A lot has changed since Andy Porter moved into his brand-new east Edina home a little over six years ago. The number of kids at the annual block party grew from hardly any to nearly 30. And he’s seen a big increase in walkers, presenting a challenge for his hyperactive wheaten terrier. “It’s hard to walk him now because there are so many other people walking their dogs,” Porter explained.
There are more people in Edina’s Pamela Park Neighborhood (PPN) because more than 60 large, new family-friendly homes have replaced older, smaller ones in the past decade. “Residential redevelopment” is how the city describes the teardown/new-build activity that the first-ring suburb has experienced at a more rapid rate than most other Twin Cities communities. And PPN might be considered its epicenter.
Porter is one of the main reasons why. The company he co-owns, Refined Custom Homes, built Porter’s home and also constructed 15 other new houses in the area, making it one of the neighborhood’s most prolific builders. In a three-block stretch of Oaklawn Avenue, which borders Pamela Park, Refined has built (or is currently building) seven homes, including one model for sale, and has six other lots available.
Edina’s rapid residential redevelopment, which has turned over about 100 homes annually in recent years, has revitalized neighborhoods and boosted the city’s tax base. While some residents welcome the increase in young families and home values, others lament the arrival of the new “monster” houses that block sunlight and displace middle-class residents.
Though builders receive the brunt of the criticism related to teardowns, it’s primarily home buyers, Porter noted, who are driving the demand for new construction — Refined simply executes their requests. And he knows both perspectives, being one of the few Twin Cities builders who lives right where he works, which raises the stakes both professionally and personally. “If you make a mistake, you can’t go home to your wife,” he said.
‘This is awesome’
Like many of Refined’s clients, Porter and his wife moved to Edina from south Minneapolis. The two grew up in Edina, lived in Linden Hills after they were married, and decided to return to their hometown after having children, due to the well-regarded public schools. Seeking space for the kids to play, they bought a place in a west Edina neighborhood defined by its large lots, curvy streets and feeling of privacy.
Soon they missed Linden Hills’ more urban sensibility. And while the kids loved the yard, Porter didn’t relish its upkeep.
So they moved east, just a few blocks from Pamela Park, a neighborhood whose real estate attributes, Porter quickly realized, seemed undervalued. It was conveniently positioned between the 50th and France shopping district and Southdale, with three schools to the west and one of the city’s largest parks to the east.
“As I was looking around at real estate in the rest of Edina, I was saying, ‘This is awesome!’ ” he recalls.
The neighborhood’s original housing stock, largely modest Cape Cods and ramblers, hadn’t been significantly improved since the homes were built in the 1940s and 1950s. For Edina, it was “affordable,” Porter said, using exaggerated air quotes — one of the few places where a home on a quiet street costs less than $400,000.
In Edina, a $300,000 budget doesn’t buy much: In the case of a recent Refined purchase, it garnered a dingy one-story with dark, cramped rooms, a dated kitchen and black mold on the walls. For a potential owner-occupant, it’s not a good value.
But builders work with a different calculus. When considering a property, Refined first estimates the maximum price they believe a new home on the lot will fetch (typically, for PPN, that’s in the $1.3 million range). If subtracting their construction costs leaves room for a reasonable profit, they’ll pay the asking price.
The ratio of the relatively low value of PPN’s small, older homes, compared with the price that a new home in the neighborhood can command, makes the bulldozers’ arrival almost inevitable.
Winter and construction
When applied to Edina, the punch line to the joke about Minnesota’s two seasons becomes “winter and home construction.” Particularly in the city’s northeast quadrant, warm weather brings out the porta-potties, dumpsters and contractor trucks, as workers renovate and remodel existing homes, as well as replace the old with new (undeveloped lots in Edina are practically nonexistent).
Edina’s real estate is among the Twin Cities’ priciest, largely based on its reputation for good schools (consistently ranked among the top in the state) and services (speedy snowplowing among them), as well as having a central location with quick access to freeways and the airport. That’s often what attracts Refined clients, Porter said, who tend to be midcareer professionals with kids, including a lot of road warriors who fly out of town during the week, and physicians whose practices take them to multiple locations.
