When Garritt Bader returned to Northeast Wisconsin seven years ago, he had a pretty good idea of the location and style of housing he wanted to live in.
The problem was, it didn’t exist. Bader was looking for something that combined the rowhouse feel of Baltimore or Philadelphia with the urban dynamism of Minneapolis or Denver. That just didn’t exist in downtown Green Bay — at least not at that moment.
Undeterred, Bader decided if he couldn’t find it, he would build it himself. That passion resulted in Whitney Park Townhomes, which not only gave Bader the housing style he was looking for, but injected more fuel into a rapidly growing demand for downtown living opportunities.
“I figured there were more people like me,” Bader says, recalling his decision to develop an entire block of townhomes. “It was a real shot in the dark — I didn’t have any data — but I knew it was a cool neighborhood right off downtown, and I knew that’s what young professionals are looking for.”
Bader’s hunch was right and the townhomes went quickly, helped by an adjacency to Whitney Park, site of a popular concert series, and its proximity to downtown, which has experienced a revival the past decade as a home to corporate headquarters, cool activities and hot bars and restaurants.
As the attractions and activities grow in popularity, more people are drawn to the downtown area, including a couple of key demographic segments who want to work, play and live in one convenient area.
“The key demographics driving it have been the young professionals and the empty-nesters,” says Bader, who is preparing a new, unique project for downtown — luxury apartments built over the existing Cherry Street parking garage.
“One of the things we are seeing for the first time in this area is people who are willing to rent for lifestyle,” Bader says. “They want to be in the city, near where things are happening, and they don’t necessarily want to own.”
For Jeff Mirkes, executive director of Downtown Green Bay Inc., the changes have been rapid and dramatic.
While the movement back to downtown may have been bubbling for several years, the genesis moment of the pent-up demand for housing there can be pinpointed to the opening of Riverside Condos on South Washington Street.
“From the moment they opened, all we heard from the management company was that their phone was ringing off the hook with people who wanted to live downtown,” Mirkes says.
Since then, several other residential and mixed-use developments have either opened or begun construction. As much excitement as the new projects have generated, the key metric that Mirkes is watching is occupancy, which has hovered around 100 percent even though nearly 400 additional residential units have been added to the downtown mix.
“People really like the urban experience, that mix of activities that happens throughout the year,” he says. “We see more and more people out there walking around.”
With more people, there are more opportunities for new bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues that add to the experience and attract even more people to the downtown, Mirkes says. As for which one drives the other, Mirkes says demand for both is important, but probably would not be happening at current levels without the recent corporate investments in downtown.
In the past several years, corporate heavyweights such as Associated Bank, Nicolet Bank and Schreiber Foods have made significant investments in new buildings downtown, bringing hundreds of employees into the city. Public investment such as the KI Convention Center expansion and CityDeck also contributed.
“That corporate growth created that critical mass for everything else,” Mirkes says. “People were coming downtown frequently.”
The demand shows no signs of abating any time soon. The most recent addition is Metreau Apartments, which added more than 100 luxury units to the downtown living scene when it began leasing in November. Bounded by Fox River, Walnut, North Washington and Cherry streets, the new building is already nearly 50 percent full, says Sara Peterson-Zizzo, the leasing manager for Metreau.
“We are pretty pleased with those results for this time of year,” Peterson-Zizzo says. “We continue to see big demand for tours from folks looking for a spring move-in date.”
The mix of tenants has been consistent — young professionals working downtown and empty-nesters who don’t want to own a big house anymore, she says. They want to be downtown, where the excitement is.
“There is just a lot happening in downtown, for those groups especially, and that’s a big draw,” Peterson-Zizzo says. And Metreau is right in the middle of it, easy walking distance from restaurants and amenities such as the Meyer Theatre.
While the luxury apartment developments have been the more recent and high-profile addition to the downtown housing market, Mirkes says there are single-family home options in neighborhoods near downtown, and above-store apartments are popular, though the supply is limited.
“There are some pretty unique choices,” Mirkes says. “Most of the above-store spaces here are storage or office, but you can find some interesting options. Of course, you need to be careful what business you are over, as some of them could make it hard to get to bed early.”
Many of the recent developments such as Metreau are targeted toward the luxury market, and Bader sees plenty of opportunities to continue expanding that market, as well as multiple opportunities in mid-level markets. He anticipates that 1,000 new units could be added in the next five to 10 years.
“There is still plenty of room to grow,” he says.