LYNN — When Jose Palma moved his young family to Lynn from Somerville a decade ago, he was an outlier among local El Salvadoran immigrants, most of whom lived closer to Boston. But the rent was right: just $650 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, versus $1,100 in Somerville.
Today, Palma has plenty of company among his compatriots, who are among the many groups bringing new life to downtown Lynn by moving in and raising families in the area.
“Ten years ago, when I moved, there was only one Salvadoran restaurant” in Lynn, said Palma, who has children in second and sixth grade. “Now easily I can name for you five restaurants owned by Salvadorans. It’s a sign that the population is growing.”
While Lynn has been a hub for recent immigrants, they have not always lived downtown. The area was known for shoe manufacturing and retail shopping before malls began drawing the region’s shoppers en masse and left empty commercial spaces in their wake.
These days, a combination of affordable housing, supportive ethnic enclaves, and resources are attracting immigrants and others to make a fresh start. The influx is creating opportunities as well as challenges for a city that’s long aspired to revive its downtown and is gaining traction in that direction.
Enrollment figures in Lynn’s schools tell the story. The city’s three middle schools, which now educate 3,200 children, are on track to need seats for 4,200 by 2019, according to Superintendent Catherine Latham.
“We have no space to put those students,” Latham said. “What we really have to do is get another middle school in the pipeline soon. . . We really need buildings here. We’re desperate.”
In the coming year, Lynn residents will consider whether to approve a bond issue to replace the Thurgood Marshall Middle School , which Latham describes as being “in terrible, terrible shape.” But to accommodate the anticipated surge, the city will need to build a fourth middle school even if Marshall is replaced, she said.
Meanwhile, to make room for growing numbers in elementary schools, kindergarten programs from three schools will be consolidated this fall at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute on Neptune Boulevard.
More classroom space is fast becoming a pressing need, Latham explained, because many families with elementary-age children have settled in and near downtown, where multifamily dwellings provide a reasonable housing option. But the influx, while challenging, might bode well for Lynn’s future.
Families require places to eat, things to do with the kids, and a range of services. As entrepreneurs step up to fill those needs, downtown Lynn’s cultural scene, educational landscape, and economic life all are getting a boost.
For example, Kipp Academy Lynn Collegiate High School , a charter school with a college prep focus, opened in 2011 with a class of 96 ninth-graders.
Arts After Hours , a three-year-old nonprofit arts center that attracted 3,000 fans to its shows last year, offers acting lessons, plus a summer workshop, for youngsters.
Since opening 19 years ago, RAW Art Works has grown to serve more than 1,200 in its free programs for at-risk youths ages 6 to 19. This fall, RAW will kick off a $1.1 million capital campaign to expand its downtown facilities and make programming accessible for 170 kids on its waiting list.
“It is an effective approach for cities to bring more bodies downtown to live there,” said Michael Schaaf, an Ipswich consultant who advised Lynn on its revitalization efforts from 2000 to 2010. “They create a market for restaurants, for retail stores of various sorts, and moreover result in people in the street,’’ which he said enhances security, “as there are eyes on the street all the time.”
Changes in the zoning code in the mid-2000s helped drive the residential influx by clearing a path for converting old warehouses into condominiums and apartments. Renovations attracted the likes of Seth Albaum, 37, whose loft condo overlooking the Central Square train station is a short ride from his work as a Chelsea teacher.
“I was part of a wave of people who were taking advantage of the fact that you could get a nice loft for half the price that you’d pay in Boston, if not less than half the price,” a few years ago, Albaum said. “I bought a place that was between two art galleries, was near alternative night life, and had a scene happening.”
Albaum finds some of his young professional neighbors don’t relocate to the suburbs when they have children. Affordable housing, among other factors, keeps them in Lynn.
For March through May, Lynn’s median price for condominiums was $118,000, according to data from the Greater Boston Multiple Listing Service. For single-family homes, it was $225,000; and for multifamilies, $251,000.
Those settling downtown include immigrants from as far away as West Africa and East Asia, as well as many city natives who left but have returned, according to Latham.
“People have lived away, but with gas prices coming up, they’re coming back to the city” to raise their families, the school superintendent said.
Downtown is also drawing nonimmigrants who aspire to raise their children in a diverse community. Jesse Jaeger, executive director of a Unitarian Universalist Association social action group, moved to Lynn nine years ago with his wife and then-1-year-old son. Now they have two children in the school system that’s bursting at the seams, but they love what their kids learn by living in Lynn, both in and out of school.
“A backyard barbecue is as likely to have Cambodian spring rolls and Dominican beans and rice as it is to have hamburgers,” Jaeger said. “It’s really kind of a neat place to live, where there’s that kind of vibrancy going on.”
Challenges stretch beyond the need to find classroom space for every child. For instance, schools need more translation services for parents, according to Palma, who’s involved in Lynn Parents Organizing for a Better Education .
Meanwhile, local enterprises are capitalizing on the fresh dynamics. When the Blue Ox restaurant opened in 2009, its “upscale casual” approach was aimed at local residents who would appreciate a menu where kids’ entrees cost $8 and meats are hormone- and antibiotic-free. As customers responded favorably, co-owners Matt and Joanna O’Neil have expanded their operation from five nights a week to six, and their staff from 12 to 34.
“We felt there was a need for a restaurant that young adults would want to go to anyway and where they could bring their children,” said Matt O’Neil, who’s also the chef. “Now they have a place to go.”