Dan and Karen Grafner were living a good life in their comfortable Mount Lookout house. They had the four bedrooms, the two-car garage, a boy and a girl, a cat and a dog. Dan had a good position as executive director of the University of Cincinnati Foundation.

Then the kids grew up and moved on. When mowing the lawn, the slope of their hill seemed to get steeper every time. The Grafners, who love to walk, found themselves strolling more around downtown Cincinnati and along the riverfront, mulling over something they always had wanted to do: live in the heart of a vibrant city.

After visiting some open houses, the Grafners moved last spring into a renovated condominium at 18 E. Fourth St., formerly the Fourth National Bank building, erected in 1904. The couple couldn't be happier. "This is ground zero. This is DOWNTOWN," exclaims Dan with glee. "The location, size, layout and cost all aligned."

The Grafners are just part of what observers say could be a historical tipping point for Cincinnati: a resurgence in a desire to live downtown or along both sides of the riverfront, coupled with a boom in the urban condominium market. Picture this: more people in downtown homes means more people on downtown streets, creating a safer, more exciting environment for residents, workers, conventioneers, tourists, suburban day-trippers and others.

Downtown retailers, restaurant owners and service-providers would like to see hundreds of Grafners moving in. They have become regulars at restaurants, and try to shop downtown as often as possible. "We're like a Chamber of Commerce dream," Dan says with a chuckle.
So is Roger Thesing, who developed the Fourth Street project with Jeff Jacobs. The partners were thinking apartments, but condo demand was accelerating. Thesing and his wife, also empty-nesters accustomed to suburban living, soon found themselves moving into a condo on the top floor of the renovated bank building.

The Fourth Street condos are a microcosm of this urban transformation. The Grafners' neighbors are young professionals, executives in the last quarter of their careers, and retirees"”including ones who spend winters in warmer climes. According to Karen, a former editor of educational publications, condo decorating and furnishings in her building range from traditional to ultra-contemporary, and from modest to luxurious.

In 1992, Adams Landing was seen as a test of the potential for downtown condos. But the timing was bad, recalls Tim Hind of Huff Realty, who helped the Grafners find their place while he was working with Comey and Shepherd, another major realty force in the downtown market. Now, Adams Landing owners are enjoying their view more than ever.

Why the turnaround? Hind, the Grafners and others cite numerous reasons why people are drawn to the heart of the metropolis, beginning with this recipe: simplify life and spice it with excitement. Spend less time on suburban commuting, more time walking. Mingle with a more diverse, stimulating range of people. Enjoy the palette of arts, entertainment and sports within walking distance. Take advantage of the increasing variety of downtown and riverfront events, without a round-trip drive or a search for parking. Be able to share an extra glass of wine at a downtown restaurant without concern about driving.

Financial considerations are a factor, too. Young professionals are enjoying the fruits of living and working downtown while their net worth rises with their real estate investment. Older folks can sell suburban spreads and sink the proceeds in a hometown condo and a second home elsewhere. And most condo owners believe their properties will jump in value once The Banks riverfront development project becomes reality.

The Grafners' friends from Manhattan were amazed by their place"”and astounded by the price. But some Cincinnati acquaintances "think we have lost our minds," Karen laughs.

Which leads to the safety question. "I feel completely safe. But we're not stupid," Dan comments. "When I was 30 I didn't walk down marginal streets at midnight, and we didn't walk after 11 p.m. in Mount Lookout, either," he remarks.

In its third-quarter 2005 report, Downtown Cincinnati Inc. identified a total of more than 3,000 condo units in and near downtown: 372 existing, nearly 2,000 proposed, and the remainder being under construction or in pre-development. According to the Cincinnati Multiple Listing Service, the average minimum price is $194,000 and the average maximum is $516,000. The 22 units in Thesing's Fourth Street building range from $249,000 to $450,000.

Among new and conversion condo projects on the Kentucky side of the river, The Ascent at Roebling's Bridge has attracted attention around the world, well before its 2007 completion. The $40 million, 21-story residential tower on the Covington riverfront is a creation of renowned architect Daniel Libeskind"”who was assigned the master plan for the World Trade Center site.
Along with its aesthetic impact, The Ascent sends a message: there's definitely a market here for luxurious, top-shelf condos. The building features 72 units ranging from 1,000 to 7,300 square feet. The price range: $395,000 to $5 million. More than 80 percent of the units are sold.

The project expresses the vision of Bill Butler, CEO of Corporex, which contracted with Libeskind and GBBN Architects to design it next to Corporex's River Center development. "Bill has this great sense of what people like, and he believed people would love world-class architecture the way he does." says Debra Vicchiarelli, chief marketing officer for Corporex.
Along with high-end interior design (bamboo hardwood floors, a choice of six granite countertops, Wolf gas ranges and layouts that can accommodate libraries or wine cellars), The Ascent will deliver services such as private drivers on call, 24-hour concierge support, even separate "family suites" for visiting children and grandchildren.

Other Cincinnati condos creating excitement include the McAlpin at 15 W. Fourth St. Marketed by a Comey and Shepherd team including Michael Sweeney, the McAlpin offers 66 units with several customizable floor plans, secured entry and garage, atriums, elevators, 13-foot ceilings, balconies, and a rooftop terrace with city views. Comey and Shepherd has a variety of other downtown area condo properties, including Ahrens Fox, Collins Lofts, Dunlap Lofts, The Flats on Main, the Fort Washington, St. Mary's Square and Turret Lofts.

The Park Place at Lytle, next to the Taft Museum at 400 Pike St., has generated buzz as one of the largest and classiest downtown condo-conversion projects. Occupancies began in November and the 114 units in the former Polk Building"”ranging from $200,000 to more than $1 million"”are nearly sold out, according to Christine Schoonover of Huff Realty. Special features there include an atrium and rooftop garden. The Gateway, The Melindy Lofts and New City Lofts are some of the other condo properties marketed by Huff. Parker Flats at 345 W. Fourth St. is billed as "The hottest new glass building in the Central Business District!"

The renewed condo activity is good for developers, from traditional powerhouses such as Towne Properties to upstart challengers. Middle Earth Properties began with some small renovation projects a few years ago and is now of one downtown's emergent housing developers.
New construction plays a role in the urban renaissance, too. One example is City West, developed by Drees Homes, which has 176 two- and three-story "towne homes."

John Mamone, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati, said the resurgence in condo living is benefiting many HBA members. Some of those in the residential building trades are doing more work in condo renovations than new construction. Cincinnati is "absolutely" at the point where more people living and working downtown will make it safer, Mamone says, therefore attracting even more residents. The HBA arranged a CityRama tour of downtown homes in 2005, and is scouting locations for a 2007 tour, he adds.