Twenty years ago, downtown Baton Rouge was such a ghost town that insurers wouldn’t cover homeowners insurance for people interested in living in Spanish Town and Beauregard Town. Lenders wouldn’t provide loans to people interested in renovating buildings.

Ten years ago, the two historic residential neighborhoods started experiencing a comeback, with more people interested in renting and renovating homes within a short walk of restaurants and bars.

But today, downtown Baton Rouge is, for the first time in several decades, an emerging residential destination.

Prices on homes in Spanish Town and Beauregard Town are on the upswing. And hundreds of apartments and condos are being constructed as demand for downtown housing increases.

“Downtown was considered a wasteland,” said Darryl Gissel, a downtown triple threat. Gissel is a Spanish Town resident, a landlord who restores downtown properties and a Realtor who specializes in the area. “Today, when you go somewhere, people talk about how exciting it is. Perception has totally changed.”

For many years, the only residential opportunities for living downtown were in the historic neighborhoods of Spanish Town and Beauregard Town. Many of those homes, dating back more than 100 years, went unrenovated and were mostly family homes for people who had lived in the area for decades.

“You used to see drug dealers on the Capitol grounds and people doing nefarious things,” Gissel recalled. “Now you see people with children having picnics, taking pictures. It’s pretty amazing to see people enjoying an urban public space.”

Davis Rhorer, director of the Downtown Development District, said some 2,200 people live in the residential downtown neighborhoods today. He said planners worked for years to “stabilize those neighborhoods,” persuading developers, banks and insurance companies to invest in the area.

Rhorer said it took more than 15 years to get the neighborhoods to where it is today, attracting developers, families and young professionals alike.

Gissel said that in 1993, when he started selling homes downtown, the highest value he’d see for homes was $50 per square foot.

“The price point has jumped immensely,” he said. “Now it’s $180 per square foot, sometimes $200 per square foot.”

But Rhorer said master planners for downtown estimate that the area needs another 2,000 to 3,000 people to reside in the area to ensure its long-term viability.

In recent years, officials have turned their attention to the central business district, where new high-rises are going up and old office buildings are being restored to create residential space.

Since 2008, 309 apartments have come on the market downtown. They include new apartments on Main Street, the Kress Building’s luxury apartments and the apartment project called 440 on Third. There also are new apartments on Lafayette Street built in conjunction with the IBM commercial building.

Another 156 residential units are under construction and expected to be finished by next year. Those projects include two high-profile historic building renovations of the Onyx Building and the Commerce Building, both off of Third Street.

An additional 163 units are in the planning stage but haven’t yet broken ground, including the House on the Hill, a project by developer Suzanne Turner and her husband, Scott Purdin. The project involves creating a town square development in Beauregard Town featuring new homes, studios for artists and an open space for relaxed living, meeting and entertaining.

While downtown has benefitted over the past decade from new restaurants and bars locating on and around Third Street, the game-changer for attracting residential was a new grocery store.

The more-recent additions of an urgent care clinic, a pharmacy and the new Matherne’s grocery store were much-needed amenities to attract people to live in the area, Rhorer said.

He said growing residential downtown is the pinnacle of his planning efforts for the area and the culmination of more than 25 years of planning. He added that having the built-in customer base will make downtown even more attractive to other businesses eyeing relocations or expansions.

Recently, downtown expanded its boundaries east and north beyond Interstate 110. Rhorer said these areas provide more opportunities to develop more housing projects.

“Residential development has become the heart and soul of making redevelopment downtown happen,” Rhorer said. “It’s the beating heart of making everything go together and click as one.”

He said watching apartment buildings come online in recent years has been rewarding, adding: “We’ve reached the point where we’ve crossed over that halfway line and it just makes everything hum.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz.