Downtown living blossoms with easy sense of community

June 17, 2018

There’s likely no social hour in Sioux Falls with a better view.

Every Monday at 5 p.m., the residents of Washington Square head upstairs to their top-floor community room and rooftop patio for an hour or so of catching up.

In between the appetizers and beverages as seasons have changed and newcomers have joined, a community has formed.

“It was immediate,” said Susan McGowan, who moved into the building with her husband, Gene, in the winter of 2018.

“Everybody had a house to sell and stuff to get rid of, and everyone was downsizing, and we had a lot in common, and that just created this.”

“This,” she continued, is a feeling like many of the residents enjoyed back when their neighbors all had kids and everyone crossed paths outside.

“When you’re in your family home and your children have left, it can be isolating. And this is back to having a front porch. You see people every day on the elevator, and it’s just like the old neighborhood. We’re still a community.”

For most people, downtown is a place to work or visit.

But for a growing number, downtown Sioux Falls is home.

The last estimate, made in 2017, put the downtown population at 2,445, an increase of more than 400 people since the 2010 Census.

The past two years have brought the first larger scale owner-occupied buildings, and starting July 1, a 200-unit multifamily project will begin moving in its first residents.

Many, like McGowan, are asked often:

“What’s it really like to live downtown?”

She’s not a fan of the question because “it’s not like anything else,” she explained.

“But it is the easiest thing you’ve ever done. Unlike anything else we’ve ever done. Gene liked the idea when he saw the dirt, which is uncharacteristic. He said, ‘We are going to do this.’ And he was right.”

Urban feel, walkability

Some people just gravitate to city living.

Joanna Fritsch is one of them. The Sioux Falls native moved to the Twin Cities after graduating from high school in 2008 and then spent time in Chicago before coming back.

She lived with her parents for a year as she considered her future here.

“Is Sioux Falls where I can be long term? Is this where I want to plant roots?” she asked.

The more time she spent downtown the more her answer became clear.

“It’s changed so much. When I’d first come back, (after) living in Minneapolis or Chicago, there were maybe two or three cool spots to go for dinner or drinks, and now there are so many options. You can really find a restaurant or nightlife based on what you’re feeling, and it’s really cool to see how many people are moving to Sioux Falls as a desired spot.”

For years, Fritsch said she didn’t want to go back home, she added.

“But now I identify Sioux Falls as a completely separate place from where I grew up. There are more jobs for young people and more opportunities similar to big cities. We’re getting there with music. We’re getting there with entertainment.”

What sets Sioux Falls apart from other cities she has lived in is its affordability, she said.

“The cost of living here is so much more affordable, especially for a young person. You can go out for a nice dinner or dessert or drinks, and it’s so much more affordable. Doing that in other cities, you have to factor in transportation and higher costs for food,” Fritsch said.

“And I would never be able to purchase a downtown condo in those cities.”

She bought her condo in the Jones421 building on North Phillips Avenue and moved into her one-bedroom unit in the fall of 2017.

 

It’s not huge, at 600 square feet, but she loves the barn door and loft style. And while Fritsch gave up some space, “what you get in access to downtown and for my lifestyle, a condo was the perfect fit for me,” she said.

She likes being close to Falls Park and Levitt at the Falls, she said. Sunday evenings often will find her listening to live music at Parker’s Bistro. Her job, helping run her family’s business, Dakota Spirit, means she works less traditional hours.

“So another reason I like living here is because it’s definitely distant from my job,” she said. “I love coming out on my porch during the day and sipping coffee and enjoying the morning scene downtown before I head out to work.”

And when Fritsch doesn’t feel like leaving the building, she likes grabbing a beverage in the first-floor marketplace at The Source Roastery + Taproom or a quick meal at one of several restaurants there.

“I basically park my car and leave it underground all weekend,” she said. “Of course, I still go grocery shopping, but Lewis has been a huge benefit because you don’t need to leave downtown to grab laundry detergent or dish soap, and I love that. That’s been a huge game changer for downtown people.”

She’s also surprised by the number of events downtown, which have prompted her to stay in town on weekends instead of heading to the lake or elsewhere.

“And one of the best parts of living downtown is the variety of people that live down here,” she said. “There are people from all different backgrounds and lifestyles, and it’s been fun getting to know other downtown residents.”

Michele Wellman agreed. She and her husband, Bryan, moved from their McKennan Park home to Washington Square a year ago this August.

“We had a corner lot, and we just decided we were tired of shoveling and mowing, and our son was off to college, so we just decided to downsize,” said Wellman, who owns a public relations firm.

“We had always walked downtown with our dogs, and it was always a destination, and we loved it. So it was kind of a no-brainer.”

The Wellmans seem to be in the majority as downtown residents with canine companions. And their two Yorkshire terriers go pretty much everywhere: To Coffea Roasterie, where they regularly sit on their owners’ laps, to lunch at M.B. Haskett Delicatessen, to concerts at the Levitt and many places in between.

