On Monday night, Terry Murphy walked to the YMCA in Downtown Cincinnati to swim after work. Tuesday night, Terry and his wife, Isabella, walked to Christ Church Cathedral to serve dinner to the needy, which they do every week.

On the Wednesday night of that week in December, they caught This Wonderful Life at Playhouse in the Park. On Thursday"¦well, you get the picture.

"We're very busy here," says Isabella, an artist and chef who is in her 60s, as is her engineer husband. And most of their activities revolve around city life.

If you live in the great suburban beyond, stopping by Downtown only for a game or big show, it's hard to imagine the people who live among the bright lights and consider this their neighborhood. But the condo stock in Greater Downtown has exploded over the past year, with a 26 percent increase in the number of existing or under-construction condos just from first quarter to third quarter 2006, according to Downtown Cincinnati Inc.]

Those 956 condos soon could be joined by 2,819 others that are proposed, or in pre-development stages"”up 6 percent over early 2006 figures.

The diversity of people now living Downtown on both sides of the Ohio River also has expanded exponentially, so it's good to hear their stories. You never know when you may find your neighbor among them.

Queen City natives love Main Street life.
After 12 years of running a bed and breakfast in the tiny arts community of Saluda, N.C., Terry and Isabella Murphy wanted a change. So Terry, who grew up in Price Hill, took an engineering consulting job with a Blue Ash firm and the couple moved here in early 2006. From the beginning, they wanted a home Downtown, says Isabella, who grew up in Ardmore, Pa., and later in Finneytown.
"I didn't like Cincinnati (then) because I hated the suburbs," she says plaintively.

The Murphys and their real estate agent, Peter Chabris, looked at the City Lofts on Dunlap next to Findlay Market, The McAlpin renovation on Fourth Street and at the Fort Washington Hotel building on Main Street.

It was Frank Fieler's rehab of the historic Fort Washington that seemed like a perfect fit. Bamboo floors. Black marble fireplace. Black granite kitchen counters. Built-in bookshelves. The Murphys bought a two-bedroom condo on the fifth floor, with generous northern light from a wall of windows, for $300,000.

"We have a view of rooftops and chimney tops, the Contemporary Art Center and Federated building"¦It's a really neat view of old and new," Isabella notes. "And we are sitting in the middle of the theater district."

MARKET VARIETY, FROM REHABS TO NEW Luxury Downtown real estate specialist Chabris, who recently left Comey & Shepherd to join Keller Williams Realty, says while young professionals remain the mainstay tenants of Downtown apartments and condos, empty nesters like the Murphys and even retirees are a growing population.

Chabris notes that the Fort Washington's 10 condos were attractively priced (from $229,000 to $324,000) for such markets. In the third quarter of 2006, the average price of a Greater Downtown condo was $341,128, according the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors.
In the Fort Washington structure, Fieler retained historical references such as the wrought-iron stairwell and tiled hallway floors. Eight of the 10 units are sold, says Fieler, who currently lives in one of the two unsold units.

But what may entice more older couples to leave their large Madeira, Mason and Indian Hill homes for Downtown are new condo projects, such as the luxury riverfront complex One River Plaza, which breaks ground this spring on Pete Rose Way, and The Edge, a six-story, glass-walled addition to the American Book Building annex near Lytle Park, also beginning construction this spring.

Realtor Michael Sweeney, owner and director of sales and marketing for the Comey & Shepherd Cincinnati City Office, is so big on downtown's potential that his web site is www.mycityliving.com. He says the range of people interested in urban center residences is "definitely across the board," from young professionals to empty nesters "and everyone in between." They're attracted by convenience, diversity, energy, architecture and "just having fun."

Sweeney observes that his clients seek unique products. Popular features include open interior areas, some outdoor space, secured buildings, unique floor plans and "sexy amenities." He finds that the most popular price range is now $250,000 to $400,000.

Although some homebuyers will always prefer the character of older buildings, Sweeney sees the attraction of new projects. "New construction is easier to get the exact floor plan you want because an architect does not have to plan around structures that are already in place," he explains. "With renovated structures, there is usually history with the building and the architecture will reflect that. New structures will be in higher demand."

Andy Radin, a Skyloft LLC partner in the $35 million Edge project, says one-third of the 77 condos are sold"”and buyers represent a rainbow collection of people.

"We have school teachers, attorneys, doctors, business people, entrepreneurs," Radin remarks. "The oldest person is approaching 80 and is not in any way retired. Some of them have multiple homes, and some are moving here from other cities."

The L-shaped condo model in The Edge is totally contemporary, with glass kitchen countertops, a sleeping space open to the living area, concrete floors and a roomy balcony. The project's lower floors include commercial space and a garage. Fine Living Network recently used it as a backdrop for its American Shopper TV show on home gadgets.

Views of the Ohio River from some condos may be partially blocked by One River Plaza, Radin acknowledges, but many buyers to date have chosen units with views of Mount Adams or the increasingly hip Lytle Park neighborhood.

Most of the newest luxury condo developments"”such as Park Place at Lytle, WatersEdge in Bellevue, South Shore in Newport, The Ascent in Covington and now One River Plaza"”have river vistas, for sure, but also big views of each others' impressive structures.
The two towers of One River Plaza will be an interesting design counterpoint, with a plaza opening directly onto Yeatman's Cove and a promenade connecting to the Purple People Bridge. The developer is Miller Valentine Group. Christine Schoonover, who leads the Huff Realty sales team for the project, says that as of mid-December they were halfway to a benchmark sales figure that will launch construction of One River Plaza's 12-story east tower.

