop in for cigarettes and sundries.

Big city feel, small town appeal

Asheville looks pretty good to people in Atlanta, said Collin Ellingson, senior vice president of sales for Coldwell Banker The Condo Store, which is selling 75 or so units at 60 North Market.

Asheville has always enjoyed a pre-eminent place as a second-home market, Ellingson said. And that combined with the popularity of mountain communities right now, as far as national real estate, makes Asheville a very popular place to relocate.

Judy and Bob Swan were among the first wave of downtown dwellers when, 14 years ago, they moved into one of the eight condos at 21 Haywood St., one of the first significant condo projects downtown. She welcomes the influx of new neighbors and all the amenities that go along with having so many people, she said, such as the excellent restaurants, the grocery stores, all the interesting bars such as Vigne and the balcony bars at the Flat Iron building, which have the best view in town.

Community group

Shes a member of Downtown Asheville Residential Neighbors (www.darnonline.org), a community group that lists 25 different downtown addresses for members. Noise is about the biggest complaint association members talk about, Swan said. Otherwise, they love living in an energizing place.

You cant leave your door without seeing a merchant you know by name or another resident that you recognize, Swan said.

Identifying residents isnt hard, Swan said. Theyre the ones not carrying maps.

The Griffins are big music fans, and at least once a week theyll go somewhere downtown to hear it.

I just like the energy here, Susan Griffin said, and the fact that there are very good restaurants for a city this size, amazingly good restaurants. Asheville lives bigger than the actual size of the city. If you head out downtown almost any night, theres something going on.

by Paul Clark, PCLARK@CITIZEN-TIMES.COM published November 4, 2007 12:15 am

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