A vacant former school building long considered to be the top redevelopment site in New Hope has been purchased by the city and is expected to start sprouting much-needed new housing for sale by spring.

The New Hope Economic Development Authority this month purchased the 46-year-old former Winnetka Learning Center at 7940 55th Av. N. from the Robbinsdale Area School District for $1.7 million and has called for bids for its demolition as part of plans for the first major new housing development in the city since at least the 1980s.

Illustrating the popularity of inner-ring redevelopment opportunities among builders, the Winnetka Learning Center site drew a pair of serious suitors — national builder Pulte Homes and Coon Rapids-based Centra Homes, which won the bidding by offering $1.05 million for the property and proposing a mix of detached, single-family townhouses and traditional homes.

Rick Packer of Centra said his firm — the third-largest locally owned homebuilder in Minnesota — is working out a purchase agreement with the city and hopes to start construction on the homes by early spring.

Centra's plans call for a total of 61 homes, including 27 townhouses platted onto 40-foot-wide lots and 34 traditional homes on 65-foot-wide lots.

The townhouses would range from 1,800 to 2,200 square feet with two-car garages and would be professionally maintained through a homeowners association. They would be priced at between $225,000 and $275,000.

The traditional homes would run from 2,585 to 3,594 square feet and feature front porches and three-car garages. They would go for $275,000 to $350,000.

City leaders see this development as a rare chance to tap the growing popularity of inner-ring suburbs among home buyers as an alternative to far-flung exurbia in an era of rising gasoline prices and disenchantment with long commutes.

The challenge, however, is finding suitable places for new homes in such communities, many of which have been completely built out for decades and have few feasible options for new developments.

For instance, the last time there has been any new-home construction in New Hope was in the early 2000s — and that was just seven lots at a cul-de-sac near Boone Avenue, Community Development Manager Curtis Jacobsen said.

Like many of the inner-ring suburbs that were developed mainly in the 1950s and 1960s, New Hope is dominated by smaller homes and thus loses growing families to more distant suburbs when they turn into "move-up" home buyers.

But with the former school site, the city believes it has seized a golden opportunity to lure an estimated $17.5 million in new property tax base and compete with the likes of Maple Grove and Plymouth for a prized demographic group.

"This is a chance for us to keep growing families within the city as opposed to having to move to a further-out suburb that may have options for larger homes," Jacobsen said. "We're a really close-in community with an easy commute to pretty much anywhere in the Twin Cities, and it seems that's where everyone is looking for housing these days."

Centra has been one of the more aggressive homebuilders in the Twin Cities market and in 2012 bought 350 properties — mostly raw land — from a Little Canada developer that had abandoned its plans during the housing market collapse.

Centra is now working on 19 housing ­developments in mainly farther-out suburbs such as Blaine, Woodbury, Elk River, Rogers and Shakopee, but Packer said his company is always on the lookout for development opportunities within first-ring locales.

"We believe that if there's a housing opportunity to be filled, we've got the expertise to do so, whether it's in Blaine, Woodbury or New Hope," he said. "We try to position ourselves to fill a niche that may not presently be in a given area."

Don Jacobson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer and former editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal. He has ­covered Twin Cities commercial real estate for about a ­decade.