Two decades ago, Bearpath opened in Eden Prairie as Minnesota's first gated neighborhood, with a 24-hour guardhouse watching over its mansions.
Developers said then it would signal the start of similar communities across Minnesota. But 20 years later, that hasn't happened.
While wealthy neighborhoods literally walled off from the world have become popular in places like Florida and California, Bearpath remains the only one of its kind in Minnesota, though a few small gated communities have opened across the metro.
"When you come through the gate, it's like everything is behind you," said Margo Higley, a Bearpath resident and Realtor. "Bearpath is a lifestyle. If you buy in, you kind of like it."
Across the country, the number of secured communities increased from 7 million units in 2001 to 10.7 million units in 2009, according to Census Bureau data. But the concept has been slow to take off in the Twin Cities.
In Tonka Bay, Clay Cliffe was the first gated community in the state, opening in 1976. It now has 18 upscale homes. In Wayzata, Lecy Bros. Homes is working on the gated Enchanted Woods development, with six homes planned on 2-acre wooded, secluded lots, priced at $2 million and more. And in Eden Prairie, two small gated communities have quietly opened since Bearpath — Bell Oaks and Bellerieve.
"Not that I feel we necessarily need them in Minnesota, but there are sports figures [for example] who want privacy," said Roy Lecy of Lecy Bros. "It's not about security, it's about privacy."
The biggest challenge, he said, is finding a city that allows a private street. "People on most city councils don't feel it's necessary," he added. "… There are all kinds of reasons people are against them."
One concern that has come up is the elitist perception, with one luxury builder adding that customers often initially want to put up gates, then decide they're too stuffy or uninviting.
In Prior Lake, criticism of the gated concept at the Wilds development prompted developers and the city to reject the idea of gates. Even the St. Paul suburb of North Oaks removed its famous gates in 1982 because it grew too big and the gates became a nuisance; the 4,500-resident community still has only private roads, but no controlled access.
Data on gated communities is limited because the Census Bureau didn't start calculating "secured communities" in the American Housing Survey until 2001. And the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro was only surveyed in 2007. That year, the 13-county metro area had 16,800 single-family owner-occupied houses "surrounded by walls or fences preventing access," though the Metropolitan Council says that could be skewed by apartments, not just single-family homes.
However, not all gated communities contain massive mansions. This month, the first gated rental community in the state opened in Savage. It's called the Springs at Egan Drive, and the developer, Continental Properties, has another one under construction in Apple Valley and one planned in Rochester.
Behind the gate at Bearpath
Off Dell Road in Eden Prairie, visitors are greeted at Bearpath by a small "no trespassing" sign and an impressive stone gatehouse with a security officer monitoring cameras and every car that enters. A concrete gate circles the perimeter. Inside, towering trees line the quiet streets and the manicured rolling hills of the golf course. Gardening crews shape shrubs outside mansions while golfers take swings on the driving range.
The $52 million community started to rise out of 460 acres of woods and fields in 1994. It opened with a lot of attention on the gatehouse, clubhouse and Jack Nicklaus-designed 18-hole golf course. At the time, city leaders worried that the concept might give Eden Prairie a certain perception, creating separation in the community and not fitting well with Minnesota culture. Plus, the city has low crime statistics, much like the rest of Minnesota. The city won a compromise, allowing a public trail to be built through Bearpath.
John Rice, his wife and three kids bought one of the first homes, moving from Apple Valley.
"We're not elitist; we didn't want to be separated from any one else … it was more about safety for our kids," he said, adding residents grow close. "It has a beautiful sense of community. The gate doesn't have anything to do with it."
That's also why Mark and Nancy Ness moved there in 1995 from downtown Minneapolis. Mark, a Northwest Airlines pilot, craved a sense of community in the large suburb, while Nancy wanted more security, especially with her husband's frequent travel.
"We sat outside and thought, 'We hope this thing takes off,' " Nancy Ness said at their villa.
And it did. Only one lot remains vacant and, of the 301 townhouses, twinhomes, golf villas and single-family homes, about 30 will be on the market at one time, Higley said. The homes sell for $500,000 to $3 million.
Most of the houses are on the golf course. And all homeowners pay an association fee, along with the $15,000 golf course clubhouse fee if they want to use it, down from the initial $30,000 fee.
For some, they're heaven
Cruising on Nicklaus Way in a golf cart recently, Higley greeted a passing runner by name during a tour of Bearpath.
"There's one down here that looks like a hotel," she said of one house.
She stopped at another house, just listed under $2 million. Built by record producer Terry Lewis, it has seven bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a movie theater, a built-in aquarium, four fireplaces and views of the 11th hole.
"The location here is the ticket," said Ginny Gaspard, who left Edina to live and sell homes in Bearpath.
From lawyers and executives to a former Olympian and pro athlete, people want the guaranteed privacy, she said.
"We don't have anyone knocking on our door selling candy," she added. "Certain people only want to be in gated [communities]. I think it's a selling point."