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A new form of transportation has joined the car, bus, bike and light-rail train in downtown Minneapolis.
The number of kids under age 5 living in downtown neighborhoods has tripled since 2000, according to newly released U.S. census figures. The 2010 census counted 444 small children in the area from the Mill District through downtown and along the Mississippi River to Plymouth Avenue.
The rapid growth, coupled with increases in older children as well, is the most telling evidence to date that downtown's swelling population is much more than young professionals and empty nesters.
Since 2000, the population of the Downtown East, Downtown West and North Loop neighborhoods has risen to more than 11,000 people, up 82 percent.
The growth, which has converted some condo hallways into the downtown equivalent of suburban cul-de-sacs, promises to reshape the area as developers, businesses and even the city cater to urban tots, urban studies experts say.
The depth of the trend will depend largely on whether parents can cope with the lack of nearby schools and other conveniences as their kids age.
"It shows that parents are willing to have kids downtown," said David Frank, who moved downtown six years ago with his wife and daughter, now 14. Until recently, Frank worked for a developer who built hundreds of condo units in neighborhood along the Mississippi. Now he's in charge of helping to promote transit-oriented development for the city.
He said the city needs to "redouble" its efforts to make downtown a place where parents can move to and choose to stay, and that means more green space and more grocery stores. One of the biggest challenges for downtown families is the lack of schools.
His daughter, for example, was bused or driven to the K-8 school she attended in their former neighborhood. For high school, she'll attend DeLaSalle, a private school on Nicollet Island that's within walking distance of her family's North Loop condo.
What happens as kids age?
"The riverfront and North Loop areas have become a magnet for young people who get married and then have kids," said Lisa Goodman, the Minneapolis City Council member who represents the area. "They want to stay, but if you want that good thing to happen, will the school district accommodate? I'd be shocked."
Goodman said that to encourage families to stay downtown as their children grow older, the city should focus on all the same things that make it a livable place for all people.
"No one will raise their kids in a city that is not safe, not clean and is not good for walking," she said.
Citywide, the number of children under 18 fell 8.3 percent during the past decade, while it more than doubled downtown. Across the river, St. Paul saw more modest increases in the number of kids living downtown. Comparable census data for most other major cities isn't yet available.
'Hip and cool' place to be
What's happening in Minneapolis is unique to cities that have invested in infrastructure, but it isn't happening everywhere, said John McIlwain, senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.
"Minneapolis is a really hip and cool city, so you're getting more than your share of these bright young professionals and artist types and musicians and the like," he said.
Showing downtown's appeal as a place to raise children will attract the talent that is essential for developing industries that offer high-paying jobs, he said. "You can attract the kinds of people who are necessary to run the businesses of the new economy," he said.
Developing a critical mass of children is the first step toward creating more options for parents concerned about schools, he said. That's already happening in the North Loop, where a parent convinced the public school system to establish a neighborhood bus stop for kids attending a nearby elementary school, Frank said.
Condo cul-de-sac in the hall
Across the country, young urban professionals and growing numbers of empty nesters and baby boomers are opting for high-density vertical neighborhoods.
In Minneapolis, the surge dovetailed with the availability of developable industrial land along the riverfront for housing. Some was in the city's former milling district. Also, the historic Warehouse District offered an opportunity to convert old brick warehouses into condos and apartments.
Those areas joined the thousands of condos and apartments that had been developed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Families and developers are getting creative when it comes to making spaces more suitable for families. That was the case at Park Avenue Lofts, a low-rise, modern condo building along Washington Avenue.
"I always thought there would be kids, and we built Park Avenue units with that in mind," said Peggy Lucas of Brighton Development, which built Park Avenue and much of the housing that's now along the river.
The building has several two-level, townhouse-style units with two bedrooms and a "flex space" that can also be used as a nursery. Ground-floor and top-floor units have outdoor spaces, and there are wide corridors that encourage interaction with neighbors.
"The hallway is our cul-de-sac," said Tatania King, who moved to Park Avenue with her husband when they relocated from Boise, Idaho, for his job.
She said living in the city was a "no-brainer" and that when their twins arrived, they never considered moving. "My family is from New York City, so I'm used to apartment living with children," she said.
Their two-level condo has a small front yard that's maintained by the homeowners' association, giving them more time to go for walks and play in nearby Gold Medal Park.
King, a stay-at-home mom who recently opened a home-based interior design business, said there were three kids in the building when they moved in. Now there are 11.
She knows that she'll eventually have to drive the kids to school. She said it's worth the trade-off of being able to easily get onto a bike path that will take her around the city or walk to a growing number of restaurants and shops nearby. There's a new convenience store just down Washington Avenue, and a Japanese restaurant on her block that's about to open.
"This neighborhood is still sprouting," she said.
Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376