Arrested Development

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

Ripplinger and two other unhappy residents formed the Jonathan Research Group and ran for seats on the nine-member association board on a platform of promising to dissolve the organization. After they won, Ripplinger convinced the local cable company to start broadcasting board meetings. Someone was recruited to scrutinize the financial ledgers. They went door-to-door and surveyed residents. Attendance soared so dramatically that association elections had to be held at Chaska's City Hall. Letters about seemingly picayune spats started to fill column after column in the Chaska Herald.

Three more anti-association candidates were elected the following year, and the new majority elected Ripplinger board chair. He laughs about it now, saying he didn't know it, but he had hoisted himself on his own petard. The association's paid director resigned and Ripplinger had to take over the job for six months. He was plunged into the minutiae of Jonathan's fiscal ledger. Trails had to be seal-coated. Two new mail stations had to be built, something the U.S. Postal Service is terribly picky about. After all those years of being angry about his dues, he found himself spending a lot of his neighbors' money.

"What happened to me," Ripplinger says now, "is while I was the executive director, I had the opportunity to get in the golf cart and drive around and see the conditions," he says. "I got to talk to a lot of unhappy residents, but I also got to talk to a lot of happy people and see a whole lot of things that had once been beautiful and had gone to seed.

"One day I was going down a trail and saw a tot-lot full of kids just having a ball." Ripplinger's face lights up. "Their moms were watching from their backyards. And I said, 'Do we really want to destroy this? This is a community.' It was an eye-opening experience to see that we need community--and it needs certain rules and strong leadership, or it will run amok."

Ripplinger tried to convert the critics he'd helped elect to the board, but says the rhetoric and name-calling just got worse. After a while, he resigned from the Jonathan Research Group. He stayed on the association board, though, and started trying to find practical compromises to the problems that had surfaced in the wake of the tepee issue. After months of wangling, the board and a new association staff have come up with a solution to the fence debate that everyone seems at peace with. He just began his third three-year term on the board.

"I think Mr. McKnight's idea was a bit grandiose. He was reaching for a community that's perfect, and that was just a dream," Ripplinger says. "What's left, with the right changes at the right time, it can be a wonderful place. But you can't rush into it."

If there is an afterlife, McKnight is doubtless laughing himself right off of his celestial tractor. In 2001, ground was broken on Jonathan's western flank for a development billed as the answer to suburbia's ills. Clover Ridge was to contain 250 acres of single-family homes, apartment buildings, townhouses, an elementary school, a commercial district, and parkland. Modular housing, along with smaller lots and higher density, would keep prices down.

The design would be of a school directly descended from the New Town movement, "New Urbanism." Houses would have front porches, and the neighborhoods would feature alleys and tree-lined boulevards. The widely lauded plan garnered plenty of attention, as well as a $1 million Livable Communities grant from the Metropolitan Council.

A recent afternoon found Jules Smith meandering up and down Clover Ridge's unfinished streets, pointing out places where the New Urbanism has ended up looking a lot like the old suburbanism. He steered his Navigator down the subdivision's main drag past rows of modular homes sporting dainty porch railings and lemon-colored siding. At the end of the entry street, a traffic roundabout rings a strange-looking beige stone obelisk. To one side is an elementary school; to another, a big square apartment building. Branching out from the roundabout are rows of nondescript houses.

Smith is disappointed. In older parts of Jonathan, the backyards melt into parks and greenbelts, so the architectural guidelines spell out what all four sides of each home should look like. These houses, by contrast, are designed for "curb appeal"--that is, to look their best when viewed from a car. The fronts of many of the houses have some old-fashioned details, but on many the sides and backs are flat and unadorned. The common areas lack swing sets, climbers, and trees.

According to the Chaska Herald, the original plan for Clover Ridge proved too expensive. The first developer didn't anticipate how high construction costs would be, or how much up-front capital would be required. Home prices crept upward nonetheless. A nonprofit is now building the affordable rentals, and plans for triplexes, carriage houses, and other elements of "true new urbanism" were jettisoned. (Even with the changes, Chaska remains one of only a handful of suburbs regularly lauded by regional planners for its efforts to welcome lower- and middle-class residents.)

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