In seeking nominations for its annual Great Places competition, the Twin Cities-based Sensible Land Use Coalition looks for public spaces that have striking designs, can be used for multiple purposes and overcame barriers to get built.

Check, check and check for Edina’s Centennial Lakes, which was a finalist for the Great Places honors a few years back and next week will host the group’s midsummer meeting. Its builders in the 1980s threw out the traditional land-use and zoning rule book to create a 100-acre mixture of public parks, office buildings, retail and housing.

In the process, they pioneered something that many suburban communities have since tried to duplicate with wildly varying degrees of success: mixed-use, public-private developments that lessen car dependence and promote sustainability.

Before there was Centennial Lakes, there was the Hedberg & Sons sand and gravel pits along France Avenue from W. 70th Street on south.

Following the 1976 opening of the Galleria shopping center, the pits still dominated both sides of France Avenue, all the way to Interstate 494. City leaders knew development was coming to the area, but in keeping with Edina’s decades-long track record of seeking distinctive and at times revolutionary types of projects, they rejected the easy answer of more industrial uses for the area.

Instead, the cutting-edge concept of mixing housing in with commercial uses caught their attention.

“The notion of ‘mixed-use,’ especially in the suburbs, was still pretty unique in the 1980s,” said former Edina City Manager Gordon Hughes, who played a major part in the development of Centennial Lakes. “It was being done vertically in downtown areas, but the best examples of suburban mixed-use were in Canada. We actually went to Toronto to look at a couple of mixed-use projects there.”

Centennial Lakes’ immediate precursor was nearby Edinborough, a few blocks closer to the interstate. Developer Larry Laukka and some partners turned a small portion of the gravel pits into an office tower, a high-rise senior housing complex, a hotel, and, perhaps most significantly, a large indoor public park facility that was linked to 392 midpriced condominiums.

Edinborough’s example of a public amenity paired with private development around it provided the template for Centennial Lakes, Hughes said.

After Bloomington-based United Properties gained control of the Hedberg site in 1988 and emerged as the master developer, negotiations between United’s late former chief executive, Boyd Stofer, Hughes, former Edina Mayor Fred Richards, City Council members and others produced a one-of-a-kind plan that was tailored to the terrain of the gravel pits.

Its highlight was the conversion of three pits into lakes connected by a man-made stream and surrounded by public park that boasted pond fishing, miniature golf, paddleboats, outdoor winter skating and radio-controlled model boat racing.

The three lakes also divided Centennial Lakes into thirds: North Park, Central Park and South Park. The northern third would include the high-end Coventry Townhomes on the east side of the lake and medical office uses on the other; the central third had a retail plaza from Galleria owner Gabbert & Beck Inc. on the west and Laukka’s Village Homes of Centennial Lakes condominiums on the east; while the south park would be dominated by high-rise, Class A office towers developed by United Properties.

Due to recessions and the ups-and-downs of the suburban office market, it took until 2000 for United Properties to ultimately complete the five-building Centennial Lakes Office Park, offering nearly 1 million square feet of top-shelf space. The other parts of the Centennial Lakes effort were mainly completed by 1991.

Arguably the key role was played by Laukka, who at age 80 is still active in housing development.

“Centennial Lakes and Edinborough were truly groundbreaking in terms of land use, and it required a lot of political will to basically invent a new kind of zoning to allow for them,” he said.

 

Don Jacobson is a freelance writer based in St. Paul. He is the former editor of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Real Estate Journal.