A plan to build sidewalks in neighborhoods throughout Edina is erupting into a high-stakes fight about the city's future — and what kind of identity a suburb should have in the 21st century if it wants to thrive.

Car-oriented postwar suburbs throughout the Twin Cities are looking to reinvent themselves for the millennial generation. From Coon Rapids to Apple Valley, the long-range plans include sidewalks and trails where cars now reign supreme.

But Edina, one of the oldest and most affluent suburbs, is meeting with heated resistance from longtime residents as it strives to become friendlier to bikers, walkers and transit users. While sidewalks are common in Edina's oldest neighborhoods, large swaths of the city were built without them.

Last year, the City Council adopted a "Living Streets" policy intended to promote safety, sustainability and health.

Key elements of the policy are focused on reducing vehicle traffic and increasing opportunities to walk and bike.

The city created a Pedestrian & Cyclist Safety Fund to pay for sidewalks, bike trails and other transportation improvements with a $1.45 assessment on the monthly gas and electric bills of city residents.

City officials say the Living Streets policy is essential to attracting a new generation of residents to the aging suburb.

"We know that millennials are looking for this kind of living circumstance," Mayor Jim Hovland said. "In survey after survey, all across the nation, the millennials say they want these things.

"I know some people don't think that's the case in the suburbs, but it's coming."

Most of the sidewalks in Edina are in Morningside and Country Club, the city's oldest neighborhoods.

Major opposition

The Living Streets program will add sidewalks over the next 20 years on a relatively small number of streets — mostly along heavily traveled state and county roads, as well as near schools, parks and other recreational areas.

But this week, longtime Edina residents packed a public meeting and delivered a forceful message on sidewalks: Don't like 'em, don't need 'em, don't want 'em.

"We have a beautiful, natural neighborhood and now they want to citify it, make it like Minneapolis," said Grace McNeill, who has lived for 41 years in the Highlands neighborhood.

"We're really up in arms about it," said Robert Tengdin, a Highlands resident for 51 years. A neighborhood survey a few years ago showed that more than 90 percent of residents were against sidewalks, Tengdin noted: "What part of 90 percent can't they read? We don't want sidewalks."

Residents expressed a range of concerns, from shoveling to liability issues to construction hassles and potential loss of trees. But time and again, they came back to this: Edina has always been a city largely without sidewalks, and they want to keep it that way.

"I grew up in Edina, and we have always loved it as it is," said resident Ann Compton. "The council wasn't always trying to push things on us. It's like they're trying to cram it down our throats."

Mark Nolan, Edina's transportation planner, explained the long-range strategy, which would create sidewalks 5 feet wide set off from the road by a 5-foot boulevard. The city owns the roadside right of way, he said, so no private land would be taken. Residents won't pay a separate assessment on the sidewalks in front of their homes — and in some cases, the city might even take the responsibility for clearing them.

Nolan said the city has done several surveys over the past few years and conducted a number of public hearings on the Living Streets program. The response has been largely positive, he said.

Apology offered

Indeed, public comments in the sidewalks topic on the city's "Speak Up, Edina!" forum are overwhelmingly favorable. But it was the opponents who thronged the Edina Senior Center this week, peppering Nolan with so many skeptical questions that one resident felt the need to apologize.

"They sent you into the lion's den," said Paul Hanson, who lives near Valley View Road. In 90 minutes, only two people out of more than 50 spoke in favor of sidewalks. One of them was Lisa Farnam, who appeared to brace for the worst.

"I'm about to make myself really unpopular," she said. "But I think it's time that we realize we live in a city. We don't live in the country."

Hovland said Edina isn't going to change course on a transportation plan that, in some respects, has been in the works for almost 10 years. What's more, he said, it's vital to shaping the city that future residents will live in.

"We've thought about this pretty earnestly," Hovland said, "and we believe in the concept."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402