Baby boom reshapes North Loop
By MARISA HELMS
Anna Larsson, with her 4-year-old son, Magnus, and 8-month-old daughter, Astrid, is an advocate for families in the North Loop. She has created an online group for neighborhood parents and worked to build a popular playground in the area. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
Neighborhood aimed at singles makes room for kids
The North Loop, a hip and happening downtown neighborhood known for its nightclubs, restaurants (and a couple of landmark adult establishments), has become home to hundreds of tiny tots in recent years.
The nearly 300 percent surge in the area’s population since 2000 has included a three-fold increase in the toddler set (children under 5) over the same period of time.
So what’s going on? The North Loop, bordered by downtown Minneapolis, Target Field and the Mississippi River, is known for its swinging night life, not its swing sets and night lights.
The neighborhood is less than one square mile in size and is home to many of the city’s current and former industrial warehouses. Those who live there (mostly young professional men) are drawn to the area’s condos and spacious loft conversions. Amenities include being able to leave the car at home and walk to a job or any number of sporting and cultural events downtown.
An apartment boom is also occurring, with more than 1,200 units proposed or under construction in the area, according to a Finance & Commerce analysis.
While the area is still predominantly a haven for young, single professional men, a growing number of families are living in the North Loop. The lackluster real estate market has meant that a number of families are keeping their North Loop lofts out of economic necessity, but most who stay are there by choice.
Edina-raised Donovan Walsh is one dad who briefly thought of moving to other neighborhoods when his son, Henry, was born 15 months ago. But he says he and his wife chose to stay in the North Loop because they feel it’s a great place to raise their son.
“He loves it,” Walsh, 37, says about his toddler.
Walsh, his wife, Rachel, and Henry, live in a three-level, 2,500-square-foot loft on Washington Avenue, in a huge former refrigeration manufacturing warehouse.
Walsh understands that some people may be surprised that he and his wife choose to live in a downtown loft with a young child, given the panoply of single-family homes in the suburbs and other family-friendly neighborhoods in the Twin Cities metro area. But for Walsh and many other like-minded parents, the urban high-density setting is perfectly manageable, if not ideal, for bringing up baby.
“Before we moved to Minneapolis, we lived in Europe,” says Walsh, who owns a management consultancy. “A lot of European cities are very dense. Most people don’t have single-family homes, and they raise kids just fine. So it’s not a new concept by any stretch. It may be a new idea here, but it’s not a new concept.”
Walsh’s loft has 18-foot ceilings, large windows and colorful Abstract Expressionist paintings hanging on exposed brick walls. Near the front door is a wide, grated metal staircase — a bit precarious for a newly ambulatory baby — so Walsh and his wife have taken precautions, including installing a custom-made metal gate to block little Henry’s access to the upper floors, including an open loft area that has a 10-foot drop to the living room below.
Though the Walsh family’s loft is decidedly grown-up, you can’t miss the baby toys and pop-up books scattered in the big living room, part of an L-shape that also includes an office, dining room and kitchen.
“With all the open space, it’s easy to keep an eye on him,” Walsh says.
Walsh says about nine other children under 5 years old live in his building. The shell of the former warehouse has long, wide wooden hallways that are fun for small children, says Walsh’s downstairs neighbor, 41-year-old business strategy consultant Anna Larsson.
“When we come home from day care, there are a lot of balls and kids playing,” Larsson says. “In the winter my son can ride his tricycle up and down the hallway. It’s a great playground!”
Larsson’s 1,400-square-foot loft that she shares with her husband, 4-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter, was once a loading dock. It has a homey but unmistakable industrial vibe. Her son’s bedroom is actually a tiny door-less closet; a piece of cloth hangs in the threshold.
“It’s open plan living,” Larsson says. “Other than the bathroom doors and the entrance, there are no doors, so we don’t need a baby monitor.”
Larsson is an advocate for couples who choose to stay in the neighborhood instead of moving to the suburbs or other neighborhoods when they start a family.
She created an online group for North Loop parents and was instrumental in working with neighborhood parents and organizations to raise $100,000 to help build a playground at the Mississippi River and Fourth Avenue. The playground opened in late 2010 and has been a prime destination for local parents and families.
Larsson says she loves her loft and the North Loop because she can walk nearly everywhere she wants to go, including the playground. Like many who live in the Loop, Larsson says she likes the safe and friendly urban neighborhood. Her one complaint is that she would like to see more homes built with families in mind.
“There is a screaming need for family-friendly homes in the North Loop,” Larsson says. “There are aspects of loft-style homes that are fabulous — the big open spaces are great. But a few walled-off bedrooms would make it more family-friendly.”
Indeed, modern families with young children are still new to the North Loop, so it may take time before the housing market bends their way.
“Families are not typically early adopters of housing choices,” says Brent Rogers, a vice president with Greco LLC who is building hundreds of loft apartments in two warehouse conversion projects in the North Loop. “It would not be wise to build 240 units and have them all go to families — that’s not what we’re seeing in the market.”
Still, Rogers says he sees a general trend of families choosing to be closer to urban areas. To that end, he says his company is creating design flexibility that offers both open loft and more traditional floor plans that have defined rooms.
“There is the ability to have different demographics in those units whether it’s a family or roommates,” Rogers says.
Family-friendly housing is just one of the issues some downtown families may grapple with. School choice is another. A small survey of neighborhood parents indicated a split on whether they would consider moving out of the North Loop once their children reach school age.
North Loop Neighborhood Association President David Frank says the neighborhood is working on providing family-friendly amenities like more public schools and a grocery store. Actually, Frank can take the latter off his list. Whole Foods recently announced it would open a store in the old Jaguar car dealership at the intersection of Hennepin and Washington avenues.
“Living downtown is by far the best choice someone can make,” Frank says. “It’s close to everything. [Residents] can live car-free most of the time and can easily access the river and its trails, and all the culture and sports events, and restaurants.”
Frank’s message to North Loop residents thinking of starting a family: “We’re glad to have you here, and we’re working on things so that you can stay.”