Downtown’s Role in Attracting the Elusive Millennial

Downtown’s Role in Attracting the Elusive Millennial

By Mike Cannon, BDL Board Secretary | My Architect, LLC

Millennials. To quote Ron Burgundy, “they’re kind of a big deal”. This incredibly large population of people ages 18-34 is expected to surpass baby boomers as the largest generation of all time and every major industry is doing its research to adapt to meet their needs. Not only is the economic world scrambling to find new data, but community leaders, mayors, and city planners are educating themselves on how to adapt to this generation as well. But how exactly can a community market to this generation and most importantly, what exactly are millennials looking for in a place to live? And why should small towns like Lewiston, ID even bother? After all, most of these young adults are flocking to dense urban areas (Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco) at a higher rate than any other generation. How is it even possible that we could compete with such entities? Well, according to city planner and author, Jeff Speck, these larger metro areas that invested in providing the quality of life that millennials prefer a decade ago, may have priced themselves out of the millennial market. This presents quite the opportunity for the typical American downtown, that are only beginning to provide those desired amenities, to help keep nearby millennials from moving. “These second-tier cities, where downtown housing is more rare than expensive, have a tremendous capacity to revitalize themselves around a millennial influx, but only those that invest now will do so”. (Jeff Speck).

So what exactly are millennials looking for in a place to live? According to a new report from the American Institute for Economic Research, the factors such as high density of people with a college degree, low unemployment rate, and high levels of walkability are quality of life factors that ranked the highest. Other factors included average salary, cost of rent, competition for jobs, bars, restaurants, and diversity. (Kathleen Elkins, Business Insider). Market-research firm Ipsos Public Affairs for Livability recently surveyed 2,000 millennials and asked about which features of a community make it easiest to live in. About 80 percent of all respondents said the cost of living and affordability of housing mattered most when choosing a place to nest. 64% of respondents said that climate mattered more than available jobs, which came in at 57%. (Natalie Kitroeff, Bloomberg). According to Nielsen’s ‘Millennials – Breaking the Myths’ report,sixty-two percent indicate they prefer to live in the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers, where they can be close to shops, restaurants and offices, also making them less likely to own a vehicle (In 2011, 66 percent of millennials under age 25 owned a car, compared with 73 percent in 2007). They also have a desire to live in more socially conscious, creative environments, combining urban convenience with an exciting art and music scene. (Nielson, 03-04-2014). So to summarize, millennials are looking for a walkable, creative, diverse, vibrant, fair weather community at an affordable price. But are these metropolitan urban centers (downtown districts where density levels are the highest) that they prefer, in the current market, actually affordable for people at such a young age?

The short answer to that is no. Not even close. In fact, there are some U.S. cities where housing in their urban cores have become completely un-affordable for 18-34 year olds. Another recent article published by Bloomberg Business found that only 37 of the 50 biggest U.S. cities are affordable places for millennials to settle down and that they do not earn half of what they would need to buy or rent in cities like San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles. (Victoria Stilwell & Wei Lu). While it is a fact that the majority of millennials are moving to cities to start their careers, the location where they reside is another story. “New research provided by the Urban Land Institute surveyed 1,270 people ages 19 to 36 in November 2014. The researchers found that while a large share (37 percent) of respondents identified as “city people,” and almost half of the respondents lived within central-city boundaries, only 13 percent actually stayed in or near the heart of the city’s downtown region. The rest live in quieter neighborhoods around the urban core. The reason for this is that while millennials greatly value walkability, mixed-use neighborhoods, and retail/entertainment options, only some of them can afford expensive housing in central business districts. So they settle for neighborhoods outside bustling urban hotspots.” (City Lab) In cities like Seattle and Portland, two of our region’s largest hubs for millennials, this research could not be more prevalent. On average, a newly renovated 630 square foot-one bedroom apartment in downtown Seattle rents for $1,860.00 a month ($3.00/square foot) compared to areas such as SeaTac ($950.00 at $1.50/square foot) and Des Moines ($983.00 at $1.56/square foot), located 10 miles south of downtown.

So perhaps Mr. Speck’s claim that the typical American downtown, one that has started to invest in walkability and encourage a healthy mix of uses, does have the tremendous potential to attract millennials to their urban cores. Considering Lewiston’s extremely low cost of living and affordable rates for downtown rentals ($0.50 – $1.20/square foot), combine that with our generous climate and future expansions of LCSC, Lewiston could have the potential to attract a share of the millennial population. Based on the past five years, it is easy to see that our community’s investment into reshaping downtown is headed toward a large degree of success. We’ve witnessed the beginning inflow of various new dining/entertainment options, as well as new improvements to increase walkability and pedestrian safety throughout the area.   But all of that could be predicated on whether or not we help to increase the supply to meet the demand of downtown housing for this generation and generations to come. Let’s not forget that a various mix of housing options is just as crucial as meeting the demand. Millennials come in all shapes and sizes. Single, married, or family of three or more, they all are seeking the same lifestyle. I’m excited to see what the future has in store for Beautiful Downtown Lewiston.


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