During the 30 years that Stuart Nolan lived in a single-family home in Eden Prairie, he got behind the wheel every time he left his neighborhood.

"Now I get off my duff and walk — to stores I frequent, to go out to eat; my doctor is in the neighborhood, my dentist," said Nolan. "It's fantastic."

Five years ago, Nolan relocated as one of the inaugural tenants of One Southdale Place, a three-building, 232-unit luxury apartment complex. Surrounded by a berm of newly planted lawn, natural grasses and landscaping, the development sprang out of 5 acres of concrete that was previously part of Southdale Center's sprawling parking lot.

But Nolan is not just a tenant. As the "Stuart" in StuartCo, the prominent Bloomington-based property management company that he founded in 1970, he's also the developer.

"I got a call from the mall owner [Simon Property Group]. They wanted to put that southeast corner to better use. We had a few meetings and put the deal together," Nolan said.

At the start, many of Nolan's personal and business acquaintances "didn't get it," he said.

"They said, 'Who would want to live next to a mall?' " Nolan recalled with a chuckle.

In the year 2020, it seems the answer to that question is thousands. Today many people in the Twin Cities are choosing to live in buildings adjacent not only to Southdale but to other top suburban malls and shopping centers, with hundreds more units in the pipeline.

It's become a win-win-win strategy for the trio of stakeholders. For tenants, it's a lifestyle choice offering walkable access to eateries, shops, gyms and movie theaters. For developers and mall owners, it's a way to repurpose underutilized space as fewer shoppers cruise brick-and-mortar stores. And for municipalities, with suburban lots built to capacity, it's a way to add residents and density to stabilize their tax bases.

Projects moving forward

The area around Southdale launched the living-by-the-mall concept decades ago. Before the most recent flurry of permits, Edina already counted some 5,900 units in apartment buildings and condominium high-rises clustered in the Southdale corridor, most of them built between 1974 and 1984.

Since 2011, the growth of mall-adjacent housing has accelerated, with 1,400 additional new apartments and condominiums now occupied or approved for construction.

"Location still rules the day. Southdale has easy access to freeways and the airport. It's close to downtown but not too close. All the things that make it a good retail destination make it a good living destination," said Bill Neuendorf, economic development manager for the city of Edina.

Despite the economic slowdown brought on by the pandemic, all projects that were approved by the city and financed before the virus arrived are moving forward. Currently the Millennium at 66th and York is under construction, with 227 units in Phase 1, to be followed by the addition of 148 units in Phase 2. The Bower, a 19-story building with 186 units, broke ground behind the Edina Target on the former Guitar Center property.

"It's not glamorous, but we've done traffic studies and added sidewalks and upgraded six crosswalks to get people safely across the streets," Neuendorf said. "That's a secret to making this work."

That walkability appeals to new residents, whether young professionals, people with children or empty nesters.

"One-third of the inhabitants of the new buildings are Edina residents who wanted to sell their homes but didn't want to leave their community where their friends, houses of worship and familiar shopping are," Neuendorf said.

Luxury living

The city of Edina considers each of the new apartment complexes to be redevelopment projects, meaning they replaced an existing or outdated building that was torn down to make way for them.

Aria, a 184-unit luxury apartment building, sits on the spot where a Best Buy long stood. Many of its residents may have dashed in to buy compact discs, Walkmans or their first iPod.

"If you would have asked me back in the day if I would ever live across the street from Southdale, I would have said, 'Not a chance in heck,' " said Jeanie Kang, 45. "But when I saw this gorgeous building, I was intrigued. It was the exact environment I could see myself in."

A corporate job brought Kang to Minnesota in 2007. Living in southwest Minneapolis, she often shopped at Southdale. She relocated to Atlanta in 2015, but changed careers, becoming a real estate agent, and moved back just as Aria opened.

"I love the ease of living, and I was dazzled by the amenities, like the pool deck. It has an outdoor kitchen with grills, a putting green, bocce ball. It's set up to encourage a community feeling," she said. "Inside there's a game room for small gatherings; I hosted my book club there."

Kang crosses the street for her workouts at the new Life Time Fitness on the site of the former J.C. Penney store at Southdale and frequents neighborhood restaurants.

"I eat 99 percent of my meals out, and there are 20 places I can do takeout within an eighth of a mile. I'm glad the patios are reopening around here and at the Galleria," she said. "And I'm not above swinging through the Taco Bell drive-through on the way home."

Kang is what residential housing insiders term a "lifestyle renter," a tenant who could afford to purchase a home but chooses not to.

"Some will buy eventually; they're saving for a down payment. Others don't want to make that investment. They don't want the hassle of homeownership. Baby boomers want to simplify but they want to live in a place with energy, and not all of them want to move downtown," said developer Kelly Doran, whose company built and now manages Aria.

"From sea to shining sea, every mall in America is looking at adding multifamily housing. They're all trying to reinvent themselves and figure out how to game the value on the holdings that don't need all those acres of parking," he said.

Doran also developed the Reserve at Arbor Lakes, a 257-unit apartment building in Maple Grove adjacent to the Shoppes of Arbor Lakes. The Birke, Doran Companies' 175-unit upscale apartment building a stone's throw from Ridgedale in Minnetonka, is now under construction.

"We've done a complete turnaround from the autocentric mall of the 1970s," said Julie Wischnack, community development director for Minnetonka. "As we've done the rethink about the area around Ridgedale, it stimulated a conversation about adding green space along with housing. We're thinking big."

During what Wischnack called "the highest growth period in our history," upscale apartment living has moved to the mall property's edges, with the 134 units in the Residences at 1700 building. The Luxe, Apartments at Ridgedale, is close to occupancy, and the Avidor, a 168-unit community for active adults, is going up in the former J.C. Penney parking lot.

Meanwhile, the city is adding sidewalks and bike trails through the Ridgedale corridor to connect Crane Lake to the east and Meadow Park to the southwest, with plans for a new 2-acre park on the south side of the mall.

"People move to Minnetonka because of its setting and the natural feeling," said Wischnack. "We want that environment around Ridgedale. People living here will be able to bird-watch, bike and connect to the trail system and also have the convenience of shopping nearby while being 15 minutes from downtown."

Part of the plan

As new as this may sound, residential living is a long-deferred piece of the master plan when it comes to development near Southdale.

Victor Gruen, the innovative Viennese-born architect who conceived Southdale as the nation's first enclosed shopping mall in 1956, sketched in nearby housing as he laid out the corridor. Gruen also designed Brookdale, Rosedale and Ridgedale.

"The notion that the suburbs would become more urban is an old one," said Tom Fisher, professor of architecture and director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota.

"Gruen's original vision was that of a European town center, in that visitors and residents would have those kind of street experiences," Fisher said. "That was delayed as the suburbs got fully built out, while the culture was fine with an auto-dependent lifestyle."

Perhaps Gruen would smile at the sight of Jeanie Kang, relaxing on her sixth-floor balcony that she's turned into an oasis, complete with flowers, floor coverings and furniture.

"It's above the treetops, and I have a stunning view of the city skyline. I sit here and watch the sun go down," she said. "I really have the best of both worlds."

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.