REAL ESTATE- ON THE BLOCK- Retro loft: On the right side of the tracks?

ADDRESS: 202 Douglas Ave., Apt. 3F (Belmont Lofts) 


ASKING: $549,950



SIZE: 1,694 fin. sq. ft., 40 unfin. sq. ft. storage locker

LAND: 0 acres

CURB APPEAL: 9.5 out of 10 

LISTED BY: Roger Voisinet of Re/Max Realty Specialists 974-1500

Modern architecture's focus on functionality, simplification of form, and elimination of ornament often results in tedious or lifeless buildings. Flat planes and monolithic expanses of symmetry can easily become repetitive and boring. (Think of numerous bank buildings around town). But good modernist design balances simplicity with some complications and detailing to create visual interest. Indeed, variety is the essential spice that gives flavor to modernist design. Do the Belmont Lofts deliver? 

The complex's brick, steel and concrete construction was aiming for a retro-industrial warehouse feel, according to the website. That's fitting, since the site, bordering the CSX railroad tracks, was formerly an industrial//commercial area that housed an ABC store and was used as a dumping ground for petroleum products. (Environmental remediation was part of the transformation.) 

Trains still pass several times a day, and the diesel engines are certainly audible inside, but the mandatory slow speed on that section of track tempers the noise and vibration, so that once the engines pass, the sound is a mellow clickety-clack.

This is not a pair of plain boxes. The vertically oriented exterior details of the twin buildings include two different shades of brick (each laid in a unique bond), tall windows, vertical alcoves that house small recessed balconies, a protruding central stairwell (clad in yellow or purple stucco as if it were a modern addition to an old warehouse), and burgundy gutter downspouts. All these elements create vertical striations that add interest, transforming what might have been boring rectangles into a stylish retro exterior. 

On the other three sides, protruding vertical slabs clad in ridged panels of galvanized steel usually seen on industrial buildings, create a shaft of metal and windows standing out from the brick. And crown detailing formed by several bands of incrementally offset brick of alternating bonds and colors evokes the more ornate brickwork that was common in the early 20th century. 

Inside this two-story unit, the airy feeling of a loft comes from 11-foot-high ceilings in the central kitchen and living room space, combined with abundant light from large windows throughout. In addition to three spacious bathrooms, there's a walk-in closet off both large bedrooms, a laundry room with full size washer and dryer, and a rooftop terrace just outside the upstairs bedroom.

The rooms are generally simple rectangular spaces without ornament, but several subtle details include angled walls and varying ceiling heights, including a box ceiling in the kitchen. In the fashion of industrial space, several functional items are left exposed: suspended spiral HVAC ducts, sprinkler pipes, and a hefty structural steel I-beam.

The fenestration is pleasantly symmetric, simple, and functional (nearly all the windows are operable), yet sizes, shapes and groupings vary enough to be interesting.

The warehouse theme doesn't prevent luxurious amenities including fiber optic cable for Internet, telephone, and TV– as well as maple flooring in the bedrooms, stairs, and kitchen. And there's a modular gas fireplace unit in the living room. 

The spacious kitchen features stainless appliances, granite countertops, halogen lighting, and handsome maple cabinets with modern pulls (the same cabinets are in the bathrooms). 

The ceiling fans are sleek three-blade models with no adornment whatsoever— as you might find in a factory or even a barn. The acid-etched concrete floors' brown colors and organic shapes evoke bare soil wetted by a recent rain, and then frozen behind a glassy seal.

Industrial materials are also used creatively on the rooftop terrace. Concrete tiles demarcate the unit's terrace from the rest of the gravel-topped flat roof. On one side, a subtle border is formed by a series of closely spaced galvanized tubs, essentially livestock watering bins, used here as planters for small decorative shrubs.

Demarcating the other terrace edge and separating it from the neighbor's is a nifty, eight-foot-tall pattern of galvanized pipe. The open grid doesn't obstruct views, leaves the space feeling bigger and brighter, and encourages social interactions with the neighboring penthouse. The grid includes blinds that can be unrolled to create a privacy screen.

Several other design features encourage encounters. Amidst the nearly three acres of green space surrounding the complex is a community garden with assigned plots and a central terrace with a fountain and a communal grill. The park-like setting is maintained with revenue from the monthly homeowner association fee of $258.

All these attributes mean this apartment offers benefits of urban living without many of the typical downsides of city apartments. No other buildings are close by (although the railroad track isn't far), so there's no sea of asphalt and traffic surrounding the place. Parking is easy, even for visitors (and bikes). A short walk to the Downtown Mall finds plenty of restaurants, bars, and cultural events. And there are peaceful views from the big windows and the rooftop terrace. The views, however, might change.

The predominant view from this unit is to the north, where directly across the tracks stands the landmark coal tower surrounded by a tangle of trees on 10.8 acres of weedy land. Since this coal tower property was purchased in 2003 for $5.48 million, development seems inevitable. According to city zoning ordinances that encourage density downtown, a future building across the tracks could rise nine stories, and a major development proposal was recently submitted to the city. Therefore, a buyer should understand that the view north might change significantly.