Again, buyers in this project are of all ages and interests, Schoonover says. A young Asian doctor. Married couples moving in from the suburbs. A Procter & Gamble executive who has been on overseas assignments for years. Prices start at around $450,000, and rising to several million.

Half of the penthouse condos in the top three floors are sold, Schoonover notes. She thinks that is because you can bring in your own architect for those floors, while the lower floor plans can't be changed. "Some people really need huge spaces" for entertaining, Schoonover explains. "Some want climate-controlled wine cellars or a closet for furs."

John Harrison, an interior designer with Closson's in Hyde Park, has recently done two condos in Cincinnati's Central Business District for empty nesters who moved in from Amberley Village. One is the Graydon Lofts on Sixth Street, the other on Fifth Street near the Convention Center.

Both clients moved to a much more contemporary home style, editing out many pieces from their old life. And that's unlike his clients who chose to buy in the Edgecliff condo conversion building in Eden Park, or even at Adam's Landing on the city's east side.

"My (Downtown) clients were saying good-bye to a suburban lifestyle," Harrison says in his lilting New Zealand accent. "The kids left town and they felt like having a kick-start. I understand that because I'm at that same age."

Creating a sense of place

Travis Ard is a young professional who loves living Downtown, works to increase homeownership there and also volunteers his time as president of the Downtown Residents Council. Almost 300 people are paid members of the council, which holds regular social events and educational sessions, but also lobbies city officials on behalf of residents.

"Empty nesters and retirees are the largest target market now" for new Downtown residents, says Ard, who is 31. "You'll always have bohemians and the creative class that start things out. They brighten the place up, crime gets better, dilapidated storefronts disappear, and then YPs and empty nesters move in.

"That's what Cincinnati is experiencing now," adds Ard, who intimately knows these things as a regional sales manager for Fifth Third Bank's City Living Office.

Prices are increasing as well, pushing some YPs out of some market segments, Ard adds.

His neighbors at Park Place at Lytle, on Pike Street, embody the adjustments in demographics. One couple, married 30 years, previously lived in Mason and Mariemont. Another moved from Amberley Village. A third has worked for Cinergy for more than 20 years and used to live in Northern Kentucky.

"We all get along and have fun together," Ard comments. "We enjoy the vibrancy (of Downtown). If you're in the suburbs, you just can't understand how that happens, but it does."

From Cincinnati to Rome, by bus and plane Glenn Kukla, who manages project development for Middle Earth Developers, says his company has continued to work on a mix of apartment and condos on both sides of the Ohio River to straddle the cyclical nature of the housing business.

Still, "The CBD is a very unique market," he maintains. "Unlike a lot of real estate markets nationally, the condo market Downtown has not slowed down."

His firm rehabbed the Graydon Lofts, an historic office building; the Gibson Lofts, a conversion of two 1870s buildings; and the Lofts at Fifth Street, an 1890s commercial building. One-third of his buyers are traditional empty nesters, Kukla says, and the rest are people ages 25 to 40.

When you think of holiday shoppers and downtown, real estate doesn't come to mind. But Denise Guiducci, president of the Re/Max City Wide office on Fourth Street, was surprisingly busy in December and on into January with people seeking residences in and near the central business district.

Her office lists properties all over Greater Cincinnati, and Guiducci says suburban markets "definitely were harder hit" during the 2006 market slowdown. Downtown sales momentum barely sagged. She notes that the New City Lofts condos are nearly sold out. These renovated brick townhouse units on Old St. Mary's Square in Over-The-Rhine are priced from $133,000 to $234,000. Guiducci says these OTR residences are particularly attractive to young professionals who like the combination of affordability and historic architecture, and don't need extras such as elevators. "People my age and older worry about steps," she explains. "Younger ones don't care. They just want a cool place to live."

Guiducci insists that local media overblows the public perception of downtown crime. Last year, she notes, only one homicide took place in the central business district, and that was the shooting outside City Hall involving two long-time acquaintances. As more people move back downtown, people feel more safety in numbers and a sense of shared community, Guiducci observes. Many carry cell phones and quickly report suspicious behavior they see on the street. "People moving here are not putting up with crime." And once they're inside at home?

"Most of these buildings are so secure, you'd have to be Batman to get into them," she laughs.

As more people visit friends or family who have made the transition to downtown living, positive word-of-mouth testimonies are offsetting exaggerated or unfounded fears, Guiducci says. "I haven't sold one condo to one person who hasn't loved it and is still loving it."

For Michael Sweeney, who lives and breathes it daily, there's much more growth potential for this housing market. "I don't think we're even close to our boom point. There are still a lot of people that want to move downtown, and there will be a need for more product."

The Murphys will tell you the best thing about their condo home at the old Fort Washington Hotel is this: They can pack a carry-on bag and, for $1, catch the bus down the street to Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Airport. They'll hop on a plane to Rome, take another short bus ride to Todi, a small town in Italy's Umbria area, and walk two blocks to their second home.

The worst thing about living Downtown is this:
When Terry Murphy occasionally goes into the office, he catches the bus across the street and rides to Blue Ash. But there are no sidewalks between the Blue Ash bus stop and his office, so he has to illegally walk on the side of the road. He's been stopped by police several times.
"Can you imagine?" says Isabella. "Here, we can walk to church, walk to theaters and walk to restaurants. That's why we live Downtown."