In 2015, PPN upped its real estate cachet when its namesake park completed a $3 million makeover, with refurbished fields and a new indoor gathering space. Meanwhile, hip retail amenities at the walkable Edina Village Market strip mall — a new craft beer bar/restaurant, a boutique workout studio — joined neighborhood stalwarts, including a beauty shop where white-haired ladies still nestle under hair dryers.
Porter found his current home on the MLS. Now that Refined signs blanket the neighborhood, sellers call almost weekly, he said. Many are longtime residents who have been widowed or divorced, looking to cash out after substantial appreciation. Refined offers more flexibility than many buyers — they’ll sometimes rent a property back to the prior owner after a sale, or sign a purchase agreement for a future sale date — while sparing sellers the hassle, or embarrassment, in some cases, of putting their home on the market. “It’s a really nice exit strategy,” Porter said.
If the company doesn’t immediately find a client interested in building a custom home on the lot, it rents out the existing property, often to clients waiting for their new home to be completed. If the property’s condition is too rough to rent, and a custom buyer doesn’t step forward quickly, they’ll build a model home instead.
Porter and his business partners, Eric Nelson and Mike Jones, have specialized in infill projects since they started the company in 2008. They focus on homes priced just over a million dollars — a livable, practical approach to luxury that Porter describes as more BMW than Ferrari.
For homes in that price range, Porter notes that most of Edina’s old housing stock lacks the open layouts, large kitchens and livable basements his clients desire. He strides through a nearly finished Refined home, pointing out the features unique to newer construction: a mudroom, a “command zone” desk, an open-concept floor plan; bedroom-adjacent washer/dryer. Most older homes in the neighborhood don’t have two stories, or nearly as much natural light. “The floor plans are from a different generation, with living rooms and bathtubs,” he said.
Porter got a taste of his own medicine — an earful of his own screeching saws and rumbling backhoes, actually — when his next-door neighbor did a teardown, subjecting his family to annoying noises, unsettling vibrations and parked trucks. “It was great for me to see and feel and deal with what our neighbors deal with,” he said. As a result, Refined tries to be especially proactive about connecting with neighbors before and throughout construction.
Before the teardown trend gained traction, some contractors rode roughshod over neighbors: They parked in their driveways, drove on their lawns, cut down their trees and helped themselves to their water or electricity, said City Manager Scott Neal.
As the city tightened regulations, increased inspections and hired a point person to streamline communications, it solved many of the short-term issues. But it continues to wrestle with big-picture ones, Neal said. Residential redevelopment has been an enormous financial boon, bringing in nearly three times as much property tax revenue as Southdale. But while the community overall benefits, only a few residents experience the physical nuisance of the construction sites.
Also, redevelopment depletes the supply of affordable housing, Neal noted. And a community that’s already one of the metro’s least diverse becomes even more so, economically, as the housing equivalent of skateboarders and nerds are replaced by cheerleaders and jocks.
For those reasons, Refined wasn’t exactly welcomed into the neighborhood. When the company first began working in PPN, Porter’s request to subdivide a large lot was denied by the City Council, with several neighbors expressing concern about the way other builders’ “eyesores” had created “lopsided” neighborhoods.
One woman who lived across the street from the lot complained that a potential “big monster house” would interfere with her ability to enjoy her own small home. She implored the council to “preserve my neighborhood for people in my income bracket.” But she’s since sold to a builder, and the new house that replaced hers is worth about a million dollars.
Much of the initial outrage around redevelopment seems to have simmered into acceptance. A recent city survey found that neighbors didn’t much begrudge the newcomers, Neal said. Many see the short-term hassle of construction worth the increased property values and energy brought by new families.
Regardless, as long as stable interest rates and construction expenses allow builders to make money on teardowns, and competition for lots doesn’t drive up the cost, Edina’s small houses will continue to disappear. “There’s a lot of opportunity left in here,” Porter said as he drove slowly through the neighborhood, pointing out the new homes built by his company and several others. “Five years ago, if you asked somebody to spend a million dollars here, they would have laughed at you.”