Building a better-looking subdivision

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2011 - 11:06 PM

In a sagging economy, Shakopee is backing away from aesthetic standards for new neighborhoods, while pledging to find another way

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A monotonously designed multifamily development located along a heavily traveled street — the type of project that usually isn’t a community’s most attractive feature — can present a less-than-optimal community image.

Photo: David Peterson, Star Tribune

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Fed up with developers coming into town and putting up featureless boxes resembling military barracks, Maple Grove a number of years ago countered with a point system. Proposed subdivisions would be ranked, in part, on how nice they looked.

Shakopee, another major growth center at the time, followed suit -- at a time when it worried about too much growth, too quickly.

But now, having fallen off the list of metro-area leaders in new building permits, Shakopee is backing away from that system.

"It adds complications and delay to the process," community development chief Michael Leek told council members earlier this month. "Given the level of platting in recent years, we may not want to use it."

The city insists it still wants to work with developers to ensure attractive neighborhoods, but it will approach the issue in different ways.

Developers say they have no interest in building crummy-looking subdivisions.

"We want our neighborhoods to look nice as much as any city does," said Steve Logan, the Edina-based Minnesota division president of Mattamy Homes, whose typical price point runs just over $300,000.

"We've gone into cities with stringent design standards," he said, "and found that our own standards are higher than theirs. The better it looks, the better it sells."

Now is not the best time for cities to be difficult, said Joanne Foust, a consultant with the New Prague-based Municipal Development Group who works with officials of smaller cities on planning issues.

"Given today's economy," she said, "I haven't seen any new efforts along these lines lately. And when we do see design standards, they're more about things like preserving open space than about aesthetics."

Shakopee's point system included that sort of concern, as well. It addressed everything from the big-picture layout of a subdivision to the city's desire to see such high-quality facing materials as brick or stone on the exteriors of homes rather than look-alike beige vinyl.

Ranking proposed developments on a point system, however, harkens to an era when cities were under siege from developers wanting to put up a thousands of homes per year in Suburb X -- not the dribble of activity that cities are seeing today.

In Shakopee, the concept dates to 2005, Leek reminded council members. But the market imploded not long afterward, and "the rules ended up applying to only two potential subdivisions."

Nor was it really clear, he added, that "you would have seen significant on-the-ground differences in the character of those plats." Not even Maple Grove makes that claim, he added. That city has decided to make every new residential plat a so-called Planned Unit Development, which gives cities latitude in achieving their aims with developers.

Consultant Foust has worked with Jordan on the issue of design standards at a time when many worried that the character of that historic community was being cheapened with rapid-fire suburbanization.

"It was planned during the high peak," she said, "and just as the market was crashing, it was in implementation. They did not have an actual point system, and Shakopee's process is much more detailed when it speaks to facades and so on."

Indeed, Jordan didn't address housing aesthetics as much as it did design standards for commercial buildings downtown, she said.

"There were low-interest loan incentives for downtown, and a few business owners did take advantage of that and made improvements. The city's been pleased and businesses have asked for a continuation of the program."

When it comes to residential areas, knowing what you like and devising a scheme to really achieve it are two very different things, said Shakopee Council Member Steve Clay, who served on the city's Planning Commission when the point system was launched.

"We had this image that you drive through some and 'it's nice,'" he said, "and we were trying to take that goal and backtrack to where you make it objective. But quantifiable steps are difficult. I'm not sure we have figured out a way to make it objectively work to our advantage.

"I still think it's a great idea, but I tend to agree that we should set it aside for a while."

One problem with overly persnickety standards is that they can simply lead to a different form of cookie-cutter sameness, said builder Logan.

"You don't want every single house to have stone on the facade," he said. "It ends up all looking the same. What a lot of cities are missing these days is color. Color can solve a lot of their issues. It doesn't have to be taupe/tan/white/beige. We have single houses with nine different shades of color, and they sell."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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