“Easily, the majority of people have dogs, and it’s a really dog-friendly place to live,” Wellman said. “The girls now only bark at the appropriate things. We carried them a lot (during the winter), but we continued going to M.B. and Josiah’s and Coffea and tucked them away. They honestly have nicer winter coats than we do. So it didn’t stop in any way.”

Importantly, she also feels safe, she said.

“I’m never, ever uncomfortable walking by myself at night. I was raised in Boston and moved to Philadelphia, and this is what I prefer now. I prefer a place where I’m part of the community, and I speak to people as I walk around the block or have coffee. I’m very comfortable going into a restaurant and eating by myself because I feel I never am by myself.”

Moving up

Downtown also has achieved enough scale of housing that options are available at a variety of price points, both rental and owner-occupied.

While it likely will never be priced on the low end of the market, the options downtown now are varied enough that everyone from a studio renter to a million-dollar condo owner has choices across the spectrum to move up or downsize as he or she chooses.

Sarah Van Westen’s new downtown residence came together after she – literally – won the lottery.

Van Westen, who grew up in Sioux Falls before spending seven years in Seattle, has lived downtown for almost three years in the Uptown Exchange building on Main Avenue.

And last summer, her number was chosen first in a lottery to determine who would select units in what order at The Cascade, the new apartment project opening in July on Phillips Avenue across from Falls Park West.

She chose a first-floor one-bedroom apartment that will be convenient for runs outside with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

“It’s the amenities,” she said of her decision to move. “Having underground parking is a plus and the fact that it’s brand new.”

She’s excited by the community spaces and the businesses in the building, which will include a first-floor brewery, fitness space, convenience store and more.

“As a single person, it just seems more like an opportunity to socialize with people,” she said.

“The majority of my off time and on weekends, I’m usually downtown. I have to drive to work, so I find if I have to run errands, I do it while I’m driving back and forth. And even in the winter, it was doable to walk if I wanted to get coffee. I would walk to The Source in the Jones421 Building.”

She buys basic household items and gets her prescriptions filled at Lewis Drug downtown, she added.

“I like the feel of downtown. I like being able to walk to places, and it just seems like downtown in recent years has been getting more and more amenities for residents.”

Creating community

When Joe and Jennifer Kirby first considered moving back to Sioux Falls almost a decade ago, they rented an apartment downtown in Shriver Square on Phillips Avenue.

“And on Sunday, you could have shot a cannon down Phillips,” Joe Kirby said. “Not anymore. Sundays are packed downtown. It’s really changed. The options are increasing daily it seems like.”

Kirby has wanted to live downtown since the 1980s when he led the city’s downtown development corporation, he said.

When the Houwman family developed Washington Square, “it was the answer to my prayers,” he said.

“I enjoy the social environment. It’s fun to go out and walk around the block and run into a friend or stranger and end up in a conversation. It really feels like a small town of 2,500 people.”

When he’s not working from his home office, he’s typically out downtown – often with his Jack Russell Terrier, Holmes.

“I’m at Josiah’s at least once a day,” he said. “It’s awfully convenient. Almost all my meetings are at Josiah’s.”

Holmes and his canine counterparts helped inspire the Kirbys’ recent decision to fund a new city dog park downtown near the Great Outdoor Store.

“I know Downtown Sioux Falls Inc. had this on their radar for many years, and I think the city also thought there should be a dog park downtown, but when I started inquiring, it didn’t sound like it would happen any time soon unless someone stepped forward to pay for it,” Kirby said.

“There’s a lot of excitement about what’s going on down here, whether it’s the Levitt or the dog park.”

Jennifer Kirby also helped take the lead in bringing the Levitt to fruition. And Joe serves as chair of the Washington Square homeowners’ association as well as the downtown residents’ association.

“The neighborhood association came up with a list of low-hanging-fruit things we could easily get done fast, and they accomplished quite a bit,” he said. “We had a couple downtown flashing signs turn off at night that were going all night. We’re still working with the city to slow down traffic on 10th and 11th because people blow right through downtown, but the city is working on us on that. It’s mostly fine-tuning.”

Space becoming limited

There aren’t many condos left for sale downtown, for now.

Jones421 has three left – two two-bedroom, two-bathroom units and one with three bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms.

Washington Square has four remaining out of 22.

And while no one would claim downtown living is perfect – the noise that comes with an urban environment is what most cite as the biggest adjustment – complaints are hard to elicit.

“Everyone has their own story that brought them here,” said McGowan, back at Washington Square.

She remembers staying up the first night in her new condo to watch the activity outside her window.

“And there was a lot to see,” she said. “And a lot of motorcycles. But we have a son in New York, and this is quiet to him. You get used to it. It’s the sound of life. They’re having fun, and I don’t mind that. So am I.”

The Downtown Loft Tour will be Saturday, offering the chance to tour multiple downtown living options. For information, click here.

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