Key takeaways:

  • Dallas is tops in terms of downtown living, closely followed by Austin, based on a combination of metrics delving into cost of living, apartment options, entertainment, safety and other desirable urban features
  • Almost half of the top 10 best places for downtown living are in the South, with three of them representing Texas
  • Chicago brings the Midwest in the limelight with its central area providing easy access to lifestyle-centered living including green apartments, a great ratio of housing options per capita, amenity-laden rental buildings, and a lively shopping and entertainment scene

No matter how you slice it, downtowns are the heart and soul of a city. It’s where fun, active lifestyles meet culture and social interaction, among other desirable features that spell liveliness. Aside from the obvious advantages of moving to a live-work-play environment, there are some downsides as well, with affordability, limited housing options and safety concerns taking center stage in keeping people away from city cores.

Essentially, downtown living is a matter of choice and priorities, and often it boils down to whether the pros outweigh the cons. It’s also true that some places make it much easier than others for residents to enjoy an urban lifestyle, and that’s what we wanted to discover with our latest research: The city centers that offer the best bang for the buck.

To help decide which vibrant downtown areas offer the best combination of apartment options and amenities balanced by cost, we started out by selecting the 30 most populous cities in the U.S. We then ranked their central areas against a wide variety of factors such as cost of living (rent-to-income ratio, cost of groceries), rental inventory, apartment amenities (personal space, green units, unit quality, access to workout facilities), safety, restaurants, cultural and shopping options and more. Self storage was also included in our analysis as it’s a service frequently used by apartment dwellers as they move or afterwards as they seek to maximize living space.

Based on our report, the South occupies almost half of the top 10 places in downtown living, with Texas nabbing three spots in the ranking.

Top 10 Cities for a Great Downtown Living Experience

The South is king in downtown living, with Dallas, Texas, shining the brightest

As a popular relocation destination, the South continues to put its best foot forward, coming first for downtown living offerings in many of its cities. This in turn spurred a wave of newcomers to put down roots here, with Florida and Texas claiming the most numeric gains in net migration in 2021, continuing a decade-long trend, per U.S. Census data.

Largely supported by the intense migration, Southern downtown apartment construction took a front seat nationally, with four of the most active downtown areas for new rental supply in the last 10 years located in the South. More recently, the South stood out as a hotbed of premier apartment living and family-friendly settings with some of the best places for families to raise children located here. Consequently, it may come as no surprise that the South is also taking center stage for offering the best chances at downtown living. Cities such as Austin, Nashville and Houston are an integral part of the Southern boom, with their city center areas shining brightly for a desirable mix of top-notch housing opportunities, culture, shopping and more, that all carry the promise of premier downtown living.

Let’s take a closer look at the 10 best places for downtown living and what makes them stand out from the crowd:

1. Dallas, Texas

Ranking best in:

  • Apartments with access to fitness centers
  • Apartments located in luxury buildings
  •  Apartment personal space
Downtown Dallas, Texas, skyline
Downtown Dallas, Texas, skyline

Downtown Dallas’s unique range of features and amenities helped it get crowned as the best central area in the country for urban life enthusiasts. A city that traditionally embraced sprawl as urban design, it’s been recently focused on adding density in an effort to increase housing options and foster walkability. This only increases downtown’s appeal for both locals and new residents, who can now enjoy a great mix of lively streets, culture and a reasonable cost of living.

Zooming in on living standards, apartments in downtown Dallas are tops for access to workout centers (95% of units) and premier apartments (81%). What’s more, apartments in Dallas’s city center also come out on top for spacious apartments, offering over 995 square feet of space per person on average.

2. Austin, Texas

Ranking best in:

  • Green apartment buildings
  • Apartment personal space
  • Educated population
Downtown Austin, Texas skyline cityscape bridges over Ladybird Lake
Downtown Austin, Texas skyline cityscape bridges over Ladybird Lake

The second Texan city to make it into our ranking, Austin has an enviable downtown area that boasts a bevy of features catering to people from all walks of life. Thanks to its strong economy powered by tech and other industries, Austin continues to attract newcomers to the point where it becomes red hot in terms of cost of living. However, downtown median household incomes are well beyond the $100K mark, much higher than the national average, and that helps bridge the affordability gap to some extent.

