When Jim and Donna DeBoer lived in downtown La Crosse, they didn’t have a lot of neighbors.
It was convenient. The couple enjoyed their spacious loft above Donna’s clothing shop in the historic Tausche hardware building on Fourth Street. Jim owned a tavern just around the corner on Jay Street.
But in the 1980s and early 1990s, downtown living hadn’t quite caught on. There were only about 600 residents, roughly half today's growing population.
“We were more like pioneers,” DeBoer said. “We were ahead of a lot of people.”
Twenty-five years later, it’s the place to be.
It’s hard to get an exact handle on how many people currently live downtown — roughly the area between the Mississippi River and Cass, La Crosse, Seventh streets — but all indicators point to a population boom.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were about 1,050 residents as of 2010, and there has been considerable residential development over the past decade, including the 92-unit Grand River Station. The latest estimates suggest that number may now be closer to 1,200, and there’s no sign of that growth slowing.
Downtown Mainstreet Inc. estimates there are more than 1,000 dwelling units within the downtown neighborhood and some adjacent blocks — including the apartment complex at Eighth and Main. With the completion of Belle Square and three other projects currently in the planning and construction stages, there could be another 400 units on the market by the end of 2018.
Assuming a 95 percent occupancy rate and an average of 1.5 residents per apartment, that translates to about 2,000 downtown residents, double the number at the beginning of the decade.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the demographics have shifted since the last Census, when nearly half of the downtown residents were between the ages of 18 and 29, and almost two-thirds were male.
“It used to be the people who wanted to live downtown were younger and more interested in the party atmosphere,” said Marvin Wanders, who owns and manages about 40 downtown units and is one of the developers converting the former county administration center on Fourth Street into a 113-unit residential complex. “Now that demographic has shifted to young professionals and empty nesters.”
Wanders said he used to get several calls a year from people interested in relocating to downtown; now those calls come weekly.
Lizzy Haywood and Jamie Groth are one such couple.
When they relocated from Rochester, Minn., in 2016 for Haywood’s job, they rented a loft apartment on the third floor of the DeBoer’s former building, which Wanders had recently restored.
Between her 60-hour workweeks as CEO of the People’s Food Coop and his nighttime work as a musician and sound engineer, Haywood said they didn’t want the hassle of home ownership or the extra commute.
“We’re not people who like to do home improvement, and we’re not gardeners,” she said. “This affords us a lot of time to work and play. It’s a really good trade off.”
Groth said the third-floor apartment is his favorite home so far.
Their only complaints: the occasional aroma of methane from City Brewery and the smell of croutons from the nearby Bimbo factory.
Phil Addis and his wife, Julie, moved from a house on the North Side into a loft above his downtown law office nearly 15 years ago. At the time, he said, they were among a handful of people living in downtown buildings they owned.
“Now they’re all over,” said Addis, who owns two other downtown residential properties.
The couple have since had two children, which Addis said has never been a problem.
“If you live downtown, there’s really no reason to get in your car and go anyplace else,” he said. “Everything you need is downtown.”
Wanders said he’s not concerned with overbuilding, especially with the planned growth at area institutions and businesses.
“We think there’s definitely a short supply of workforce-based housing in our downtown area,” he said. “We know that market is not being served.”
Without vertical redevelopment of the downtown, La Crosse has little room to grow its population. And Wanders said the additional housing should eventually alleviate the historic shortage of single-family homes for sale.
The availability of affordable, high-quality rental housing is one of the city’s biggest barriers to attracting and retaining young professionals, according to a study by the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The housing market here is traditionally so focused on meeting student housing needs,” said executive director Vicki Markussen. “Now with so many millenials coming to La Crosse what we need to adjust to is the next level.”
Markussen said this generation wants to live close to work and aren’t ready to take on a mortgage or the upkeep of a home, but those moving from outside the area say they have trouble finding that type of rental.
Those who end up renting outside the city are more likely to buy homes there once they are ready to settle down, she said.
But young professionals aren’t the only ones interested in the convenience of downtown.
DMI executive director Robin Moses said last year’s downtown home tour attracted 350 people who paid $15 apiece “to go and look at how people live downtown.”
“A good percentage of them were more of the baby boomers,” Moses said. “They just really have that interest in living where they don’t have to worry about the yard anymore.”
The DeBoers moved to a traditional home in Onalaska shortly after the birth of their second child in 1992, trading two steep flights of stairs and off-site parking for a yard.
Though his kids are grown, DeBoer, 69, said he’s not ready to give up his heated three-car garage.
“I could some day when I’m older,” he said. “It’s good to see downtown coming back the way it is.”