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Gail and Randy Ross moved to downtown Minneapolis from bucolic Victoria two years ago when they became empty nesters and have never regretted it.

Even during the pandemic, when they can’t experience many of the diversions that originally drew them downtown, they remain enthusiastic about downtown living.

“We’re minus our plays and sports,” said Gail, who “can’t wait” to attend Gophers and Vikings games again. But she still appreciates the vitality of living downtown. The couple enjoy their walks across the Stone Arch Bridge and festive outdoor gatherings and events at Gold Medal Park. “I’ve never seen so many weddings,” she said. “There are weddings all the time, all different cultures.”

Gail and Randy Ross, with their dog, Charlotte, still love living downtown.
Gail and Randy Ross, with their dog, Charlotte, still love living downtown.

Photos by ANTHONY SOUFFLÉ and BRIAN PETERSON • Star Tribune

For Randy, being at the epicenter of the city has been a plus during this season of civic unrest. He appreciates the timely discussions, films and other events that have been hosted in the park. “It’s a real time of challenge for the city,” he said. “Being downtown, you face it, are close to it. You don’t get to walk away, you are part of it. It’s a great time to be here.”

The couple recently put their condo on the market, but they’re recommitting to downtown, with plans to move into the building next door, Eleven, when their unit is completed early next year.

“Downtown is a great place,” said Gail. “It’s a different experience now. Not bad. Just different.”

The pandemic prompted Lizzie Schimmel (left) and Lesley with dog Henri left downtown and purchased a house in Minnetonka.
The pandemic prompted Lizzie Schimmel (left) and Lesley with dog Henri left downtown and purchased a house in Minnetonka.

BRIAN PETERSON • Star Tribune

Before the pandemic, Lizzie Schimmel and Lesley Hacker also loved living downtown. But renting in the North Loop became less appealing during Minnesota’s stay-at-home order.

“Both of us were working from home in an 800-square-foot apartment,” said Schimmel. “With everyone working from home in the building, people were coming in and out all day long. It was super loud and kind of distracting.”

The couple had talked about buying a house, but the pandemic accelerated the process, said Schimmel. “Once COVID hit, they shut down all the amenities. They closed down the rooftop. Closed the workout room. You’re stuck in your apartment, and everything is shut down.”

So they started house-hunting, eventually paying two months’ rent to break their lease early and buy a 3,500-square-foot 1960s split-level in Minnetonka with a big yard for their dog.

“We both wanted move-in ready, and this one was completely renovated,” said Hacker, including a brand-new kitchen.

“We really like it,” said Schimmel of their move to suburbia. “It’s been nice to have more space, especially with a puppy. We loved being downtown. But we’re still close to the city. Our friends are starting to move this direction. The transition was easier than we expected.”

‘This will pass’

Downtown dwellers choose to live there for many reasons, including easy access to culture, sports events and restaurants, the ability to walk to work or just the buzzy energy of being where the action is. But the pandemic, which has shuttered many amenities and limited others, has upended the experience.

“There’s no question that downtown living is different now,” said Joe Grunnet, a broker and owner of DRG. “But this will pass. It’s a question of when. We’re still positive and bullish on downtown.”

The market for downtown condos has softened in recent months, said Grunnet, with the average sale price down 9.8% from August 2019 to August 2020, although the price per square foot has risen. “The biggest issue is [fewer] sales happening.”

Some people who were thinking about moving downtown are now “sitting on the fence,” he said, waiting for a better time.

“Nobody is taking a huge bath, but if you’re looking to get top dollar, this isn’t the year,” he said of selling.

Some downtown buyers are forging ahead, he said. “People are being more savvy, asking better questions about safety, security and crime.” And many are seeking condos with enough space to accommodate working from home. “Instead of one bedroom, they now want one bedroom and a den or two bedrooms. They still want the downtown lifestyle but don’t want to eat and work in one room.”

The rental market downtown also appears to have softened slightly, with an average vacancy rate of 6.4%, among the highest in the metro area, according to a second-quarter report from Marquette Advisors.

The pandemic prompted Jane and Bob Marquard to leave downtown when their lease was up this month. Three years ago, the couple sold their longtime home in Brooklyn Park and rented an apartment in northeast Minneapolis just across the river from downtown.

Originally, Jane wasn’t sure she’d like living downtown, but “I absolutely loved it,” she said. “Minneapolis is a wonderful city with a lot of parks. We like the urban feeling and the walkability,” with easy access to restaurants, theater and classes.

But when the couple no longer could take advantage of those amenities, they decided to leave. “It’s changed so much,” Jane said. Last month they closed on a detached townhouse in Champlin. “We always planned to buy. If the pandemic hadn’t hit, it would be hard to leave.”

Their new townhouse is close to a creek and a bike trail but “there’s no place we can walk to, which is a real drawback,” she said. “We’ll see how we like it. We can always change our minds. We will miss downtown.”

No place like downtown

Other downtown dwellers love where they live and are committed to staying downtown. John and Lisa Shaughnessy moved to their condo in Stone Arch Lofts about three years ago after raising their family in a big house in St. Paul, then doing an interim downsizing.

“We tried to move downtown in 2014, but we had two high school students, and a three-bedroom unit was near impossible to find,” said Lisa.

Now that they’re downtown, “we appreciate not being captive to cars,” said John.

Lisa likes being able to walk to the grocery store and having access to mass transit.

A bonus is that they have three generations of family living within three blocks. Lisa’s parents live in a loft condo a block away, and their daughter, a medical student at the University of Minnesota, rents an apartment nearby. “We can all see each other’s buildings,” said John.

The Shaughnessys are “homebody-ish,” said Lisa, so even during the pandemic, they can still experience many of the things they enjoy most about living downtown, such as biking, walking and enjoying Gold Medal Park. “It’s really beautiful watching people have picnics.”

Their three daughters enjoy visiting. “The kids love the idea we’re downtown. For them it’s kind of an attraction,” said John.

And they’ve come to appreciate their neighbors. “One of the surprising things for me that I didn’t anticipate is the lovely sense of community in our building,” said Lisa. “We have a Facebook page. People are quick to help and respond.”

Janet MacNally also remains committed to downtown living. She and her husband, Bill, bought a condo last year, moving from a townhouse in Coon Rapids, after selling their house in Blaine.

“We wanted to get into a building with underground parking and no snow removal,” said Janet. Their adult son in Chicago encouraged them to look downtown. “He said, ‘The things you like — theater, concerts and museums — are all downtown.’ ”

Before the pandemic, the MacNallys enjoyed being just blocks from the Mill City Museum, the Guthrie Theater and the Westminster Church Town Hall Forums.

Even with museums, theaters and concert halls now closed, MacNally can’t see herself living anywhere else. “I can’t do those things wherever I live,” she said. “Theater will come back. More things will come back to life here. I wish we knew when. I miss the freedom of going to a matinee and grabbing something to eat inside a restaurant.

“But I don’t think downtown has lost its luster. There’s a feel, a vibe, when you’re walking. I still love seeing the skyline. The pandemic can’t take that away.”