Sunday, October 18, 2009

Kids and the City, Part II (Or, Could Family-Oriented Apartments/Condos Work in Uptown and Lyn-Lake?)

I recently wrote about how frustrating it can be to have larger society try to peg me and my fellow parents into very specific neighborhoods or living situations due to the simple fact that we have kids. Kids live in the city, families choose to live in the city, and city living with kids is perfectly normal.

All of that got me thinking. I know there's not a lot of new housing development going on right now, so some of this is currently a moot point, but how come all the new upscale condo and apartment developments in Uptown and Lyn-Lake are oriented to young single people or empty nesters? Why NOT families? The current developments don't exactly scream "family friendly." I've been busy dreaming up my vision of an ideal family-friendly building, ideally situated somewhere along the Greenway, and while I know reality gets in the way (developers need to want to build it, bankers need to be willing to finance it, and people need to be willing to rent or buy the units), I think there's some potential.

The Premise: Not all families want to live in single family houses. Many do, of course, but others either prefer not to for the same reasons as other condo-dwellers: no need to shovel, someone else handles the maintenance, perhaps shared amenities otherwise available, etc. Others would prefer the single family house, but will give it up in exchange for enough other benefits.

New Construction. I prefer older homes with a sense of history (and hate, hate, hate stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, open floorplans, and double sinks in bathrooms), but obviously a lot of people out there like new construction and modern architecture. They also like living in Uptown and Lyn-Lake. Rather than facing the option of moving to a new neighborhood, or, worse, buying a historic home and gutting it, why not give them what they want? Many of those younger, single, hip condo dwellers are going to have kids one day; it's not like their tastes are going to suddenly change overnight. Their needs might change, however, and that's where modern family-friendly condo options could really fit the bill.

Location: Uptown and Lyn-Lake are both ideal locations for kids. There are plenty of parks, there's the lakes, the Walker Library, multiple schools (at least at the elementary level), excellent restaurants and cafes, the Greenway, and growing numbers of other kids. Sure, there are some gaps to be filled (a toy store would be nice...) but overall it's a very family-friendly kind of place. Putting a family-oriented condo or apartment building somewhere along the Greenway, for example, would be a great location. The kids could learn to bike on the Greenway, the whole family could stroll down to the library or to the lake, and it would be just a quick bike or bus ride (or drive) to places like MIA or the Walker.

I prefer an older place, but if the location and amenities were right I'd give the right modern family building serious consideration. My dream multiple-family building would look something like this:

