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Opinion: Downtown real estate trends to watch in 2019

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Downtowns, like no other commercial activity center, must simultaneously celebrate their rich past, address their current social and economic challenges, and plan for the horizon in an ever-changing marketplace.

Vision 2020 realized impressive results for center city over the past two decades. Missouri historic tax credits have been utilized to cultivate a mixed-use culture of over 800 lofts, an urban research park with thriving partnerships with entrepreneurs and academia, arts and culture venues, and offices for creatives. Downtown remains the incubator of small businesses with dozens of locally owned restaurants and retailers.

The city is finalizing plans to embark on a new comprehensive plan for the entire community. It is an important opportunity to build on the successes of center city as “everyone’s neighborhood.” 

In preparation for the New Year, here are four trends for downtown development.

1. Renovations to infill. The number of major downtown buildings unrenovated during the past 20 years can be counted on one hand. That has led to a boom of new construction bringing new life to idle and underutilized spaces.

Hotel Vandivort is doubling in size with 50 new boutique hotel rooms and a rooftop deck on McDaniel Street. Bryan Properties is building a new Tru hotel with Hilton at Elm Street and Kimbrough Avenue. Sam Chimento, a St. Louis developer, is well underway with a $23 million upscale student housing project with 344 beds at Walnut Street and Jefferson Avenue.

These projects will strengthen the bridge between downtown and Missouri State University’s main campus.

The Vecino Groups planned expansion of the Jordan Valley Innovation Center in the center of the IDEA Commons in 2019 will attract new offices, add first-floor retail to serve the stakeholders in the area and strengthen the pedestrian experience from Park Central Square to the Government Plaza.

2. Walkable hospitality. Boutique and downtown hotels have experienced a resurgence across the country over the past five years. Look no farther than St. Louis, Kansas City or Columbia to see many new examples of hotels purposefully placed in urban areas to allow guests to stroll to entertainment, explore local restaurants and retail, and experience grassroots street festivals.

In addition to the expansions by Hotel Vandivort and Bryan Properties, O’Reilly Hospitality Management purchased the former Great Southern Bank building at South Avenue and Pershing Street with plans to renovate it into a Moxie brand boutique hotel with Marriott. 

Combined with the established presence of University Plaza, Holiday Inn Express and Walnut Street Inn, these options provide more guests with an authentic experience. That translates into more sales for local retailers and restaurants.

3. Housing beyond students. The Downtown Springfield Association’s 2017 Urban Housing Study examining downtown and C-Street noted 800 lofts with 96 percent occupancy and more than 2,500 student housing beds at a 93 percent occupancy. The explosion of student housing across the country over the past 10 years has enabled downtown and the areas adjacent to nearby campuses to have more quality options. However, opportunities remain for two demographics – empty nesters and young families. 

Baby boomers are retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day across the country. With many tempting loft options, such as Wheeler’s, Heer’s, Olive Place, 400 Place and Wilshire, downtown has a variety of options for those downsizing. Springfield has merely scratched the surface with housing designed specifically for active seniors.

Center city is a drawing card for college students and young professionals. However, when those same couples prepare to start a family, too, many follow their parents’ example of migrating to the suburbs. Downtown is working on offering more amenities to young families.

4. Bricks and clicks. Retail is in a state of transition across the industry. Big-box stores and anchor department stores are closing at alarming rates. Customer behaviors are moving online.

Downtown retailers have the advantage of being a part of a vibrant dining and entertainment scene that fosters an authentic local experience. But shop owners will be tasked with continuously offering an appropriate balance of digital services and exceptional in-person interaction.

Also, loft dwellers hunger for the ability to purchase staples without relying on a vehicle. Downtown must attract grocery and pharmacy options that provide a 21st century blend of online ordering with the feel of a bodega. 

The challenge for downtown and for the city’s comprehensive plan is to thoughtfully design for preserving historic character while welcoming amenities from new technologies. Springfield has shown through Vision 2020 that it can be done. Now is the time to take urban development to the next level.

Rusty Worley, executive director of Downtown Springfield Association, can be reached at rusty@itsalldowntown.com.

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