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Suburbanites Trading Lawns for Lofts

Empty nesters and Gen-Xers are behind the first uptick in inner-city population since 1940

Allen and Lily Wyler are an affluent couple from Seattle whose children have grown up and moved away. Mike Sheehan is a young graphic designer from Chicago who can fit everything he owns in the back of his Toyota wagon.

On the surface, they're as different as a pair of topcoats and a black leather jacket, but they agree on one thing: It's better to live in the city than the suburbs.

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After four decades of steady decline, cities across America are experiencing a welcome surge of reverse migration. Most of these new urban pioneers are single professionals like Mr. Sheehan and empty-nesters like the Wylers who don't mind trading a lawn for a loft.

Their eager return reflects the success of a new crop of mayors who've labored in recent years to reduce crime and bring amenities downtown.

It also suggests that, despite their troubles, America's venerable downtowns have never completely lost their power to charm. "People are looking for a more urbane lifestyle than the suburbs can provide," says Cyndi Rottenberg-Walker, an architect who specializes in urban redevelopment. "City centers offer a sense of place and a complex environment that doesn't exist anyplace else."

Although the full extent of this urban repatriation won't be known until the 2000 census, and many cities are still undergoing a steady outmigration of middle class families, there are indications that the rate of growth in America's inner-cities may finally be approaching that of the suburbs.

According to a study by the Puget Sound Regional Council, Seattle's downtown population jumped by 25 percent in the 1990s. Here in Chicago, the number of residential buildings under construction more than doubled in the past two years.

"Households and consumers are moving back to the inner city," says Carl Steidtman, chief economist of Management Horizons, a consulting and research firm. "The 1990 census had a small uptick in inner-city population for the first time since 1940."

It's a quiet revolution that's taking place in every region, and most dramatically in cities without long traditions of urban living.

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In Phoenix, for example, a sprawling city that covers 470 square miles, a recent survey of downtown workers revealed an untapped demand for urban housing, particularly in the high-end luxury market. As a result, developers are preparing to break ground on 1,400 new units by year's end.

The research, conducted by the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, revealed that suburban commuters, young professionals, and many senior citizens were growing tired of congested roadways and wanted to be nearer to cultural amenities. "People realize that sprawl is hard on everybody," says Margaret Mullen, the group's executive director. "It's creating problems with congestion and air quality, and it's destroying our sense of community. People said they don't want to live in gated communities."

MUCH of the credit for the increased allure of downtowns belongs to a new generation of mayors who've concentrated on fighting crime and working with private investors to build shopping districts, arts facilities, and stadiums.

"When I took office," says Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, "we put more cops on the street, we cleaned up graffiti and litter, and passed ordinances against panhandling and other street behavior that make a city a forbidding place." The result, he concludes, is a downtown that's "diverse, exciting, and safe even at night."

For older couples who've raised their children, cities have become attractive alternatives. For as little as $65,000, affluent suburbanites can buy a loft condo here in Chicago for weekend jaunts. Others can save money by selling their houses and buying less-pricey downtown condos closer to the hum of urban life.

Less than a year ago, the Wylers sold their home in the Seattle suburb of Magnolia and moved into a downtown high-rise. "We wouldn't trade it for the world," Mr. Wyler says.

Sheehan, the graphic designer, likes the night life, the proximity to work, and the diversity. "In the suburbs, you meet the same kinds of people over and over again," he says. "I need a little more stimulation."

It's an attitude common to twentysomethings. Most network TV shows geared to Gen Xers are set in a city. To many, "the burbs" are an object of derision. "There's a sense of rebellion among kids who grew up in the suburbs," says Betsy Jackson, president of the International Downtown Association in Washington. "They view the city as an exotic environment."

Although realtors here in Chicago and elsewhere say demand for urban housing is on the rise among all demographic groups, most experts agree that cities must work harder to provide more low- and middle-income housing. To lure more families with children, they add, civic leaders must improve the quality of schools.

But by most accounts, urban areas could be on the verge of a boomlet. As the number of young single people grows, and their baby boomer parents begin to kick them out of their suburban homes, cities can expect more immigration from both groups.

Moreover, cities have positioned themselves well to benefit from changes in the American workplace. According to Ms. Jackson, many of the fastest-growing segments of the economy - software development companies and other "industries of the mind" - tend to prefer downtown settings.

As communications technology shrinks demand for office space, Jackson adds, more suburbanites may move to the cities to work from home. As demand for office space declines, she says, developers will begin to convert some of it to housing. "If cities can ... adapt to the way modern people live and work," Jackson says, "their downtowns are potential gold mines."

* Mike Henderson contributed to this article from Seattle.

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