  • Play space. This is the BIG one. I like the idea of owning a house or duplex because there's room in the basement for kids to run around in the winter. We don't need huge amounts of living space, but given that my son gets crazy when cooped up inside for too many hours we need somewhere besides the living room to burn off some energy. An outdoor and an indoor space set aside for kids would be a MAJOR perk. It doesn't need to be anything fancy: a small outdoor playground with benches and maybe some picnic tables gives the kids somewhere to play and the parents somewhere to congregate, while an indoor space, even just a gym-like room with room to run around and maybe ride a push toy or bounce a ball would give both adults and kids a place (other than the main living quarters) to let off steam in cold or wet weather. There's a practical element to this that goes beyond simply playing, though. It's tough to informally meet fellow parents these days; a common playground (to supplement, not replace, local parks) builds community within the building, and gives kids a place to hang out with their young neighbors, while giving adults a chance to meet other adults, both those with and without kids.
  • Mixed use in the building. I like a building that incorporates a blend of uses. The best, most Jane Jacobs-esque building I've ever lived in was in Washington, DC. It was directly across the street from the National Zoo, and the street facade included a convenience store, liquor store, coffee place, salon, dentist, bar and grill, and pharmacy. Inside the building itself were mixed apartments with therapists, at least one nurse-practitioner, and assorted other small office uses. We didn't have a kid at the time, but I look back and think how perfect it would have been. There was even a small internal courtyard with a fountain. Imagine how convenient it would be to have, say, a pediatrician in the building, maybe a pharmacy, a store that sells basics like milk, a daycare or preschool, or any other number of places that would be useful to busy families.
  • Well-designed units useful for families. In other words, include enough three, or even four, bedroom apartments. I know kids can share a room, but in Minneapolis at this time it's unlikely to think that most families with money would choose to squash into a smaller unit if they can buy a house with three bedrooms for the same, or less, cost. The places don't need to be huge, especially if there's other play or storage space in the building, but enough buildings plus a good design could make apartment living an attractive family option.
  • Stroller storage. I haven't lived anywhere with this option, but wouldn't it be nice to walk in the front door and have a (nicely integrated) storage space in the common entry? It doesn't need to be huge, just large enough to stash a stroller and hang the coats. Those without strollers can use the space to store boots, coats, bulky sports equipment, or whatever else they don't want to stash in their apartment.
  • Garden space. While I don't think city living absolutely has to incorporate green space, a little bit of greenery makes city living more enjoyable for many of us. A small communal garden (for those who wish to participate) would build community, give an opportunity to grow some fresh produce, and give both adults and kids a connection to the outdoors.
  • Laundry. In-unit hookups are probably a necessity. Families go through a lot of dirty clothes; having a washer and drier in the unit is a luxury most families with options won't be willing to go without. Still, laundry rooms often perform a shared community function as building information center; in this case that could be switched to the mail room. And on that topic...
  • Mail room. Yes, there could be row after row of mailboxes right inside the front entry. But it would be much nicer to have an official mail room dedicated to the boxes; it would also hold a large bulletin board where residents could post notices and requests.
  • Pools and other extras. I'm not a big pool person; this wouldn't be a huge draw for me one way or the other. Still, amenities like a pool or a game room might be attractive to both those with and without kids, and could be a nice addition.
  • Condo versus apartment. I think something like this should probably be a condo building. Families in Minneapolis tend to want to buy, not rent. People could, of course, rent the condos from the individual owners.

What am I missing? Would you live in a building like this? If the right building in the right place at the right place came along I'd give it serious consideration, even if it wasn't my preferred historic architecture. Families successfully live in high-rise (or mid-rise) apartment complexes around the world (I've been browsing the Singapore listings lately); is there any reason this can't be done in Minneapolis?

[reminder: Uptown Virtual Book Club coming soon! First up: Big Box Swindle.]


  1. I like your ideas for family-friendly urban apartment/condo dwelling.

    I think the biggest thing that could be done would be to change federal tax structure and lending practices which essentially make it a financial loss to choose to rent an apartment instead of own a home. As long as people can deduct their mortgage payments from their income tax payments, we wont see too many families choosing to rent. (I say choosing, because there are certainly plenty of low-income families who do not have the means to get a loan and purchase a home). Who would pay $1500/month rent for a 4-bedroom apt when they could pay that or less on monthly mortgage payments which they can then deduct from their taxes, all while their property (theoretically)increases in value? The economics which federal policy has forced on people make it a nearly impossible decision to make, even for those who truly prefer urban living.

    Remove the mortgage deduction, or allow a similar deduction for renters, and urban apartment living would become a more attractive option financially.

  2. Check out CoHousing, as it's a concept that I was just introduced to the other day.

  3. Hell, our property tax escrow on our $360,000 house is $600 a month, who an afford that?

  4. I lived in a condo in Seward for a couple years. It was a great place for kids. Mostly 3 bedroom units. A laundry room on each floor with 6 units per laundry room. A bike room so everyone could keep their bikes inside, which was really nice. A community room that the kids could use if they wanted to when not scheduled for something else. And we were really close to parks.

    I think condo living, or townhome living like I do now, is really good for kids. You can get to know your neighbors better and use them as babysitters in an emergency. Or do a babysitter exchange much easier than when you are in a single home. Kids get to know each other and can play without having to go outside after dark. A lot of public housing has small playgrounds for the kids, which as you mention, is great to supplement the parks, especially for smaller kids.

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