Momentum on Main Street: The Case for Residential Housing Downtown 

Author: Ronni Norton

The most used words in the past century have been “Downtown is back.” See why residential housing is the latest movement for downtown Springfield.

In Springfield, many people have noticed the unused space on the upper floors of downtown buildings. This is not just a problem for this area but also for many other similar downtowns.

Downtown Springfield is home to many underutilized buildings that are perfect for upper-level residential properties. There are many benefits to implementing this concept: increased housing availability, attracting new talent, and providing more income-generating models for local building owners and investors. 

The Momentum on Main Street Committee of Downtown Springfield Inc. (DSI) is now working to address this issue by hosting a series of events to bolster discussion, connect investors and explore opportunities and resources. The  upstairs downtown first event was held in July 2021 and was specifically geared towards upper story redevelopment downtown. 

The idea has been successful in other communities, so why not try it?


Upstairs Downtown Workshop

In July 2021, Downtown Springfield INC hosted a workshop called Upstairs Downtown for Successful Housing. The one-and-a-half day workshop covered a variety of topics to consider when converting unused upper story levels into functional residential units. 

The workshop was led by Dan Carmody and Mike Jackson and focused on revitalizing its underutilized downtown assets while addressing market forces that can build greater resilience and community continuity. This workshop is designed for building owners, contractors, architects, city officials, preservationists, and downtown professionals. 

They specifically focused on two and three-story brick buildings that are the commercial and architectural core of older downtown neighborhoods. These buildings have great architectural amenities and tall ceilings that can be transformed into new housing units that have character and appeal today. 

In case you missed the workshop, a few key points are as follows:

  • Converting older buildings into contemporary housing is possible and beneficial for the community.
  • You will need to consider financing options, building methods, and property management for post-conversion.
  • Locating a skilled architect who has experience in this arena will save you money. Consider contacting Dan Carmody or Mike Jackson for further information. Also, an Architect in Galena – Adam Johnson, is knowledgeable in historical conversions and has been successful in their downtown projects. Hiring a skilled architect who understands the application of modern building codes with historical conversions will save time and money. Know and build relationships with your local code officials. 
  • Residents spend ~$18,000 a year in the area they live in.
  • City TIFF funding can be used to subsidize sprinkler systems in downtown. 
  • Partnerships make the financial side of investing more practical. Contractors make excellent partners. Boomerangs (natives who leave the community and then return) can become niche investors in downtown revitalization efforts.
  • Airbnbs and short-term rentals are emerging markets. Loft units typically rent faster than two-bedroom apartments.

Carmody and Jackson honed in on adding contemporary building systems to improve overall building safety while addressing the challenges of modern building codes and competing against newer housing projects. Adaptive re-use with historical buildings is not always a simple process with modern building codes, but it can be done. Look at Brick City Apartments in downtown Springfield. 

Imagine a downtown Springfield once bustling with community activity, now moderately empty by comparison, revitalized with new multi-level apartments for residents and rows of thriving first-story businesses.

One might suggest, this is Springfield’s second chance of an economic comeback of the modern era. 


A Brief History

Historically, Downtown areas served as the economic heartbeats of most cities in America. It was common for major employers to be situated in the center of town. Employees lived nearby and traveled a short distance into the downtown area to work and shop. With the introduction of automobiles allowing for further travel and roads to accommodate, residents began to build their homes further and further outside of the city contributing to the Urban Sprawl we see today. 

Major employers also relocated their headquarters outside of downtown, or on the outskirts of town, and as a result, the city’s downtown area is left relatively empty in comparison. This has been a prevailing trend and we see it in Springfield now. Most recently, when the state agencies moved out in the early 2000s, our downtown has remained a relatively empty neighborhood since. 

This is not to downplay the recent economic activity and enthusiasm of downtown Springfield business owners and advocates,

However, increased residential housing would support and maintain the growth of local businesses.

On the Springfield map above, notice the downtown neighborhood established in the early 1900s. You can also see how the community grew and expanded outward throughout the decades. As the community grew, the downtown area became less populated. While the activity and residents moved out, the existing buildings and public infrastructure remained. 

Luckily, Springfield can learn from the successes of other communities that have intentionally shifted their economic model to mitigate this issue. 


Current Trends:

Cities with unoccupied downtowns are shifting their focus to pivot and rebuild downtown areas into urban neighborhoods with ample short-term and long-term housing. 

A great case study comes from Madison, Wisconsin, where the downtown has been transformed into an urban residential area with city investment and local investor support. Leaders in Madison observed trends to see if they could build on them – several years before Springfield could – by focusing on turning empty buildings into high-demand apartments.

This cluster or urban living in Madison has expanded the capacity and ability to support an increase of local businesses. The result is a thriving downtown with amenities and entertainment for locals and visitors alike. 

Essentially, more residential living means greater support for local businesses in the area. The downtown area becomes a more attractive place to live and play. Thumbs up! 

You can also see this model in Galena, Illinois. Galena’s downtown has undergone a revitalization effort and it shows. Their downtown area is thriving with trendy shops, livable spaces, and even short-term vacation rentals to accommodate the tourists. By preserving the charm and history is what makes it such a special place to visit. All of this is done by restoring and modernizing the existing buildings into first-level businesses and upper-level residential spaces.


Looking Forward: 

As more residential housing is built in downtown Springfield, more businesses will open up shops to serve these residents. It’s a virtuous cycle. As more businesses open, more people move into the area because of the amenities. More people moving to the area leads to more businesses opening because of the increased demand and more market demand for apartments. 

The takeaway? We must take a proactive approach to encourage more residential properties downtown. By sharing this narrative and encouraging community leaders and inviting local investors to get involved, we can make a difference.

At the very least, we can acknowledge that revitalizing downtown Springfield has the potential to change our entire community in a positive way that will far outlive us while also preserving the rich heritage we are lucky to have. Why not learn from other communities?

For more information or to become a volunteer, please contact DSI. You can also get involved with other groups such as the Downtown Heritage Foundation, who are also working to revitalize the downtown Neighborhood.

Additional Resources

Download the Alabama Main Street Presentation on Building Codes & Standards.

New Orleans Upper Floor Conversion Case Study: Five Buildings. Five Histories. One Transformative Project.

Upper Floor Reuse – A guidebook for revitalizing downtown buildings

Converting Storefronts to Housing 

Central City District, Philadelphia, PA: Turning On the Lights Upstairs, 1996

Downtown Living Initiative, Pittsburgh PA: The Vacant Upper Floors Project, 2004

Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, PA: Downtown Upstairs Program Guidelines, 2017

IHPD CASE STUDIES: Upstairs Downtown Case