"People like being around people," says Gary Stern, of Stern Properties, explaining the new population density downtown. "I think people want to get back to what it was like, at least for me, when they were a kid. We just walked outside and if we wanted to play ball there were 50 kids out there. When you get out in the suburbs all that green space and everything, that's nice, it's quiet, but... "
But it's no 1100-square-foot studio loft with glowing hardwood floors, sparkling chrome appliances, a view of the passersby along East Avenue, and a one-minute walk for coffee, drinks, a movie, or dinner.
Stern and his wife are living in his building while their Pittsford condo is being redone.
"I love it," he says. "We're having a great time, eating out all the time, going to the Little. We don't know why we're moving to something else."
The L-shaped Mathews Street building (very close to another residential Stern property, 2 East End Way) was built in the mid-'20s and at that time included commercial, industrial, and office space. From the 1930s to the 1990s, it was a Rochester Optical factory. Then it sat empty until Stern Properties (whose motto is "Live Well, Live Urban") started converting it to residential use.
They rehabbed the outside and gave it a bright new color. There are 17 units inside that offer quality details like ceramic bathroom tiles and sleek light fixtures. They all have 20-foot ceilings, a contemporary look with modern kitchens, and a wide-open, spacious feel. And, as Stern says, "They're rented all the time."
"It really stood out to me," Landmark Society's Katherine Comeau says, "they took this building that was empty, and just found a wonderful way to convert it and make it really inviting on the inside in really simple ways. It's really appealing. The apartments themselves are really just so simple, warm, and inviting."
Warm and inviting are excellent qualities in a 770-square-foot space, the smallest unit in the building; they're downright impressive in a 2200-square-foot loft, when the scale and size can easily overwhelm and make a home feel too industrial. (Rents for the East End Lofts range from $800 to $1600 per month.)
With the appetite right now for the lofts he rents, Stern believes downtown is in resurgence.
"I think it's going to continue, like it did in other cities," he says. "I follow Denver. I saw Denver when there was nothing, now they're building apartments that look like loft apartments because there are no more old buildings to do anymore."
Stern Properties has made a business out of converting old city buildings to residential and commercial lofts, and it's a niche that seems to work.
"At first you wonder," he says. "It really costs a lot of money, but first of all I enjoy doing the work. And I think in the long run it is a good investment. I see things happening now in Rochester. I wish it were happening at a faster rate, but I do see it happening."
East End Lofts, 15 Mathews Street