About Downtown Families Minneapolis
Parents push to make downtown family-friendly
ERIC BEST : The Journal : December 10, 2014
Aaron Whitney always wanted to live downtown, but his family had a five-bedroom home in the suburbs when he decided to start a family.
Despite now having a one-year-old son, Whitney and his wife Melissa decided to ditch the suburban home and rent a two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis instead — and they’ve abandoned any idea of going back.
“We’re not really house or yard people,” he said. “Urban life fits us like a glove.”
Whitney is part of Downtown Families MPLS, a budding group of parents living downtown that is working to bring more people like themselves to the city, despite its difficulties. The group plans to advocate on behalf of the area’s family population, a rapidly growing segment of the city that is changing the face of downtown’s residents.
Downtown Families began out of the Downtown Minneapolis Elementary School Initiative, a group of parents living downtown with the goal to bring a new school to the city’s under-served urban area.
Without a viable and local school for kids living downtown, the city’s urban center wasn’t likely to bring in new families, which is why the same goal also appeared in the Downtown Council’s 2025 plan as part of its goal to double the residential population living downtown.
The group was successful in campaigning for a new school last year, and Webster Elementary will open next fall, nearly a decade after a wave of school closings caused it to shut its doors. The school, which is actually near Northeast, will serve kids in the North Loop, Downtown East, Northeast and Marcy-Holmes neighborhoods, which are home to many growing residential areas for families.
Downtown Families’ dozens of parents and volunteers found themselves with a new school on the horizon, but wanted to address other family-related issues in the city.
The group, which is still in its infancy, plans to develop initiatives for schools and early childhood programs, family housing options, public safety, recreational and cultural opportunities, healthy living and environmental quality. It’s also a social group to meet other parents and their children.
Eric Laska founded the group with his wife and also led the initiative to reopen Webster. Like Whitney, he sold his home in order to move into a riverfront condo with his wife where they’re raising two children.
“To have a complete neighborhood we need families,” he said, adding that it’s in the city’s interest to bring in families because they generally boost neighborhood stability, drop crimes rates and support local businesses.
Council Member Jacob Frey said the key is for the city to both incentivize coming to downtown and retain its young professionals. His ward is home to booming residential developments and includes many of the estimated 1,000 students in Webster’s attendance area.
“Families want to stick around. They love living in a dynamic space and having a shorter commute to work,” he said.
For Nora Webb, a volunteer with the group, there are plenty of benefits to moving to downtown, like being able to walk to places and community resources like the Minneapolis Central Library and Central Riverfront Park.
There are also plenty of people already in downtown that could become the future’s young families.
In many downtown neighborhoods, a majority of residents are living alone, according to census data. Many of these people are young and here for work or school, so the challenge is making sure that they don’t leave for the suburbs or another city.
However, there are barriers for those wanting to stay, such as housing costs, transportation and access to healthy food.
Webb said she’s heard from other parents that walking in the city can be a challenge and that it needs more green space. Her and her husband Brent moved to the North Loop a few years ago because they like “the hustle and bustle,” but with their one-year-old she worries about public safety.
“Living downtown, there’s always going to be challenges with street traffic,” she said. “There has to be good infrastructure to walk places safely.”
She said finding family housing is another hurdle for many families who need larger housing options. Demand for smaller housing options, among other factors, have kept downtown neighborhood’s average household size about one person less than the rest of Minneapolis.
When families find a large enough space, some may also struggle with paying for an extra bedroom.
Despite the barriers, Downtown Families is representative of a growing trend. In the past couple decades, the city’s high-density downtown neighborhoods have seen a surge of families from the suburbs and other areas who are looking to be closer to the workplace, along with restaurants, bikeways and a host of other amenities.
The Downtown East, Downtown West, North Loop and Elliot Park neighborhoods have all seen increases to the percentage of families with children under 18 during the shift, according to census data.
This shift caused the population of North Loop, Downtown West and Downtown East to grow by 82 percent between 2000 and 2010, one the fastest growth rates in the city.
It also doubled downtown’s population of children under 18 and tripled the number of children under age 5 despite the population under 18 dropping 8.3 percent citywide during that same decade.
As it continues to grow, Downtown Families will advocate for this next generation of young parents, children and students.
While Minneapolis’ residents are changing, so is the suburban-oriented prevailing wisdom that downtown isn’t a welcome home for families.
“You don’t have to flee to the suburbs. You can stay,” Laska said.