If prospective home buyers were blindfolded before they entered a new detached townhouse development featured on the current Parade of Homes, they might not be able to say for sure if they were in the city or in the suburbs.
That’s by design.
“It’s an overused tagline, but with this project, we like to say we’re putting the urban in suburban,” said Todd Stutz, president of Robert Thomas Homes.
A division of the company, RT Urban, built the townhouses, called the Revival Collection. Bounded by urban features like sidewalks and front porches or stoops in the front and attached rear garages and an alley in the back, the townhouses are located in … wait for it … Lakeville.
They’re the newest housing addition to the Spirit of Brandtjen Farm development, a 600-acre master plan community built with walkable access to a grocery store, several coffee shops and miles of trails. Priced from $369,000 to $399,000, the four townhouse models are aimed at buyers who value many aspects of city living but can’t afford it.
“To get a new home with this square footage for under $400,000 would be challenging in the urban market,” Stutz said. “Millennial buyers we are trying to attract have been renting in the central cities. When they buy, they’re looking for the style and amenities they’re used to.”
The New York Times coined the term “hipsturbia” to define communities that blend desirable features of urban and suburban life; the Urban Land Institute named hipsturbia as a top real estate trend of 2020.
“Surban” is another identifier, a mashup word trademarked by two real estate consultants who wrote the 2016 bestseller “Big Shifts Ahead.”
The authors anticipate that surban developments will gain ground among home buyers who want the smaller yards and walkability they find in cities, along with the lower housing costs found beyond the inner core.
“This is a lifestyle we will definitely see more of,” predicted Katie Elfstrom, spokeswoman for Housing First, the organization that represents Twin Cities builders and remodelers and hosts the Parade of Homes.
“There’s a big group of buyers looking for urban energy at a suburban price point, and builders are always looking for new ways to innovate and make housing available.”
Sleek and compact
With 1,700 square feet of living space, the RT Urban detached townhouses are bigger than typical city apartments but smaller than most new single-family construction in the suburbs.
And while the development was designed with millennial buyers in mind, Stutz expects a wide variety of buyers to purchase the compact homes. Downsizers and empty-nesters have been showing up to tour the townhouses and are also interested in the smaller concept, he said.
The townhouse interiors don’t look like typical suburban houses.
“Suburban houses are more traditional, they feel a little heavier, more ornate. These [townhouses] are not that at all; they’re sleek with a minimalist look,” said Emily Anderson, senior designer for Martha O’Hara Interiors, which fashioned four different design packages for buyers of the Lakeville dwellings.
The design team looked to downtown apartments or loft-style condominiums for inspiration, laying out interiors that will feel familiar to buyers transitioning out of urban rentals.
“They’re used to brand-new finishes and fixtures. They’ve had high-end countertops, cabinets, flooring, lighting,” Anderson added. “They’re OK with compact space and less square footage; they think about their carbon footprint.“
The suburbs have always held residential appeal. At the first Parade of Homes in 1949, prospective homeowners walked through a dozen houses in Edina.
Seven decades later, the suburbs have changed. They’ve become more racially and economically diverse, with more adventurous dining and entertainment options. Commuting patterns have shifted as well; more businesses have set up shop in the suburbs near where their workers live, and more people telecommuting or managing flexible schedules mean that fewer workers make the daily rush-hour round trip to the city.
“It used to be that the cheap houses were in the city — the suburbs was where you went when you had money. Now that’s flipped,” said Tom Fisher, professor of architecture and director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota.
Fisher said that putting more housing on smaller lots will be critical to the survival of suburbs.
“A lot of the suburbs need the higher density to increase their tax base so they can continue to meet demands for public services without increasing taxes for residents,” he said.
As suburbs reinvent themselves, Fisher suggests that adopting features that mimic city neighborhoods will prompt buyers to put down roots.
“Sidewalks and alleys are functional spaces but they also answer a desire for community. People talk over the back alley; there’s a relationship between people who share an alley and a street,” he said. “In the age of social media when we have friends who are virtual, we crave the face-to-face. With proper design, that kind of interaction can be met in the physical environment.”
According to the Census Bureau, twice as many Americans live in suburbs as in cities or rural areas combined.
A 2018 Gallup poll asked respondents where they would live if they could live anywhere they wished. The first choice was a rural area, but the suburbs of a big city ranked second, with younger respondents particularly enthusiastic about suburban life.
“Clearly, the word ‘suburb’ is not anathema to young people today,” the Gallup report concluded. “Despite assumptions … that millennials love living in big cities, these data show that many of them, in an ideal world, would leave big and small cities and move to the suburbs of such cities.”
Soon younger home buyers will have another iteration of an urban-in-the-suburb option. Next month, RT Urban will break ground on a Lakeville development that’s more “surban” than the detached townhouses.
The new project, to be called the Revelation Collection, will be what people in the East know as row houses. In Lakeville, the single-family dwellings will be called “attached townhouses.”
The initial phase of the development will include 43 of them; the 2000-square-foot, three-story units will have flat roofs for elevated decks, along with sidewalks in front and two-car attached garages and alleys in the rear. Prices will start at $379,900.
“They will have an attractive streetscape that will look more urban than what’s usually built in the suburban market,” said Stutz. “We anticipate this option will appeal to buyers who want spend their free time on experiences — not yard work and snow-shoveling.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.