In 1998, a Quad-City Times reporter compared people living in the downtown Quad-Cities to salmon swimming upstream.

They were faced with rundown neighborhoods, relatively few commercial amenities, spotty nightlife and lousy parking. While large cities were beginning to attract residents back to their cores, a Quad-City Realtor was quoted as saying he didn't think that would happen in Davenport.

How things have changed. Since 2000, at least 1,423 new housing units have been built in the downtowns of Davenport, Rock Island and Moline, representing hundreds of millions in investment.

Most of the new units have been created through the "adaptive reuse" of old buildings, but there also has been some new construction. And all those units are running at 98 percent to 99 percent occupancy, officials say.

That's a lot of salmon.

Rock Island pioneered the current downtown living movement in 2001 with the conversion of two former department stores — white elephants, if you will — into 52 loft apartments, known as the Goldman and Renaissance Lofts.

While The Alexander Co. of Madison, Wis., had purchased the former LeClaire Hotel in downtown Moline and converted it into apartments in 1995, Rock Island's projects were the first conversions of formerly non-residential buildings.

The overall cost was more than $6 million, involving an incredibly complex financing package developed over three years by Rock Island Economic Growth, a nonprofit developer that continues to lead and pioneer housing projects in Rock Island and elsewhere.

The loft apartment concept took root in Davenport in 2003 when the Wisconsin-based Alexander Co. targeted a cluster of vacant or underused warehouse buildings in a wasteland area bounded by 4th, 5th, Iowa and Federal streets.

Davenport Alderman Gene Meeker remembers the area as a "total, total disgrace," and some people were skeptical whether this newly dubbed "warehouse district" would fly. 

But when the first apartments opened in 2005 and rented up right away, people took notice, said Bruce Berger, the city's director of community planning and economic development.

Moline's adaptive reuse apartment projects have been led by Quad-City developer Mark Roemer, who opened the Boston Lofts overlooking 5th Avenue in 2004. He has since developed the Phillips Lofts, the Berglund Flats and the Pierr, Hemingson and 7th Avenue apartments for a total of 102 units.

Moline's downtown housing got a further boost in 2012 when the first from-the-ground-up, new construction project opened with 69 units. Called the Enterprise Lofts, it was built for $12.7 million by Gorman & Co. of Oregon, Wis., a suburb of Madison.

Most recently, The Mills at Riverbend Commons near the Western Illinois University riverfront campus have added 90 units of student-directed housing, and 12 upper-floor apartments have opened in the historic Skinner Block where Moline's downtown revitalization began in the early 1990s.

And more changes are on deck in all three cities, with city and civic leaders speaking excitedly about what's next.

In Rock Island, the Schwiebert Riverfront Park is recognized as a jewel that capitalizes on the Quad-Cities' biggest asset, the Mississippi River. But the four-lane Illinois 92 highway creates a barrier, or "disconnect," between the park and the rest of the downtown.

To fix this, city leaders are investigating the possibility of narrowing the highway to two lanes between the Centennial and Government bridges and installing safety devices on the railroad tracks, said Jeff Eder, the city's community and economic development director.

Those changes would better connect the park and the downtown, ultimately boosting the downtown, he said. 

In Davenport, the biggest project to date is underway with the redevelopment of the Parker and Putnam buildings into City Square by Amrit and Amy Gill of Restoration St. Louis.

If all the pieces of the $60 million project fall into place, the redevelopment will include 38 luxury apartments, a 61-suite hotel, office space, a long-hoped for urban grocery store and, on the north side, a campus for Scott Community College.

And Renew Moline's Janet Mathis is enthused about the opening of the multi-modal facility — a clunky phrase that has been renamed "The Q" — that will include an Amtrak train station and Element hotel, a brand of Starwood Hotels and Resorts.

While each city has its own projects, Rock Island's Eder is quick to point out that the reinvention of downtowns is not a competition.

"We feed off one another," he said. "It's regional development. It is spurring people to think creatively."

(Accompanying this story is a city-by-city closer look at what's underway.)

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