Minnetonka has long taken pride in its large home lots, nestled in wooded, curving neighborhoods.
But as the number of smaller lots increases, the west metro community, including suburbs from Eden Prairie to Lakeville, is seeing its landscape change. For aging suburbs like Minnetonka, which approved new zoning rules for smaller lots this year, they’re a way to draw downsizing baby boomers or younger families who prefer home features to large lawns.
In 2010, the Twin Cities had nearly 300,000 small home lots, defined by the Metropolitan Council as those of a quarter-acre or less. By 2040, the demand for small lots is expected to reach 500,000, according to a report commissioned by the agency.
“More developers are proposing small lots in suburbs or more of a mix of lot sizes,” said Libby Starling, manager of regional policy and research for the Met Council. “… Cities with a mix of housing are better positioned to be resilient.”
But for suburbs heavily developed with large single-family lots, smaller home lots pose a challenge, clashing with some residents who oppose the more “urban feel” of homes closer together and closer to the street.
“I think that’s always the struggle — where should these be located?” said Minnetonka Community Development Director Julie Wischnack. “The response … is huge,” she said, referring to a development featuring smaller lots. “People are lining up for spots.”
The shrinkage in lot sizes is being driven by rising land costs and developers trying to meet changing demands from consumers who, they say, are looking for smaller mortgages and interiors with features like updated kitchens and oversized pantries — not large lawns that require a lot of maintenance.
Millennials with growing families and seniors downsizing from larger homes aren’t interested in yard work and no longer put priority on large lots, experts say. Smaller lots make it more affordable to live in more expensive cities like Minnetonka. And to compensate, more developers are adding parks, even pools, within developments where families can gather and play.
“It’s becoming less about the size of the lot and more about the attributes of the house. They [homeowners] haven’t said they want more lawn work,” said Graham Epperson, division president for Pulte Group Minnesota, which is building nearly 130 homes on 9,100-square-foot lots in Plymouth and a 5-acre neighborhood park. “A lot of the consumer feedback is the large, oversized lot sizes that we’ve seen the last seven, eight years [aren’t] desirable.”
Small lots, big homes
Pulte’s Enclave on the Greenway is part of an uptick in smaller lots in Plymouth, the city says, bringing more variety to its housing stock.
The same is true in Lakeville, where the city changed zoning rules in 2010 to allow houses on 70-foot-wide lots, instead of the standard 85 feet, with shorter setbacks to reduce front yards. The city says nearly half of the 429 new single-family homes approved in Lakeville in 2014 have been on smaller 8,400-square-foot lots, or 70 feet wide.
“Post-recession, there seems to be more interest in small lots. And I don’t see that changing,” said David Olson, director of community and economic development. “I don’t think it’s unique to Lakeville. If you go to a lot of cities, that’s a trend in terms of smaller lot sizes.”
But not all small lots mean smaller homes. In Edina and Excelsior, the housing trend is teardowns, with big homes being built on small existing lots, much to the dismay of some long-term residents. After some complaints in Excelsior, the city’s Planning Commission in early January will discuss setting new height and size rules for the 6,300-square-foot lots established in the Lake Minnetonka town in the 1890s and early 1900s.
In New Brighton, the Pulte Group is building homes on lots as small as 7,800 square feet. While it may be smaller than the standard lot size in the Twin Cities, Epperson said it all depends on the perspective.
“In most markets across the country, that would be quite a large lot,” he said. “In the Twin Cities, that’s considered a ‘small lot.’ ”
Slowing denser growth
But not everyone wants the smaller lots in the suburbs.
In Eden Prairie this year, the city pursued putting a “green,” high-density housing development on a vacant 8-acre lot off Hwy. 212 to bring more affordable housing to the city. But nearby residents opposed the Eden Gardens development in part because the 36 smaller lots and homes wouldn’t fit in. In response to this concern, the developer is building bigger, more expensive homes on the perimeter of the development and “market-rate” homes ranging from $330,000 to $360,000 inside the development.
Eden Gardens, which includes a small park and opens in 2015, had deposits on most of the homes even before the city gave its final approval.
“For some communities, this will be more of a trend, but I’ve heard from developers not every city is in favor of it,” said Shawn Nelson, board president of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities. “The majority of Minnesotans like a large lot for kids to play in and dogs to run around in. If that is what a family is looking for, it’s still available.”
In fact, Minnetonka has mostly half-acre lots that preserve its topography and wooded areas, unlike cities on grids or with smaller lots like Minneapolis, where typical lots are about one-tenth of an acre. Now, however, pockets of land wedged into neighborhoods have made Minnetonka ripe for subdivisions. Larger estates are being broken up and the city’s last farm is being turned into the suburb’s largest subdivision of single-family homes since the 1990s.
More than 250 people have expressed interest in the 28 single-family homes, which will have an average lot size of 7,600 square feet, along with a mix of twinhomes, condos and possibly townhouses — all association-managed so homeowners don’t have to keep up lawns. The developer, Ron Clark Construction, said the development is meant to fill a void in the market, aimed at everyone from young professionals to “right-sizing” baby boomers interested in moving from large lots to the rambler-style villas on smaller lots overlooking wetlands and woods.
The company needed special approval for a planned unit development since Legacy Oaks didn’t fit the city’s standard residential zoning. Now, the city has a new small-lot ordinance that eases the process for developers by adding a new residential zoning rule for 75-foot-wide lots, or 15,000 square feet, instead of the standard 22,000-square-foot, or half-acre, lots.
But that doesn’t mean Minnetonka is losing its large-lot character, City Council Member Brad Wiersum said. Higher density is expected in infill redevelopment or commercial areas near transit hubs like Ridgedale, where a six-story apartment building that some residents opposed was just approved, but the city is mostly developed.
“Minnetonka is a large-lot community, and it probably always will be a large-lot community compared to surrounding communities,” he said. “[But] I think we will become a more dense community.”