How loft apartments could help Kansas towns revitalize their Main Streets

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Wes Bartlett, the owner of Bookends, explains how he restored an 1800s building in downtown Hutchinson.

Building owners, storekeepers, Main Street organizers and city officials from across Kansas attended the Main Street Upstairs Downtown Workshop in Hutchinson on Monday and Tuesday. 

Along with presentations by architects, community development and economic development specialists, more than 100 participants from Leavenworth, Pittsburg and Iola went on a tour of the upper levels of downtown Hutchinson, examining both apartments and businesses, including the newly renovated AgTrax location, which revitalized an upstairs unit. 

Remodeling what is already there

According to Dan Carmody of Upstairs Downtown, a featured speaker at the conference, most Americans looking for housing are either single or couples without children. This demographic, he said, is perfect for Main Street.

"There's a lot of things close to us. Restaurants, theaters and we don't have to worry about parking," said Wes Bartlett, the owner of Bookends, a used bookstore on Main Street in Hutchinson, which has units, including one for him and his wife, upstairs. 

Several years ago, Bartlett renovated the upstairs of his late 1800s building. He created four apartments on the second and third floors. The apartments fall in what Carmody calls the sweet spot of between 800 to 1,200 square feet.

Barry Wall talks to attendees about his rental units in downtown Hutchinson during the Upstairs Downtown Workshop.

"Across America, demand for upstairs units are greater than for ground floor," said  Carmody, who was trained as a city planner and is co-owner of Upstairs Downtown, a company that helps upper story redevelopment programs. 

For both McPherson and Dodge City, their store-level businesses are full. McPherson already has instituted many housing units, but Dodge City is trying to figure out best practices.

"We have quite a bit of property owners that are looking at renovating their upstairs and turning it into useful space," said Coral Lopez, Dodge City's Main Street director. "We don't have a lot of vacant storefronts." 

Michael Yates of McPherson, who is the president of McPherson Main Street and owns several upstairs units, said the most difficult aspect of restoring upstairs units relates to the regulations.

"Running into code and fire safety issues is the most significant barrier," he said. 

Some cities, like Sterling, do not have upstairs housing. 

"We don't have any upstairs units," said Barbara Benson, a downtown Sterling Main Street committee member. "We have some businesses that are interested. We as a Main Street are interested."

David Wilson, who runs a business in Sterling, said he is thinking about renovating the upstairs of his downtown business.

"It's (the workshop) gotten me more optimistic in making an upstairs unit," he said.

Dan Campbell of Eureka, a city with several upstairs units already, is looking into adding another one.

"On Saturday evening, we started the process of putting a mural on one of our buildings," said Steve Coulter, the mayor of Eureka. "I want to see what we can do for Eureka."

Eureka, like many downtowns, including Hutchinson and Stockton, is hoping to not only attract apartment dwellers but entrepreneurs for their street-level stores as well. 

Hutchinson hosted the Main Street Upstairs Downtown Workshop where people from across Kansas came to tour the upper levels of downtown Hutchinson businesses and apartments.

Issues with remodeling

Along with finding out about zoning, workshop attendees learned of new products that can help with fire control by adding protection, or 'hours' before burning, to century-old tin ceilings. They also learned how to use light and exits in different ways to accommodate regulatory issues. 

But for Adam Bryant of Stockton, a city commissioner and a member of the Main Street Development in his city in Rooks County, the issue for revamping the city is funding.

"We have a lot of two-story buildings downtown," Bryant said. "I'm looking for information on ways to improve Main Street."

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There are certain elements downtown dwellers want, Carmody said. These include tall ceilings, hardwood floors, tall windows, exposed brick, high quality, an open plan and a washer/dryer. Some urbanites want an elevator, but, Mike Jackson, FAIA , and co-owner of Downtown Upstairs, said most of the time they are not necessary for buildings with less than 10 units.

"Rarely do they (older buildings) have structural problems in terms of original design," he said.

As for green energy, Jackson, an architect, said if you were to demolish an old building with good bones and build a new one with more energy-friendly materials, "It would take 40 to 80 years to make up the loss of materials for energy sustainability."

As for replaceable vinyl windows, Jackson said. "That's what they are — replaceable."

Curtis Deines, a planning inspector in Hays, said he learned a lot from the presentations, including new techniques for fire safety in old buildings.

The economics of downtown housing

Dan Carmody talks about revitalizing the upstairs units in Kansas downtowns during the Upstairs Downtown Workshop on Aug. 16 and 17 in downtown Hutchinson.

Downtown city dwellers bring more income to downtown than workers do. These Main Street dwellers not only shop downtown, they attend farmers markets, plays and book talks.

"People who live downtown spend three times more downtown than people who work downtown," Carmody said. "The average (downtown) person spends about $18,000 a year (downtown).

Carmody identified a gap between what the owner can pay and the amount of money needed to renovate a building.

"Do not freak out about the gap," he said. "The gap will always be there. Overcome the gap, the financial barrier, between you and getting a thriving downtown."

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Carmody said sometimes this gap in funds can be filled with either public or private philanthropic money. But, he warned, fiscal responsibility must be at the heart and soul of each program, saying each project needs a team, from accountants to appraisers to building code officials and developers. 

"Look who needs to be in the lineup," he said. 

According to Carmody, too many cities focus on the sidewalks, but he said, as long as the sidewalks are functional and parking is adequate, the city needs to figure out how to drive people downtown.

More:Main Street remains the heart of the city in Hays and other Kansas towns

"What can you do incrementally to increase daily activity?" he asked. "We need to turn the lights on upstairs."

Without stores and events, no one wants to live upstairs. But in cities with bustling downtowns and a need for more housing, like Iola, Hays and El Dorado, revitalizing upstairs on Main Street could help. 

"We have wonderful, historic buildings in El Dorado," said Emily Connell, the director of Main Street. "I'm hoping to take back useful information for our local property owners."

Participants in the Main Street Upstairs Downtown Workshop toured Main Street as they learned about Hutchinson's upstairs apartments and businesses.

Downtown Hutchinson 

With more than a dozen downtown buildings that house a multitude of units, Hutchinson was able to show off many of its varied downtown housing units, both owner-occupied and non-owner-occupied.

"It's been really nice to showcase the transitions in Hutchinson," said Debra Teufel, president and CEO of the Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce, who helped Scott Sewell, the Kansas Main Street director, with the event.  

"Every place has the opportunity for success," Carmody said. "We've got to believe in what we are doing. Sweat and passion are needed."

More:Bartletts renovate downtown building