The new trend downtown: Married, with children

Infants and toddlers are a fast-rising population group in downtown Minneapolis.

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Magnus and Anna Larsson

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A hot new hangout is being built in downtown Minneapolis this summer. The eagerly anticipated, $400,000-plus venue is not a restaurant, theater or nightclub.

It's a children's playground at 4th Avenue N. and West River Parkway.

Small children sharing the sidewalks with office workers used to be a rare sight downtown. But the number of infants, toddlers and young children who now live there -- most in condos, lofts or townhouses in the North Loop and Mill District along the Mississippi River -- has spiked in the past three years as their parents have bucked the tradition of moving to the suburbs or outer city once they have kids.

"There's been a noticeable increase in the number of young children living downtown, which is supported by the number of calls we've gotten requesting family-friendly areas," said Doug Kress, senior policy aide for Seventh Ward City Council Member Lisa Goodman.

Some couples are sticking around because it can be more difficult to unload a downtown residence right now than it is to shush a cranky 3-year-old. But the trend also signals a generational attitude shift: Many millennials and younger Gen-Xers say their American dream is not a big house and yard in the suburbs. It's walking to work, no lawn mowing, more family play time and culture at their doorsteps.

"I'm seeing a changing of the guard from baby boom empty nesters looking for a retirement place to young couples and families," said Cynthia Froid, a real estate agent who has even included a crib in one of her for-sale units. "People want to live closer to where they're working and being entertained. You just want a little bit more of a village and not have to get in your car for everything."

Young adults "are hyper-focused on work-life balance," said Lisa Orrell, a national consultant who coaches companies on how to hire and retain millennial-age workers. "They don't want to be in that 'because you have kids' box. They want to live somewhere that's both convenient and has a young, hip vibe."

New priorities

You can't beat the commute, said Scott Erickson, a father who works downtown. "Mine is about five minutes," he said. "I don't want to spend two hours in my car every day, two hours I could be spending at home with my family."

He lives with his wife, Kiki, and their toddlers, Paloma and Tessa, on a cul-de-sac at The Landings, a group of 60 townhouses by the river that has seen growth in young families.

The Warehouse District is still home to throngs of barhoppers and Sex World. But the growing neighborhoods on its eastern and southern edges are becoming downright kid-friendly, with baby-stroller traffic jams at the Mill City Farmers Market and neighborhood play dates at Gold Medal Park. On the other side of town, Loring Park has seen a bump in child residents as well.

In 2005, the total downtown population was 29,000; it's now about 33,000 and has grown every year despite the depressed economy. While no one has kept track of the total number of children downtown since the last census was released 10 years ago, there are at least 100 in the North Loop alone, according to David Frank, president of the North Loop Neighborhood Association, and Anna Larsson, founder of the two-year-old parents' resource group North Loop Kids.

In 2000, the Mill District was home to just one child. Now, downtown real estate agent Scott Parkin said that about every third couple that has a baby decides to stay downtown. "It seems like every residential building has at least one baby or young child living there," he said.

Rooftop Easter egg hunt

Another draw to downtown is what experienced urbanites see as a built-in feeling of community.

"We didn't know anyone when we moved here," said Larsson, a business consultant who lives in the 801 Washington Lofts, a 60-unit converted warehouse loft on Washington near Bunker's and Bar La Grassa, with her husband, Peter Brown, and their 2-year-old son, Magnus. "It was easy to meet neighbors; our building is very social. Even in the winter, when in the suburbs you might not see your neighbors at all, we're always gathering by the elevators."

Both "city people" from the East Coast, the couple moved to Minneapolis seven years ago. "Neither of us had cars out East," Larsson said. "We do now -- for when we occasionally have to drive out of the city."

Three years ago, there was one child in their building. Now there are six, and two more are on the way, Larsson said.

Even landlords are getting in on the act. In April, Froid was showing the Park Avenue Lofts to a prospective buyer. When they visited the roof, a surprise awaited -- the caretaker had staged an Easter Egg hunt for the building's children.

One downside to the downtown children's life is the lack of nearby schools. Another is a shortage of back yards, which Kiki Erickson said she misses.

Two years ago, Larsson and other parents in the Loop "agreed the single thing most necessary to make the neighborhood more livable was a playground," she said, and they started lobbying the city.

The park board initially told Larsson's group not to expect a playground for up to 10 years, prompting them to start exploring private options. Then serendipity stepped in. The National Recreation and Park Association does a "Leave It Better" community building project each year in the city of its annual conference, Jennifer Ringold of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board said, and this year it's in Minneapolis. The new playground will be mostly play-ready by October.

While St. Paul has nowhere near the number of pre-K downtown residents that Minneapolis does, there has been a noticeable increase from almost none to a growing segment of the population, according to the office of City Council Member Dave Thune.

Backyard culture

Momcultureonline.com blogger Lenore Moritz and her husband, designer Michael Rabatin, live in a condo down the block from the Guthrie Theater -- a convenient place to visit on snowy or rainy days because they can take Harper, 4, and Hudson, 2, there to run off their extra energy, just like suburban parents do at shopping malls.

"This is a cultural gold coast," Moritz said. "We've got MacPhail, the Gold Medal Park, and with the Lunds across the river and a Target downtown, we're set."

Other cities across the country are seeing a similar trend. In Denver, the number of families living downtown (about 30 percent of total downtown households), has grown by more than 1,000 since 2007, and a "Kids Downtown" group of parents, business owners and city representatives is being formed. In Chicago, new Catholic schools are being founded in old downtown parishes, thanks to an uptick in young families.

Some Minneapolis parents say friends or relatives have questioned whether downtown is the right environment for pre-schoolers, but others are the envy of their pals.

"We have friends who live in the suburbs who are trying to move closer into the city," Kiki Erickson said.

The only negative judgment that Larsson has received "was from a delivery guy who went on and on about how we could never raise a kid in this building," she said. "Ironically he was delivering Magnus' crib."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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