What you get in downtown Austin is well worth it though. Close to half of the large-scale rental inventory is made up of LEED-certified apartment buildings, making Austin come first for eco-friendly downtown living. It also fares great in offering extensive personal space (939 sq. ft./person) as it hosts some of the biggest city center apartments in the country. Besides enjoying more space at home, downtown dwellers in Austin are also likely to live in a high-end unit, with 73% of the large-scale rental stock falling in this category.

Moreover, while working for large companies is part of what draws many people here, the area also gives you reason to play: with 14.6 restaurants and 2.8 theaters per 1,000 locals, downtown Austin is one of the liveliest areas in the country. Live music performances including the South by Southwest Music Festival on 6th Street (SXSW) are just some other opportunities to let your hair down and enjoy everything that “keeps Austin weird.”

Finally, Austin is one of the safest places in our ranking, adding another perk to the long list of reasons to put down roots here.

3. Chicago, Illinois

Ranking best in:

  • Educated population
  • Green apartment buildings
  • Rent/income ratio
Chicago Skyline aerial view with road by the beach
Chicago skyline aerial view

Coming in third, downtown Chicago checks all the boxes for those who seek a well-rounded living experience. About 67% of the downtown apartment units are high-end and 90% of rental buildings offer access to fitness centers to help maintain an active lifestyle.

While the Windy City is by no way cheap, it’s got a lower cost of living than many other urban hubs around the country, which gives it a nudge upwards in the ranking. Renters are generally able to keep their housing expenses below the threshold of 30% of their monthly income. Additionally, 23% of apartments in Chicago’s central area come from buildings that wear the green stamp, allowing residents to easily adopt an eco-friendlier lifestyle. In fact, downtown Chicago comes high up in terms of access to green apartment living, bested only by Austin and Boston for most units in buildings boasting LEED certification.

Since people typically choose downtown living to be close to all manner of amenities, Chicago doesn’t disappoint in this respect: There are about 11 restaurants and 2.6 theaters per 1,000 residents — plenty of places to see and try if you’re looking for a fun night on the town. To top it off, you’ll also be in good company here as downtown Chicago comes first for the highest percentage of college-educated people — 83% of residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

4. Boston, Massachusetts

Ranking best in:

  • Apartments located in luxury buildings
  • Green apartment buildings
  • Access to restaurants
Boston, Massachusetts, downtown cityscape at dusk over Atlantic Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts, downtown cityscape at dusk over Atlantic Avenue

The first East Coast city to make it onto our top 10 list, downtown Boston’s appeal oozes from a seamless blend of historic charm and in-demand city features. As it turns out, downtown Boston comes first for its share of luxury apartments, with 93% of units being located in high-end buildings. Moreover, 82% of units have access to a fitness center within their respective rental complexes.

Downtown Bostonians get to enjoy top-notch living conditions while playing their part in saving the planet. A quarter of apartments in Beantown’s downtown are located in green buildings, second only to Austin in offering the highest share of units in LEED-certified buildings. In the same vein, Boston’s central area appeals to electric vehicle (EV) enthusiasts, as there are close to 160 public EV chargers here, one of the highest numbers of charging stations among the downtowns on our list. The EV love runs deep here, as per a recent report, the Boston metro area cracked the top 20 for electric vehicles, with over 15K EVs registered locally.

With the city being a cultural and academic hub that provides access to world-class schools, it’s no surprise to see the Boston downtown area among the most educated in our ranking, with almost 80% of adults living here holding a BA degree or higher. As a place steeped in culture, the area is well-equipped to cater to locals’ entertainment needs, thanks to the 18.4 restaurants and 2.9 theaters per 1,000 people.

5. Seattle, Washington

Ranking best in:

  • Rent/income ratio
  • Green apartment buildings
  • Neighborhood safety
Downtown Seattle skyline and waterfront
Downtown Seattle skyline and waterfront

Thanks to the proliferation of tech businesses, the fast-growing Seattle metro area has turned its downtown into a bustling area perfect for people who enjoy being in the center of the action while avoiding long commutes. Compared to the other cities on our list, Seattle’s downtown is a lot easier on your wallet in terms of cost of living — with rent taking up about 28% of your income here if you’re an apartment renter. It also helps that the area boasts one of the highest median household incomes ($118K/year) in our ranking. Moreover, Emerald City’s downtown also stands out for eco-friendly living, with over 20% of apartment units in buildings being certified as green properties. Apartment living is also enhanced by the presence of fitness centers in 79% of apartment buildings.

