Lofty ideals send buyers downtown

Space: Demand is brisk for apartments with flexible, open floor plans that inspire creativity.

April 11, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Steve Yasko and Mario Gentile have plenty of reasons to be happy with their three-bedroom home in Piney Orchard, Anne Arundel County.

Their brick Colonial sits on a quiet, tree-lined road. They have a yard and a finished basement. They're even on the brink of paying off their mortgage early.

But they have a dream: To live in a 2,000-square-foot, high-ceilinged, wide-open city apartment.

Sure, it would be more expensive than their current digs.

But it would be a loft.

"It is the creativity, the flexibility of this space" that makes them drool, said Yasko, the station manager at Towson University's WTMD-FM. "You can decide one day you want to build a wall ... and you just build a wall. In this kind of a space, if you just want to section something off, you can have a creative way of doing it."

More and more people are craving lofts - or loft-type apartments - as their dream home. Area builders say demand is brisk for the dwellings, and developers have been promoting loft-style housing throughout the Baltimore area. Consumers can't seem to get enough of them here and across the country as real estate experts find themselves fielding more inquiries about loft living.

Loft requests tend to fall into three categories: artists looking to inhabit huge spaces on the cheap; yuppies looking for a unique space near restaurants and entertainment; and people like Yasko who want it all - a real artist's loft in a good neighborhood.

It is the middle category - the yuppies - who are driving a new trend toward loft-type spaces in downtown neighborhoods with modern-day amenities such as security, parking and high-speed Internet service.

"We have found in our market studies that people want more open space - one great open room rather than three small rooms," said Katie Hearn, a senior development director at developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. "Baltimore as a city is just following where the market has been around the country."

Struever has converted several former industrial buildings into loft-like apartments, and have several additional projects in the works, including one at Clipper Mill in the Jones Falls Valley.

The definition of a loft isn't clear.

The National Association of Realtors uses the word loosely - to refer to one large, open room or a space built above a larger room. Builders and real estate agents use the term in a similar fashion when advertising homes for sale and describing the rooms inside.

Genuine lofts tend to be in former industrial buildings, with exposed heating ducts, factory windows and a raw, unfinished appearance. But in some cases, developers are putting up new buildings with a faux industrial feel.

"Many of the places that call themselves lofts are not really lofts ... it is like calling South Baltimore Federal Hill," said Tracy Gosson, executive director of Live Baltimore Home Center, the nonprofit group that promotes city living.

Lofts gained fame in the 1950s as artist refuges in Manhattan's SoHo. Artists in need of inexpensive studio and storage space moved into abandoned industrial buildings. The term loft comes from the high, lofty ceilings in such buildings. Once these spaces became hip the prices went up, and artists fled to cheaper areas.

Now lofts are an established architectural trend. In fact, the National Association of Home Builders showcased a loft as its model home at its annual meeting several months ago in Las Vegas.

Who seeks them?

"More than young, single professionals," Hearn said. "It includes couples. It includes empty-nesters as well. People who want to live downtown and see something different from their single-family home that they've been living in."

Kerrie Lynn Brady, a consultant in the pharmaceutical industry, is one such person.

She lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the 300 block of N. Charles St. The building used to house a YMCA but was converted to rental apartments a little more than two years ago. People started moving in before the place was complete - and at the moment there is only one vacancy.

"Everyone loves it," Brady, 41, said. "And they are really jealous."

With 16-foot ceilings and 5-foot windows (in other units, windows are up to 10 feet tall), Brady's 1,100-square-foot apartment appears more spacious than the average two-bedroom. She pays $1,400 a month in rent.

"It is probably not your really authentic loft; it is a yuppie loft," she acknowledged over coffee at Mick O'Shea's Irish pub, down the street from her apartment. "The advantage is that it has all the features that you want [in a luxury apartment building] with the nice features of a loft."

Amenities include a concierge service, package delivery, security and high-speed Internet access.

"We don't have lots of artists - because the rents are high," said Sally Stark, the development manager of Brady's building. "We have more accountants and lawyers, young professionals."

This is not what you'd see in SoHo. And it's not what Yasko is willing to leave his cozy suburban home for just yet.

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