Loft living is a growing trend in Jackson, just as it is in other metropolitan areas around the country, as people look for creative, alternative living spaces in former commercial locations in and around downtown. And these lookers aren't just artists—they are professionals, couples, singles, even some married-with-children types. They like open spaces, eclectic décor and a certain do-it-yourself charm.
"Just like people make a statement with their hairdos, you can make a statement with your pad," said Gretchen Haien, a professional photographer and one of the pioneers of loft living in Jackson.
Lots of people think that the new downtown loft projects—the Electric Building, for instance, or the proposed condos in the King Edward—will be the first living space of that kind in Jackson, but that's not true. This style of apartment has been around the city for at least a couple of decades.
But particularly in the last few years, "when" has become the question for larger-scale loft living, not "if." For a growing cadre of Jacksonians, creative living has become a reality. And well-known developers are starting to meet the demand for downtown living by working with the public sector to find ways to make it happen—from the Plaza Building to the King Edward to the Foundry Lofts on South Street.
head of the creative class
Fifteen years ago, Pat Pigott decided to convert the old Mississippi Foundry Building on South Street, near Gallatin and next to the railroad track, into a place to house his iron fencing business. "All I needed was the first-floor warehouse and office space," he said. "The rest of the building was empty."
Pigott decided to rent some of that empty space out. His first tenants built their loft by gutting a space on the bottom floor. One of those tenants, Haien, currently owns the artistic-style loft apartments near the Good Samaritan thrift store on Millsaps Avenue. Following Haien's example, Pigott carved his own living space out of another side of the Ironworks building where he and his family lived for five years.
He says that trying to convert the rest of the space for others was, until recently, a bit of a difficult concept for most people to grasp. "At first everybody thought we were strange for wanting to build something like this, especially downtown," he said. "But now with more projects coming into the area like the King Edward and Farish Street, more people are open to the idea."
It's also getting easier to finance such "mixed use" projects, Pigott said. "As older loan officers are retiring, so does that mentality." Pigott says that the inconveniences of living downtown that most complain about, like not having a nearby grocery store, do not outweigh the advantages of having an apartment with so much character.
Pigott's vision is for his place to be a complete apartment building with indoor parking, a New Orleans-style courtyard and a sign outside that reads "Foundry Lofts." Construction will began on the rest of the units as soon as he is able to moving his fencing business elsewhere. "We are looking to move our business and start construction (to complete the lofts) maybe in a year or so," he said. The new units will run from around $1,100 to $1,400 a month.
Currently, three lofts are occupied in Pigott's building—including a 2,800-square-foot loft renovated by Stephen Barnette and his roommates. (Barnette, the JFP's advertising director, opened his loft for the first two JFP "Best of Jackson" parties, which were held there, in part, to showcase the possibilities of downtown living.)
'a bit too high-heeled'
From the Foundry lofts, head north up Gallatin Street, swing around the renovated Union Station (which sports its own second-story office conversions) and then turn north on Mill Street, and you're on your way to the Millsaps Arts district, where you'll find the artistic-yet-rustic lofts owned by Haien, a professional photographer who teaches at Belhaven College. She said after moving from the old Mississippi Foundry lofts, she lived many other places downtown before coming here to Millsaps Avenue. And as she has renovating her current building, she has lived in different parts of it as well.
"I lived in the first loft in the front of the building, but I decided to rent it out for some extra income," she said.
Haien also houses her imaging design business in the back of her building in a large space. Currently, she has one vacant residential space that was recently renovated. Haien says you have to, in effect, have your feet on the ground for some sorts of raw loft living.
"Some of the women who I have shown the loft have been a bit too high-heeled. It takes a special kind of person to live here," Haien said. Loft dwellers, she said, want an alternative to traditional and staid housing. "The advantage to living in a loft space is that it's not traditional. You can create the space. It allows you freedom of spirit, movement and is non-confining."
'mixed use' the new meme
Lately the development buzz in the city—from the King Edward to the Electric Building—has been about mixing up residential and business space—a concept foreign to believers in modern (suburban-influenced) zoning ordinances that tend to place residential development and commercial activity in separate "pods." While the "pod" approach can minimize some risks to property values, those pods are also more automobile-centric than traditional urban neighborhoods. Many people find that neighborhoods designed for walkers instead of drivers offer the charm they seek in an urban environment. In this kind of living, people want to literally live among the services, restaurants, shops and coffeehouses that they frequent. Urban planners call them "third places"—the bistros, bars, parks and churches or community centers where people can hang out when they're not at work or home.
Fondren Corner, in the heart of Jackson, provides one such model, successfully incorporating retail, restaurant and residential areas in one building for the last two years. Mike Peters, a commercial real estate agent, bought the building that was an "old, crappy state office building," as he calls it. Now it's the hippest building in town, according to many people, including the diverse crowd who packed it during last week's Arts, Eats and Beats to eat, listen to music, tour artists' studios and just hang out feeling like they were living in a very dynamic city. And the building is in a neighborhood that includes two grocery stores (one a health-food co-op), drug stores, restaurants, offices, galleries and retailers, all within easy walking distance.
"Fondren is really on the cutting edge of everything in the city," Peters said. Fondren Corner has 16 units of apartment space, in addition to retail and office space. Four of these living units are penthouse-style two-bedroom suites, and the others are all one-bedroom, open loft-style apartments. To help alleviate safety perceptions, each of Peters' units has a video intercom system for added security.
"When you have a visitor, they will go to the back of the building to buzz you, and you will be able to talk to and see them before letting them in. We are not short-stepping around here!" Peters said. According to Peters, there is a lengthy waiting list for people trying to get into the building. When apartments are available, they range from $950 to $1,700 per month.
more on the way
Construction for another wave of new, loft-style apartments will be completed by Sept. 1 of this year. Ted Duckworth of Duckworth Realty said that renovating the old Entergy Electric Building on Pearl Street sort of fell into his lap.
"It kind of chose us," he said. "When Entergy put the building on the market for renovations, we told them our ideas, and they liked them."
Duckworth said that the biggest challenge for this project was to reconstruct an old building into something new and beautiful while keeping within the budget. Just as with Fondren Corner, there are already enough people on the waiting list to immediately fill the available space. Duckworth says the building will have an atmosphere that does not exist anywhere else in the city. It will have a boutique-hotel-style lobby (very New York) and a roof deck where tenants can hang out and grill. The apartment spaces on the top two floors of the building will range from $1,000 to $1,500.
This building will be used for mixed-used developments as well. "We are working with a restaurant and courting a couple of others," Duckworth said. "We also are looking at a few coffee shops also, but nothing is etched in stone."