Janesville residents enjoy a little big-city atmosphere

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Marcia Nelesen
Sunday, March 3, 2013

— Jeni Sauser enjoys greeting her Main Street neighbors—downtown business people, workers and other apartment dwellers.

Around the corner on Milwaukee Street, Judy Shumway is having fun fashioning a new home from 3,600 square feet over her business, The Glass Garden.

Across the street, Timothy Hinrichs likes looking from his bank of 10 windows above Raven's Wish to the Rock River, watching the comings and goings of the downtown.

Just to the west, Will Natz enjoys relaxing in his rooftop garden.

Up the block, Britten Grafft delights in her spacious apartment bright with skylights. She rarely has to turn on the lights.

More residents are living it up downtown, and they're doing it in places that others in Janesville might never imagine.

Renovations include modern amenities while retaining the character of the past.

Many downtown apartments have towering windows and even taller ceilings, rooftop gardens and second-floor decks. They have vintage glass, skylights galore, ornate moldings and exposed brick. They have sunken living areas, built-in bookcases and armoires.

There's nothing cookie-cutter about these spaces: each is designed around the building's character.

"Nobody knows these apartments exist," Hinrichs said. "This area is great."

"What we have found is a lot of the neat downtown apartments just basically go word of mouth," Gale Price, of the city's community development department, said.

Grafft's friends tell her they want to move in if she ever moves out.

Todd Kimball is renovating the eight apartments and four condos in the historic Peters Building on East Milwaukee Street. After he finished one, it rented immediately to a man who moved here from California.

"We're seeing things happen downtown," Price said.

Why downtown?

"It's a different feel," Sauser said about downtown living.

Her apartment has a sleek, metropolitan look with exposed ductwork and gleaming kitchen appliances.

"The downtown is not necessarily that big, but it has a big-city atmosphere," Hinrichs agreed.

The revitalization of downtown residential space has been gradual, Price said.

Downtown always had a few nice apartments, but over time people with vision have bought buildings and further rehabilitated them, he said.

"They've taken on the opportunity to create some unique upper-level apartments in some of these older buildings.

"In the downtown, you can be on the second floor, crack open a window and enjoy the urban environment," he said.

Price said census data show young professionals are choosing to live in an urban environment. They buy into reusing what already is here and minimizing driving.

Downtown residents like being where the action is, he said.

They don't worry much about parking because they like walking to restaurants and bars, the library, specialty stores and consignment shops.

They shrug off the inconvenience of carrying groceries up a flight of stairs.

They dismiss fears of safety as being unfounded.

Downtown dwellers play an important part in revitalizing the downtown, Price said.

"When you have people at all hours of the day in the downtown, there's a sense that there's something going on," he said.

Activity creates a sense of safety.

New digs

Judy Shumway is going all in on downtown.

She and her husband, Dale, are selling their home in Wuthering Hills and remodeling 3,600 square feet on the second floor of the circa 1884 building she owns on West Milwaukee Street.

Her new home will be double the size of her current space.

The couple have gotten the same questions from several people.

Their answers:

-- Yes, they will have to haul their groceries up a flight of stairs.

-- No, they are not afraid for their safety.

-- Yes, parking will work out fine. They will lease a spot in the city lot across the street and park the truck they use several times a week in a storage unit.

Dale Shumway is looking forward to no yard work and little shoveling, Judy Shumway said. She is curious how fast she will get accustomed to the downtown noise after the quiet of a residential neighborhood.

"I'm thrilled," Shumway said.

"How many other places have skylights in the floor?"

Farmers market and hot dogs

Pretty much everything Will Natz and his girlfriend need is downtown, where they live in the 300 block of West Milwaukee Street.

In the summer, the couple walk to the farmers market and their favorite hot dog spot. They eat in nearby restaurants and pick up guacamole at the cantina across the street. They relax in the rooftop garden, where Natz built a pergola and where they watch the Fourth of July fireworks as close as if they were on TV.

They knew they wanted the apartment the minute they opened the door: He wanted a loft atmosphere, and she wanted exposed brick.

There is a "very neighborly feel" among the business owners and renters, Natz said.

They are friendly with Kathy Krantz, who owns the used bookstore downstairs and next door.

Parking is a hassle, especially on busy weekends when O'Riley & Conway's Irish Pub and the Cozy Inn Chinese and American Restaurant are hopping. Sometimes, the couple walk several blocks after parking their cars. They also had to downsize after moving from an eastside duplex.

Still, the downtown ambiance more than makes up for any inconveniences, Natz said.

"I love the downtown," Natz repeated.

Where the action is

Many apartments have no character and no history, Grafft, 26, said. She majored in architecture in college and designed the space where she lives. Her father, Jim, owns the building.

Grafft wanted a place in which to live her dream—to restore something and make it useable again.

Her spacious, 1,600-square-feet apartment was created from two small apartments with cramped rooms. The skylights, Grafft's favorite feature, had not even been used to advantage.

She describes two distinct downtown communities: Milwaukee Street and Main Street.

The upper part of West Milwaukee Street, where Grafft lives, "is really turning around," she said. "We go to restaurants, the Speakeasy, the Armory," she said. "O'Riley's has made a big difference."

She loves frequenting the nearby consignment shops.

"I just really like being where the action is," Grafft said.

Grafft would like to see a grocery store downtown, but La Esquinita Mexican Groceries and Restaurant carries enough basics to get by. And the restaurant makes great guacamole, she said.

Her building—her bedroom looks over the alley to The Armory—comes with parking, so that is not a problem.

Jeni Sauser, too, loves the downtown. She downsized from a six-bedroom home to 1,600 square feet and now has 10-foot ceilings and seven-foot windows that look out over Main Street.

"There's history to it," Sauser said.

She's come to appreciate the rattles and imperfections of the building that's more than 100 years old. The industrial feel of the renovation allows an eclectic style of decorating.

She enjoys the mix of people her neighborhood, including business owners, workers and residents.

"Everyone gets to know each other," Sauser said. "It really is a neighborhood, and it's very diverse."

Plus, her apartment is across from Carousel Consignments, a landmark frequently mentioned by downtown dwellers.

Sauser likes being able to walk to work at her salon business at Studio 107 on West Milwaukee Street.

Parking is not a problem. Sauser parks in the downtown parking plaza behind her apartment or in front on Main Street. She uses the Parker Drive parking garage two blocks away during snow emergencies.

Price predicted two things would open the floodgates of downtown dwelling: a new apartment building or office building and a downtown grocery store.

"You really have to say, the downtown is coming of age," Price said.

Last updated: 7:59 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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