Arrested Development

How Minnesota philanthropist and developer Henry McKnight's utopian vision of suburbia became a blueprint for modern exurban nightmares

Smith is now a successful developer himself, and a longtime member of the Metropolitan Council. Back then, however, he was a kid who didn't come from money, and the command performance made him nervous. He donned his best suit and drove out to McKnight's estate. There he found the gentleman farmer clad in shorts and boots, naked from the waist up--and seemingly interested only in giving Smith a tour. Smith's best shoes were muddy and his suit plastered with burrs before McKnight worked up to what was on his mind. Eventually, he took the young lawyer down to the basement of his farmhouse (now the clubhouse for Deer Run golf course), which was crammed with books and files on urban planning. McKnight rooted around and produced an enormous map.

"Jules," he said, "how would you like to help me build a new town?"

If Smith thought the older man was a little crazy, he had yet to hear the whole of it. McKnight didn't just mean a new town, as in from scratch, he meant a New Town: an experimental, utopian community of 50,000 that would rise in perfect harmony with nature on a parcel of land bounded north-south by highways 5 and 212, and east-west by the towns of Waconia and Victoria. It would encompass most of Chaska, McKnight explained, and would take as its model the so-called New Towns of Europe: model communities drawn up in an attempt to ensure that the suburban sprawl that followed WWII on the Euro-continent was orderly and pleasant.

McKnight had visited some of Europe's New Towns, and he came home vowing to replicate them. He had long since made his own millions in real estate, but his passion was environmental conservation. By all accounts, the New Towns represented to McKnight a way to resolve the contradictions in his life.

To that end, he had quietly bought up land for more than a decade, and now he needed help securing many more parcels. McKnight wanted Smith to quit his law firm and go to work buying land in other people's names. "That was a Tuesday," Smith recalls. "On Friday, I was sitting in Richmond, Virginia, with McKnight, [his assistant], and the vice president of Honeywell and others. We were trying to use an out-of-town law firm to keep it a secret."

Around the same time, as it happened, a former head of the U.S. Golf Association, Totton P. Heffelfinger, was trying to build Hazeltine National Golf Club in the same area McKnight had his eyes on. As Smith describes it, investors in both projects saw the possibility for synergy immediately: Sewers and water lines, always the biggest cost in any new development, would have to be run north to Hazeltine from Chaska, up over a hill that contained some of McKnight's land. Starting the project there would save everyone money and would assure the new community a fabulous first amenity of a sort since copied by builders of "fairway homes" in Brooklyn Park, Blaine, and hundreds of other communities across the country.

The town was to be named after an early Carver County explorer named Jonathan Carver. Master plans called for a "megacenter" in the middle of the town where residents could get on a commuter rail line that would whisk them to jobs in the central cities. Five villages would surround the core, each of them slated for 10,000 eventual residents. Industrial parks outside the villages would provide more jobs and strengthen the tax base.

Among the key attractions for young families, there would be beaches, kids' play structures, and other amenities then unknown in more typical suburban developments. In fact, a then-unheard-of 30 percent of the land would be set aside as open space so that residents could share a network of trails and parks.

"McKnight also has an idea about how to get a man properly sent off on a business trip," the Minneapolis Star reported--without a trace of irony--in 1967. "He steps into a canoe from the landing at his back door, and his wife paddles him to a quayside restaurant in the town center. They have lunch, he rides an elevator to the rooftop heliport and he's off to the supersonic transport at the airport. But that is in the more distant future."

Jonathan would offer all this to homebuyers by reducing development costs. At the time, suburbia boasted two main styles of housing: pricey houses on big lots of increasingly scarce open land, and long rows of cheap little identical houses built as close together as possible. The plan in Jonathan was to break that mold--clustering several houses to a parcel as in the cookie-cutter 'burbs, but devoting the rest of the acreage to greenbelts and commons areas. In addition to breaking up the monotony people had come to loathe about suburbia, the scheme had the advantage of containing construction costs. Accordingly, homes could be offered to people with a variety of incomes.

In the interest of promoting both rational suburban growth and affordable housing, Congress in 1968 passed a sweeping law called the New Communities Act. Now, the U.S. government would reimburse half the costs of the new town's infrastructure and, more significantly, would guarantee bonds to finance the construction.

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