With Seattle being home to several higher-education institutions, about 76% of downtown adults have completed their BA or a higher degree, helping downtown Seattle stand out for its educated population.

If you’re looking to go out and about, you might discover that Emerald City’s downtown boasts a busy and colorful atmosphere. There are roughly 8.8 restaurants and 1.6 theaters per 1,000 residents here. But there’s so much more that this place offers: The synergy between nature and city spills into daily life as people can easily bike, go hiking or sip lattes without leaving their downtown zip code(s).

6. Nashville, Tennessee

Ranking best in:

  • Apartment availability related to population
  • Access to restaurants
  • Access to theaters
Downtown Nashville, Tennessee skyline
Downtown Nashville, Tennessee skyline

Living in downtown Nashville is a unique experience, anchored around the city’s reputation as “country music central.” However, there’s a lot more than meets the eye here. Flanked by multifamily buildings and high-rises, apartment living is king here. There are plenty of options to choose from, with apartment construction firing up as a response to the increasing influx of newcomers, which has made downtown Nashville one of the best-supplied downtowns in this respect.

Defying the common misconception that downtown living is crowded, apartments in Nashville’s downtown offer a pretty generous living space among the downtowns on our list (777 sq. ft of space/person). Moreover, 78% of units offer access to fitness centers within the rental complex, and more than half of them (65%) are located in high-end buildings.

Living here is akin to an immersion in a cosmopolitan place, where world-class dining and entertainment are right at home. That’s because downtown Nashville comes first for its restaurant (22.4/1,000 people) and theater (19.4/1,000 locals) options. Locals and visitors alike can take advantage of downtown’s strong retail presence, with 10 stores/1,000 residents available here. To find national and local dining and shopping hotspots, head out to Fifth + Broadway, Nashville’s largest mixed-use development.

7. Houston, Texas

Ranking best in:

  • Rent/income ratio
  • Apartment space per person
  • Apartments with access to fitness centers
Houston, Texas, downtown city skyline over Root Square
Houston, Texas, downtown city skyline over Root Square

Houston’s downtown is a top-scoring place on our list, catching a spot in the limelight thanks to a wealth of desirable features. With the city attracting transplants in large numbers thanks to the booming economy, apartment construction followed suit so much so that Space City’s downtown apartment deliveries came second nationally, with 15K units built in the 2012–2022 decade. Despite the city turning into a popular place to move to, living here won’t decimate your bank account. In fact, Houston has the most affordable downtown in terms of the rent-to-income ratio (22%), much below the 30% threshold.

As it turns out, locals can afford to literally live large, too, as apartments boast plentiful living space — offering, on average, about 890 square feet of space per person. Besides, there’s more in store for downtown renters: 79% of Houston’s city center apartments are located in luxury buildings and more than 90% of them provide access to workout facilities.

8. Columbus, Ohio

Ranking best in:

  • Apartment availability related to population
  • Access to restaurants
  • Access to theaters
Downtown Columbus Ohio with Scioto River
Downtown Columbus Ohio with Scioto River

Columbus’s central area enjoys all the perks of being part of Ohio’s capital — with the strong economy and city buzz — while retaining its sense of community as Columbus recently ranked among the best cities for neighborliness. The city attracts young workers thanks to opportunities in finance, IT, biomedical services and more.

Apartment living affords about 790 square feet of space per person in downtown Columbus, about 250 more square feet than the national average apartment space per person. Moreover, almost 70% of apartments grant you access to fitness centers within the same rental building, and more than half of the units are part of high-end rental buildings. For the electric car driver, the downtown area provides almost 60 chargers so you can hit the road while taking care of the planet here.

