When Lyn and Ken Hunter moved into their luxury home at Spirit of Brandtjen Farm in Lakeville in 2006, one thing was conspicuously missing: neighbors.

Until last year, they had largely unobstructed views of wide-open spaces across the 520-acre site, one of the largest housing developments planned for the Twin Cities in recent history.

Now, new homes and others under construction are finally filling some of the open space. "For the people like us who have been here for a while, it's almost hard to assimilate the changes," Hunter said. "I got so used to the open vistas."

Once hailed as a singular project that would add soul to the classic suburban subdivision — along with thousands of new families to the booming Dakota County suburb — Spirit of Brandtjen Farm instead sputtered through the housing downturn. The plan, approved in 2005, called for a whopping 2,100 homes, all with amenities like front porches and sidewalks, to be built over a 10- or 12-year span.

Today, only 160 lots have finished single-family houses, townhouses or homes under construction, according to the developer, Tradition Development of Edina.

"Obviously, we had high expectations which had to be tempered," said Daryl Morey, Lakeville's planning director.

But Spirit, along with Lakeville, is riding a rising tide of home-building activity in the Twin Cities. Nearly 4,200 residential permits were issued metro-wide in 2012, up from about 2,950 a year earlier and a sharp increase from about 2,600 in 2009, according to the Builders Association of the Twin Cities. More than 1,000 permits had already been recorded in the metro area for the first three months of this year.

Lakeville — along with Blaine, Woodbury, Plymouth and Maple Grove — has been among the hottest suburbs for home building since the market began to recover. Single-family permits in Lakeville jumped to 279 in 2012 from just 118 in 2011. For the first three months of this year the city recorded 67 single-family permits, valued at $21 million.

In the Spirit development, about 60 single-family homes are expected to be finished this year, Tradition says.

Spirit, located on the former farmland of printing magnate Henry Brandtjen, had just gotten started when the housing market tanked. "They came out at the wrong time," said Laurie Karnes, a Maple Grove land broker. Even though the market has recovered, Karnes says it's doubtful such an ambitious project would ever be proposed today.

"Without a doubt, it's a long way back," said Tradition CEO Jake Enebak. He said the economic downturn set back the schedule for finishing the project by about five years.

Getting it moving again has meant changing some of what was supposed to make Brandtjen Farm unique. It was envisioned as a place where most homes would be custom-designed and built, setting it apart from more generic suburban neighborhoods, but it's now likely to wind up with fewer custom homes than planned. And some higher-density housing in the original plan has given way to smaller single-family homes.

"We're trying to take the best of traditional neighborhoods, like south Minneapolis or Highland Park, and apply those things to a new development," said Todd Stutz, president of Robert Thomas Homes, one of two builders at the project owned by Tradition.

Morey said it's difficult to measure the delay's impact on the city. Stalled developments of all types prompted Lakeville to cut its budget in recent years because of lower revenue from building permits, fees and taxes. Area businesses, like those supplying materials or workers for construction, also have probably been affected, he said.

The downturn in home building also squelched commercial development. Cobblestone Lake, a retail center about two miles north of Spirit in Apple Valley, opened in 2008 but has been slow to add tenants. A Pizza Ranch opened there recently, and there are plans for Crooked Pint Ale House.

Spirit's plans also call for up to 400,000 square feet of commercial space. Enebak declined to say what will go there or when it would be built.

Custom vision

The developer tried to set Spirit apart from the beginning. The front porches, sidewalks, trails and a village green near the development's main entry are meant to encourage neighbors to connect with one another. And unlike other suburban subdivisions that have sprouted from cornfields, Spirit has embraced its history as a farm. A massive restored dairy barn serves as a community center. Homes have an old-fashioned farmhouse look, some with vertical siding that looks like planks on the side of a barn.

But some of its original game plan has changed.

The collection of independent custom builders that were to give Spirit's homes a distinctive look is gone. Some went out of business. Others say they left because it became difficult to sell homes at Spirit when Tradition formed its own home-building companies.

"They came in and started throwing up houses right and left. They had deep pockets and could do that," said Kim Holmberg, project coordinator at Charles Cudd De Novo. "The problem for us as a builder was that now the developer we had been partnering with had become a competitor." She said the houses built by Tradition's companies were not architect-designed and were priced lower than Cudd's or the other custom builders.

Enebak said the independent builders left Spirit because "they decided to change the way they did business.

"We looked around. There were not too many left that wanted to be here," he said.

Robert Thomas Homes offers a menu of home plans selling for $350,000 to $500,000. The other firm, Homes by Tradition, specializes in homes up to $1 million, doing custom work but also building from models. Both companies' models aren't exclusive to Spirit and can be found at other Tradition developments in Inver Grove Heights and Plymouth.

The only other company currently working at Spirit is D.R. Horton, a national builder, which is constructing townhouses on lots it acquired from an investors' group that had bought them from Tradition, Enebak said.

Although there may be fewer custom-built homes, Spirit doesn't allow identical models or homes of the same color next to each other. Even so, they have similar features, such as exteriors with siding, not brick or stucco.

Enebak says there's been no departure from Spirit's original architectural or neighborhood design standards despite the changing economy and roster of builders. "I think we have adapted less than other neighborhoods," he said. "We've been pretty stubborn."

Susan Feyder • 952-746-3282