Bob Engstrom keeps getting unanimous approval for his new development in Lake Elmo.
But he also keeps getting lots of questions — even though he's trying to create an old-fashioned small-town neighborhood in a city that cherishes the same sort of tradition.
How will he find builders for such an unconventional scheme? Can the streets really be that narrow? Are the miles of trails for everyone?
It does appear, though, that Wildflower at Lake Elmo, having been through the wringer for months, is finally a go.
What sort of wringer? One adjoining neighborhood alone raised 40 issues. And it was a neighborhood Engstrom himself created: Fields of St. Croix, one of the most environmentally celebrated Twin Cities subdivisions ever.
"Wildflower is walking distance to the center of town, walking distance to an elementary school, lots of pathways and sidewalks," Engstrom said. "The whole concept is pretty much entirely different from anything you might have seen as far as any suburban development is concerned. I can safely tell you, people love it."
Enough so, in fact, that a City Council whose members disagree over many things, agreed on this.
The developer is even picking up on the contemporary concern over bees and other pollinators, designating lots of space for plants promoting their well-being.
Wildflower brings 145 homes to an area just north of the village center, with 3 miles of hiking trails, surrounded by a 60-acre nature preserve that is the collective property of the homeowners.
One housing product to be offered is what the developer's website calls "detached, maintenance-free Garden Villa homes with a private park."
City planning chief Kyle Klatt described the scheme to planning commissioners as "tight, compact development, then larger lots." Many homes are on small lots with tiny lawns but with a shared central courtyard, inspired by work Engstrom did in the city of St. Paul.
Alleys behind homes provide access, Klatt said, and the developer sought exceptions to rules on lot size and setback requirements.
Still, if all sides acknowledge that the city's plans call for a small-town, village-type look, rather than a suburban one, in the vicinity of the old village center, the arrival of such a plan has drawn puzzled questions.
For instance, streets are narrower with fewer spaces for parking. One planning commissioner asked Engstrom where people would park when, say, holding a big party.
"We are re-creating a small-town look," Engstrom said. "You know that. Well, that's where they park."
Planning commissioner Dean Dodson "noted that the courtyard homes may be difficult from an architectural standpoint," according to the minutes of one meeting. To which Engstrom replied that "the courtyard lots would be restricted to builders who understood the concept."
Engstrom also has been asked about the lack of conventional park facilities, such as ball fields. He has spoken of establishing plenty of open areas for informal play.
The developer brings plenty of street cred to the project, though, as he is famed for his innovative Fields of St. Croix in Lake Elmo, perhaps the most celebrated instance of what became known as "clustered development."
In the '90s anti-sprawl era, clustering was regarded by some as an answer: Gather homes on small lots and leave plenty of open space. Fields started with just 45 small lots on 226 acres, much of it left open, with communal space in the form of a restored 19th-century barn.
There was an emphasis, too, on high-quality architecture, something that extends to Wildflower. Engstrom assures Lake Elmo that he will have architectural controls, notably insisting on "four-sided architecture," meaning design features everywhere and not just a front facade that looks nice with three other sides left bare.
"When it comes to architectural integrity, we know it when we see it," he said.
If Engstrom stresses the walkability of the concept, he is well aware of the reality of what a commuter these days looks for.
"Right now one advantage of Lake Elmo," he said, "is that there are a lot of ways to go. You can take [Hwy.] 5, take [Hwy.] 36, take Manning to I-94, there are a lot of ways to go. It is quite an advantage in terms of transportation convenience. If you're up in Monticello, it's 94, period, and it's not much fun."