Downtown Columbus boasts a rich dining and entertainment scene: There are 18.2 restaurants and 3.4 theaters per 1,000 people. The area also stands out for its shopping potential, as there are about 8.7 stores/1,000 people. Whether you choose Olde Towne East or the Short North Arts District, an area peppered with specialty shops, coffee shops and other entertainment venues, there are great options for all tastes and budgets.

9. San Diego, California

Ranking best in:

  • Public EV chargers
  •  Neighborhood safety
  • Green apartment buildings
Panorama City View with Marina Bay at San Diego
Panorama city view with Marina Bay at San Diego

San Diego might get plenty of weather-related superlatives hurled at it, but perhaps a lesser-known fact about it is how well it fares in terms of downtown living. Living here takes a good chunk of your income — as is the case with most big Californian cities — but you get a lot in return, from gorgeous natural sights to great shopping and entertainment venues, walkability and access to fresh groceries. For the earth-conscious, about 13% of apartments are included in green-certified buildings, and close to 80% of the local apartment buildings offer access to fitness centers.

Electric car owners also have a reason to rejoice: Downtown San Diego boasts 180 electric vehicle chargers, signaling the presence of an EV-friendly environment.
Downtown San Diego has a lot in store for you if you’re looking to explore the eclectic food scene across cuisines and eateries, with about 12.6 of them per 1,000 residents. If you’re contemplating a different kind of recreational opportunity, there are about 2 theaters/1,000 people and 7.3 stores/1,000 residents.

10. Phoenix, Arizona

Ranking best in:

  • Apartments with access to fitness centers
  • Apartment availability related to population
  • Access to theaters
Downtown Phoenix, Arizona,
Downtown Phoenix, Arizona

The Phoenix area has been the Southwest’s rising star in the past few years thanks to the tremendous economic boom that attracted robust migration and laid the groundwork for its currently flourishing city and suburbs. Therefore, it’s not surprising to see that downtown PHX, the business center of the Sun Valley, actually comes with all the enviable trappings of the city — think food, culture and sports — all accessible within walking distance.

Multifamily living remains the dominant housing option in downtown PHX. In line with the area’s skyrocketing development, more than 70% of downtown’s large-scale apartment inventory was added in the last decade alone, per a recent  StorageCafe report. More than half of the apartment units are part of high-end buildings (64%), and a whopping 92% of them are located in rental buildings that provide access to fitness centers — which makes premier living a tangible reality here. You also get plenty of room when you rent a downtown apartment (790 sq. ft./person), a generous living space by national standards.

Downtown Phoenix’s versatility shines brightly as it provides access to coveted city features powered by Valley Metro Rail, one of the newest rail systems in the country. The city center boasts around 200 restaurants in total or about 12 dining spots/1,000 locals. You also have access to live music, museums, rooftop lounges and art galleries or any of the 2.6 theaters/1,000 residents. Sports fans can also feel at home whether they cheer on the Phoenix Suns, Phoenix Mercury or Arizona Diamondbacks at their local stadiums during home games.

Downtown Austin nabs the crown for green living

Besides considering which downtowns have the most diverse combination of desirable features, we also wanted to highlight the ones that are best equipped to also care and nurture the environment. To do that, we’re zooming in on city centers where apartment living is most earth-friendly. As it turns out, Austin is tops for green living, with close to half of its apartment stock (47%) being located in LEED-certified buildings. Boston is second, with 25% of its multi family units belonging to the same category. The Windy City’s downtown follows close behind, boasting a total of 23% apartment inventory included in green buildings. In addition, Denver’s got its own share of green apartments (22%) located in rental complexes that earned the LEED certification.

Self storage enhances downtown apartment living

With apartments being the main housing option in most downtown areas, most renters enjoy less space compared to people living in single-family homes. That’s where self storage can come into play and support renters to make the most of their downtown abode. Putting seasonal and bulky items in storage can be a great way to keep the apartment breezy and organized.

