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In on the ground floor

July 1, 1993

Have you ever been in one of those gorgeous loft apartments in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta or New York? Or perhaps you’ve seen pictures of them—you know, the ones that are carved out of old manufacturing or warehouse buildings? Frequent and highly-prized amenities include high ceilings, excellent or sometimes stunning views through huge floor-to-ceiling windows, and large free-span spaces with few walls or dividers. Upscale appliances and furnishings add to the comfort and ambiance. The vast majority of urban lofts have outdoor access ranging from small balconies to roof garden spaces (sometimes shared with other tenants) large enough to entertain hundreds of guests.

“Adaptive reuse” in the case of old buildings means converting the building, many of which have fallen vacant and into disuse, to a new use. Such buildings appeal especially to people interested in living right in the area where theaters, popular restaurants, entertainment and shopping all exist within walking distance. The prior use of the building can play a role in how living spaces are configured and furnished. Owners and tenants incorporate exposed beams, ductwork and even old machinery into the design. The rusticity can be combined with state-of-the-art kitchens, designer bathrooms and high-tech appliances.

Now, imagine loft living spaces like the ones just described in downtown Rockford. If you’re having a hard time visualizing that, you’re not alone. Although there are a handful of sites that come close, there are none here, though there is an increasing demand for residences like these.

Part of the reason is that developers have a difficult time quantifying the demand. Conventional ways of trying to measure it don’t work. They look at the median income of existing residents in the area and conclude that there is no market. Particularly in the early stages of urban loft projects, the majority of potential tenants tend to be attracted from outside the area.

No residential building in Rockford has the roof gardens, balconies and luxury appointments demanded by upscale tenants. Because there are no exact models closer than Chicago or Milwaukee, people have a hard time picturing what the end result might look like. It is nearly impossible for most people to look at an empty building full of pigeons and broken windows and see fine floors, mood lighting and posh furnishings. In cities where urban lofts exist, they’re a hot ticket.

Some say that Rockford could be on the verge of just such a market. That’s because the potential Rockford properties are so well situated. Take the Amerock (the flagship of the fleet) as well as the Tapco, W.A. Whitney, Barber-Colman, Elgin Watch, “Crankshaft” and several other buildings. All are either located on riverfront properties or have a view of the river, one of the most marketable assets of the downtown.

It’s the reason that two committed downtowners have set up a “bulletin board” if you will—to fill an awkward gap–to develop not a list of properties but a list of people who know that they’d like to live downtown but have been told time and time again that the kinds of places they seek simply do not exist. Real estate people are in the business of directing people to existing inventory, but when there is no inventory, prospects are sent looking elsewhere. And developers try to predict future need, but that’s hard when there is no precedent.

So Marge Bevers and Don Bissell have begun to collect names and contact information for people who indicate they’d like to live in the downtown area. Sometimes prospects are not ready yet, but know that sometime in the future the kids will be grown, and they’ll be ready to make the move. That’s OK. Bevers and Bissell will take your name and the year when you think you might want to make the change, and they’ll crank it into their database. Whether you may want to buy or rent (or perhaps are not sure), they’ll keep track of that. As much as possible, they try to quantify each prospect in terms of the time frame and also the square footage that may be needed. The result is a snapshot or a scenario that wasn’t formerly available.

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