It should come as no surprise that the postrecession housing market is remarkably different from the market of a decade ago. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the star performer was the supersized suburban house with the vaulted foyer and the protruding triple-car garage. Critics dismissed these as "McMansions," but they sold like Happy Meals and came to typify life in the nation's upscale suburbs.
By contrast, the new residential market is cautious, modest and more environmentally conscious, and it offers a greater variety of housing types. Rental apartments, for example, have become a popular choice, even at the upper end. This week's opening of a Whole Foods store amid thousands of new luxury flats in Minneapolis' once-scruffy North Loop is evidence of that. Meanwhile, teardowns by the hundreds have hit Edina and other well-heeled suburbs as buyers look to update attractive old neighborhoods.
And now comes Eden Prairie with yet another concept. The pricey suburb proposes to infill a modest-sized parcel just south of Hwy. 212 at Eden Prairie Road with 36 eco-friendly homes aimed at midmarket buyers. At five units per acre, these single-family houses, collectively called Eden Gardens, would have front porches, small yards and attached garages opening to the rear. A shared village green would include a community garden, lush streetscapes, rain gardens and a transit stop to finish the package.
With price points one-third lower than those of adjoining properties, these houses would aim to attract young families that prefer smaller footprints, walkable lifestyles and a touch of urban nostalgia.
But, as with any new idea, neighbors are wary. A Star Tribune story reported that concerns over Eden Gardens include traffic, lost views and changes in property values. That's been the theme in Edina's Morningside neighborhood, where teardowns are transforming whole streets, and in Minneapolis' Linden Hills and Dinkytown districts, where neighbors have fought battles to prevent filling parking lots with new midrise housing/retail buildings.
What's often missing in these and similar conflicts is the wider view. The housing market has shifted, and for good reason. While the dream of the big house on the faraway suburban lot hasn't totally lost its appeal, there's also an unmistakable desire to be closer to the metro center — closer to jobs and activities, with less reliance on driving for every trip. Unstable fuel prices, shorter commutes, healthier and more active lifestyles and an impulse to save energy and tread more lightly on the environment are all part of the picture. These desires, in turn, reflect the efficiencies that a competitive economy now requires.
For planners, the challenge is not to choose one or the other of these lifestyles but to accommodate both choices. That's extremely difficult in a metro region where development has been heavily weighted toward outward growth. Retrofitting already-built communities is a desirable and necessary task. But, as planners for the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail project are discovering, it's nearly impossible to convince entrenched interests (in that case, neighbors and freight railroads) that longer-term benefits outweigh short-term costs.
Caren Dewar, director of the Urban Land Institute-Minnesota, calls this whole range of challenges "navigating the new normal." Whether the complaints are about transit projects or new housing types, the market is undeniably shifting, she said. "Young people are looking for different choices and for housing types that are really hard to find in this market. And, we have to build better options for our aging population. The more diversity we have in our housing mix, the better."
Dewar applauds Eden Prairie for exploring the green, midmarket approach, even on a small scale. So do we. Monocultures aren't good in nature, and they aren't good for communities.
Critics suggest that Eden Prairie is "overreaching" by acting as a promoter and financial middleman on the Eden Gardens project. We disagree. Just as Minneapolis has a valid community interest in promoting (and subsidizing) new green homes on its North Side, so Eden Prairie has a similar community interest in encouraging innovative housing choices (in this case, without subsidy) for its residents.