Self Storage Rates in Best Cities for Downtown Living

RankCityCentral Zip CodesSelf Storage RateSq. ft./ Capita
1Dallas, TX75201, 75202, 75270$1889.5
2Austin, TX78701, 78703$20316.5
3Chicago, IL60601, 60602, 60603, 60604, 60605$15814.9
4Boston, MA02108, 02109, 02110, 02111, 02114, 02203, 02210#N/A#N/A
5Seattle, WA98121$2367.0
6Nashville, TN37201, 37203, 37219$13356.2
7Houston, TX77002, 77003, 77007$1501.8
8Columbus, OH43215$9985.6
9San Diego, CA92101$1947.7
10Phoenix, AZ85003, 85004$1824.0
11Denver, CO80202, 80204$1067.1
12Charlotte, NC28202, 28204, 28206, 28208$1012.0
13Manhattan, NY10007, 10013, 10038, 10005, 10014, 10012, 10004, 10280, 10006$4573.8
14Washington, D.C.20001, 20005, 20036, 20037#N/A#N/A
15Los Angeles, CA90012, 90013, 90014, 90015, 90017, 90021, 90058, 90071$21412.8
16Portland, OR97201, 97204, 97205#N/A#N/A
17Philadelphia, PA19102, 19103, 19106, 19107, 19109, 19146, 19147$1362.9
18Brooklyn, NY11216, 11217, 11201$2603.2
19Indianapolis, IN46202, 46203, 46204, 46225$1093.1
20Fort Worth, TX76102, 76104, 76110, 76111$8825.2
21Memphis, TN38103, 38104, 38105, 38126$1136.8
22Louisville, KY40202, 40203, 40204, 40206$1088.4
23Baltimore City, MD21201, 21202, 21217, 21223, 21230, 21231$1321.8
24Jacksonville, FL32202, 32204, 32207$19518.7
25San Jose, CA95110, 95112, 95113, 95116,95126$1501.0
26San Antonio, CA78204, 78205, 78206, 78207, 78209, 78210, 78212, 78215, 78216$1214.0
27Oklahoma City, OK73102, 73103, 73104, 73106, 73109, 73129$1104.7
28San Francisco, CA94104, 94108, 94111, 94133$35327.6
29Detroit, MI48201, 48207, 48216, 48226$2122.9
30El Paso, TX79901#N/A#N/A
31Las Vegas, NV89101, 89104, 89106, 89110$1168.8
32Queens, NY11355, 11354$2382.4
Self storage rates refer to 10’x10’ non-climate-controlled units, per month.
To see downtown self storage listings, for a specific downtown area, click on the link in the table and select the central zip codes of each city center area from the left side menu on the map.
Source: StorageCafe analysis of Yardi Matrix data.

To gauge where city center renters can get the best access to self storage, we’ve looked at prices and availability per person in the top 30 largest cities’ downtown areas. Naturally, prices differ based on location, with places such as Brooklyn, New York ($260/month) or Seattle, Washington ($236/month) calling for top dollar for a storage unit. On the other hand, self storage costs well below the national average of $129/month in downtowns such as Fort Worth, Texas ($88/month), Columbus, Ohio ($99/month), Charlotte, North Carolina Carolina ($101/month) and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma ($110/month).

Downtown living continues to exert its attraction over people in various stages of their lives because it’s where job opportunities, culture, education and verve come together. While some downtowns fare better than others at providing excellent living conditions, there are some places that combine a wealth of desirable city amenities without a wallet-draining cost of living, whether you’re considering the South — which dominates our top 10 — or you’re eyeing a big city on the East Coast or the West Coast.

Check out how each of the 30 downtown areas included in our study fared overall and by individual metrics below:

What the experts are saying

Doug Ressler, Business Intelligence Manager - Yardi Matrix

1. Is the American downtown prepared to meet the growing demand for prime urban living?

Doug Ressler, Business Intelligence Manager at Yardi Matrix
Doug Ressler, Business Intelligence Manager at Yardi Matrix

Many cities have made good strides toward creating inclusive urban environments with livability and sustainability key in achieving future-ready status. Downtown areas across the country have seen intensified multifamily construction as more people seek walkability and better connectivity in their neighborhoods. Southern hubs – which have been on migration radars for over a decade now – have had their central areas enhanced and reinvented to respond to current resident needs. Dallas and Austin in Texas and Nashville, Tennessee, are just some of the cities that offer the live-work-play concept in their downtown areas.

