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Lofty ambitions
What began as an artist’s living space has become a bona fide housing phenomenon

The loft-as-living-space phenomenon began, by and large, with penurious New York City artists. Too cash-strapped to afford a proper apartment, they’d rent or buy entire top floors of dilapidated downtown buildings, erstwhile warehouses and factories whose cavernous upper reaches, wide-open and more or less unfurnished, offered cheap digs and a spacious place to spread out one’s work. Then came the creeping tide of gentrification, as ever-multiplying hordes of moneyed young professionals started catching on to these unorthodox spaces. Lofts got fancier and fancier, and pricier and pricier. Before long, most artists could no longer afford to live in them.

The past several years have seen the loft craze move north. "I think it’s that New York–Boston thing," says Rudy Crichlow, owner of Boston Realty Broker (www.bostonrealtybroker.com). "New York has it, so Boston wants it."

"A while ago, maybe 10 years ago, lofts weren’t that popular," echoes Frank Carroll, broker/owner of Boston Realty Net (www.bostonapartment.com). "And now, maybe in the past six years, they’ve been very popular. Lately, it seems like everyone wants one."

"The whole boom kind of started in the Leather District," explains Mark Lepler, a developer with Russell Development. "Probably about six to eight years ago. All those buildings were commercial, and I think what happened was the economy changed, and people were able to convert them to residential housing. [But] that was a pretty contained neighborhood."

Before too long, lofts started cropping up elsewhere, in far-flung locales from South Boston to the South End, Somerville to Salem. As their popularity grew, the prices rose apace.

"In the Leather District, it used to be you could get [a loft] for $250,000," says Carroll by way of example. "Now the least expensive lofts in that area are $500,000. Right now, they only have about eight listings for sale in the Leather District, and they range from $550,000 to a million dollars. And that $550 loft, I can tell you, sold in ’97 for $195,000. It sold in ’02 for $453,000. And now it’s $549,000. So that shows you."

So what’s so great about a loft, anyway? Is an apartment really worth that kind of scratch? Enamored of their soaring ceilings, enormous windows that often offer sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding cityscape, and neat-o decorative touches left over from many buildings’ previous commercial uses, more and more house-hunters are saying yes.

"People like the high ceilings and the exposed industrial elements: bricks, beams, pipes, duct-work," says Dana Schaefer, a broker with Paragon Properties (www.paragonproperties.com). "Some have elevator shafts. At one building in Lynn, they’re saving old vaults. Any old architectural elements you can salvage, it gives you a sense of history."

But not everyone goes for that sort of antique-industrial chic. "What we find is people are now looking for a more contemporary style of loft," says Lepler, who adds that the most recent trend — in Boston proper, at least — has not been "brick-and-beam" conversions of existing commercial buildings, but starting from scratch to make loft-type buildings that are shiny and new. "The last two buildings we’ve done haven’t even been conversions. They’ve been completely ground-up buildings. We call them hybrids."

One common feature of lofts, ostensibly at least, is the openness of their floor plans. Aside from walled-in bathrooms and one or two bedrooms, the living spaces — kitchen, living and dining rooms, studies — are usually open and airy, divided, if at all, only by appliances or tastefully arranged furniture.

"It’s more open space," says broker Robin Perry (www.bostonmassproperties.com). "People can be more creative in how they design their layout, versus something that’s already set up for a standard condominium building. With a loft space they can design it exactly how they want it."

Some people proceed to design it to the point that the loft’s very definition is stretched to the breaking point. "As much as people like the open loft space, they’ll often say, ‘I really do need two bedrooms.’ The true loft is completely open, but there are very few people who really like that," Schaefer says. "If you purchase early enough in pre-construction, you can sometimes negotiate the price [for the developer to] build walls. Interior walls are non-weight-bearing, so it’s not as expensive."

But some developers draw the line. "One loft I’m working on right now, the buyer actually wanted the developer to put in a second bath and also make a study for him. And the developer said, ‘No, we’re not gonna do that. That’s not what this is all about,’ " Crichlow chuckles. "They take what used to be a loft space, and then turn it into a traditional apartment space!"

So who buys these unconventional spaces? The answer probably won’t surprise. "Young professionals," says Perry. "I don’t see a lot of empty nesters looking to get into lofts."

But their popularity is now such that even that demographic is getting in on the action. "It’s usually younger professionals, most are in their 20s or 30s, but lately I’ve been getting people in their 50s and 60s," says Carroll. "Even small families, people with one or two infants. People with dogs are always looking for a loft. The other thing is you have people who want live/work situations, where they’re artists, or people who have a company that they want in their apartment. Architects usually love lofts. But not really as many artists — because they can’t really afford them. Most of these lofts are priced at more than $400,000."

Indeed, these are pricey properties. But if you’re able to swing a cool half-mill, you too can be the proud owner of a most distinctive living space. Consider the new Channel Center (www.channel-center.com; 617-423-5555), a split-use retail and residential complex in a cluster of century-old factory buildings near the Financial District and Fort Point Channel. Everything is on a grand scale here: the ceilings soar, the gigantic windows offer breathtaking views of the downtown skyline. Units usually range from about 1000 to 2000 square feet, and architectural features include skylights, exposed brick and beams, and designer kitchens. Amenities include parking, wiring for high-speed Internet access, and security with video intercom. As construction wraps up and tenants start to move in, about 25 percent of the center’s 44 loft units are still available, selling for between $570,000 (for 1400 square feet) and $825,000 (for 1910 square feet).

Southie is something of a new boomtown for lofts. One of the finest "new" additions is a 1906 Georgian-revival-style "brick-and-beam" conversion (www.abostonloft.com; 617-247-9999) on the South Boston/South End border. Featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed brick, decorative balconies on some units, and a landscaped courtyard, the majestic edifice is billed as the beginning of "the South Boston renaissance." There are about 40 units left (studios and one-, two-, and three-bedrooms). Each comes pre-wired for Internet, cable, and satellite television, and boasts top-of-the-line kitchen areas with gleaming Jenn Air and Bosch appliances. When you’re tired of using those, stop in at the on-site restaurant — then on to the complex’s exercise room after you’ve overindulged. Units are anywhere from about 1000 to 2000 square feet, and sell for between $344,000 and almost $1.4 million.

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Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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