Living Up

exploring loft apartments in downtown Eau Claire

Thom Fountain, photos by Andrea Paulseth

ANOTHER BRICK IN THE (ATTRACTIVE) WALL. One of the newly renovated loft apartments on the 200 block of Eau Claire’s South Barstow Street.
ANOTHER BRICK IN THE (ATTRACTIVE) WALL. One of the newly renovated loft apartments on the 200 block of Eau Claire’s South Barstow Street.

Exposed brick walls. Architectural elements from a 1950s dental office. Big windows and high ceilings. A small patio that looks over the city.

This sounds like the description of every unrealistic New York apartment inhabited by a sitcom character, but it’s also the look of many loft apartments right here in Eau Claire. Over the last decade there’s been a renewed interest in renovating upstairs apartments above businesses, often maintaining their history and unique architecture.

“We’re looking for a mix of people. That’s what’s attractive to downtown, that diversity – the college kids, young professionals, retirees, old professionals.” – Mike Schatz, on the people who choose to live downtownThe City Of Eau Claire’s Economic Development Administrator Mike Schatz said that getting people to live downtown is an economic boost for everyone.

“It takes advantage of the infrastructure we’ve already put in,” Schatz said. “It’s a return on investment 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Having a mass of population downtown also helps businesses in the area and encourages new businesses, as residents want closer access to things like grocery stores or hardware stores.

From the city’s perspective, it also helps bring in more revenue. Most converted loft spaces sat empty for years, either vacant or just used as storage. Adding apartments brings up the value of the buildings and increases the tax base in downtown.

Schatz said about 215 new apartments haved been added downtown over the last five to eight years – many from new construction, others from increased use of loft space. That adds to the hundreds of apartments housing students, young professionals, elderly care, etc., that dotted downtown already.

“We’re looking for a mix of people. That’s what’s attractive to downtown, that diversity – the college kids, young professionals, retirees, old professionals,” Schatz said. “I think that’s what you’re seeing here and seeing nationwide.”

Right now, many of the new apartments are bringing in young professionals with incomes. Schatz said currently rents downtown are the highest in the city, which attracts a population that shops, eats out, and generally spends money.

A prime example of these apartments are a new set renovated by Benny Haas – owner of The Plus and Benny HaHa’s Art Supplies. The new living spaces above the 200 block of South Barstow Street are gorgeous, with high ceilings, a mix of contemporary and vintage elements, and exposed brick all over the place. These eight apartments (seven of which are new this year) will be mostly full-time rentals, with one furnished, extended stay space – primarily marketed for business travelers.

The City of Eau Claire is encouraging these renovations with a number of programs, including a Loft Apartment Matching Grant Program which helps cover architectural fees. Schatz also said the Regional Business Fund For West Central Wisconsin’s façade grant program can help building owners with the exteriors of the apartments, adding elements that make them even more attractive to live in.

Getting more people downtown also can improve the general demeanor of the area. A study by The Brookings Institution found that a growing downtown population increases the amount of cultural and economic activity in the area not only by those who live there, but by bringing in other people and tourists to experience the buzz that comes with downtown living.

As space becomes more of a premium downtown, finding and renovating loft spaces throughout the area might be the way to keep this trend moving.

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