2. What are the key features of a future-ready city?

The emergence of the high-rise as a blueprint for a modern living has been instrumental in creating vibrant downtowns. To be able to navigate current challenges, cities must focus on improving digital and physical infrastructure so their residents can live in safe, connected communities all while minding their carbon footprint.

Greg Solfanelli, Director of Marketing & Consumer Experience with Realty Network Group

Has COVID changed downtown dynamics in terms of amenities and other lifestyle aspects?

Solfanelli Greg
Greg Solfanelli, Director of Marketing & Consumer Experience with Realty Network Group

Since 2020, Scranton has been ramping up its revitalization efforts, looking for opportunities to improve its image, post-COVID. Organizations, especially start-ups, have been creative in how they cater to residents and the business crowd as well as visitors. Excluding the colder months, restaurants throughout the downtown area have increased their seating capacity and now offer additional dining space outside the exterior of their buildings. The Marketplace at Steamtown, the city's largest mixed-use facility, is quickly approaching capacity and has become a hub for entertainment, wellness, shopping, eating and more. The city hopes vacant commercial office and retail space will find more entrepreneurs and businesses who are buying into what they're attempting to do. The future may, in fact, be bright for the Electric City!

Methodology

This analysis was done by StorageCafe, an online platform that provides storage unit listings across the nation.

The report set out to investigate the best places for downtown living. To do that, we selected the 30 most populous cities based on U.S. Census Bureau data. Next, we identified the downtown area for each city based on zip code matching. We considered each New York City borough as an independent city, and by extension, a separate downtown area. The Bronx and Staten Island were excluded from our analysis because of insufficient data.

To rank these downtown areas, we considered a series of metrics including cost of living (rent-to-income ratio, cost of groceries), apartment inventory, number of units in green buildings, number of units in luxury buildings, apartment personal living space, safety, access to fitness centers, public electric vehicle chargers, recreation opportunities (restaurants, stores, theaters) and adult population education.

Apartment and self storage data came from our sister division Yardi Matrix. Yardi Matrix is a business development and asset management tool for brokers, sponsors, banks and equity sources underwriting investments in the multifamily, office, industrial and self storage sectors.

For the purpose of our study, “green buildings” were considered large-scale multifamily projects of 50 units or larger that received a LEED certification. Our report doesn’t include the entire inventory of rental buildings in the U.S.

“Luxury” or “high-end” properties fall into the discretionary (Class A+/A) and high mid-range (Class A-/B+) asset class categories according to the Yardi Matrix definition and classification of the apartment market.

Please find a complete list of the metrics, their respective weightings and their sources below:

  • Rent-to-income ratio — 12.5% (Yardi Matrix, U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey: 2021)
  • Total number of apartment units — 12.5% (Yardi Matrix)
  • Apartment living space/person — 7.5% (U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey: 2020)
  • Percent of apartments located in green properties — 7.5% (Yardi Matrix)
  • Percent of fitness centers within rental complexes — 7.5% (Yardi Matrix)
  • Percent of apartments located in luxury properties — 7.5% (Yardi Matrix)
  • Crime rate — 10% (Federal Bureau of Investigation)
  • Cost of groceries — 7.5% (Council for Community and Economic Research)
  • Electric vehicle public charging stations — 5% (U.S. Department of Energy)
  • Restaurants/1,000 people — 5% (U.S. Census Bureau, County Business Patterns by Industry: 2020)
  • Theaters/1,000 people — 5% (U.S. Census Bureau, County Business Patterns by Industry: 2020)
  • Retail stores/1,000 people — 5% (U.S. Census Bureau, County Business Patterns by Industry: 2020)
  • Percent of educated population (holding a BA degree or higher) — 7.5% (U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey: 2021)

Fair use and distribution

This study serves as a resource for the general public on issues of common interest and should not be regarded as investment advice. The data is true to the best of our knowledge but may change if amendments to it are made. We agree to the distribution of this content but we do require a mention in return for attribution purposes.

Author

Mirela is a creative writer for StorageCafe. With an academic background in English and translation, Mirela now covers a range of topics including real estate trends, lifestyle and economy. Her previous experience in proofreading academic articles has inspired Mirela to choose a writing career path. In her free time, Mirela enjoys reading, but also hiking and creating art. You can contact Mirela via email.

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