The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

February 25, 2013

A lofty goal: City leaders still hoping to draw downtown apartment dwellers

By Jean Cole

— Living over a downtown business has its benefits.

Easy access to stores and restaurants by day; peace, quiet and auxiliary heat and air by night.

Since 2007, city officials in Athens have been seriously trying to encourage developers to renovate downtown buildings for use as loft apartments.  Once such developer, Alan Bush, is hoping to do just that with the former Limestone Democrat building at the corner of Marion and Hobbs streets.

Lofts bring a more cosmopolitan appeal to a city. But the process of renovating an old building to meet current fire codes is an obstacle to overcome if a developer is going to make it happen. For some, the expense of installing sprinkler systems is too much of an investment.  But, it can be done and it can be profitable. Other Alabama cities have them, including Huntsville, Florence and Birmingham.

In Huntsville, Charlie and Sasha Sealy III recently created the Belk Hudson Lofts at the corner of Washington and Holmes streets downtown.  Located in the former Belk Hudson department store, the outside of the $12.5 million, six-story apartment building is historic but the inside is a new construction. The city of Huntsville is paying Sealy $450,000 over five years to preserve the facade.

Tenants, who pay between $875 and $1,650 per month, began moving in to the 75-unit rentals during fall 2012.

In Athens

The quest for loft apartments in Athens has been going on since the previous City Council agreed in 2007 to pursue conditional-use zoning that would allow downtown rental lofts. Antique storeowner Clyde Cantor had requested the zoning variance in order to create a rental loft above her business. In the past, only the business owner could live above his or her business.

“Alan Bush is beginning a loft apartment at the corner of Hobbs and Marion and, as far as I know, that is still on target,” Mayor Ronnie Marks said. “Other than Alan, there has been no one else to approach the issue of loft apartments, but if a property owner wants to talk to us we will do all we can to make it work.”

Marks confirmed that meeting the International Fire Code’s sprinkler requirement is one major issue for would-be loft developers.

“If a property has adequate water flow then there is not a problem, to install that,” the mayor said.

If adequate water flow is not available, then Athens Utilities might have to reroute a line or take other action to address the problem. Adequate water flow is crucial in fighting fires but so are sprinkler systems, which the International Building Code requires that businesses with apartments needing major renovation must have sprinklers above and below.

“One of the negatives that we hear is that the upstairs loft has to be sprinkled and this a pretty good cost factor to go in the development plan, but we will work with anyone and do anything we can do to make it possible,” Marks said.

Sprinkler systems for a loft can cost tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the space.

Cantor had told City Council members in 2007 that a sprinkler system for her 600-square-foot loft would have cost up to $18,000.  Still, that may be a good investment in the long haul if a business owner can convert unused space or storage space to leased space.

Marks said the atmosphere in Athens, particularly in the downtown, is so good right now, city officials will do all they can to make lofts work.