Can Edina still afford the American dream?


Not everything’s bigger in Texas.

As we speak, a young couple is trying to relocate from the Lone Star State to the North Star State. They seek the best school system for their three kids, so naturally they’re shopping in the charming little suburb of Edina.

All they’ve found is sticker shock. Their quest for a three-bedroom home is turning up prices of $800,000. At the low end.

“They thought they were coming to the North Pole,” says their realtor. “They can’t believe it.”

They’re not the only ones. In the past few years, ramblers that used to retail for $400,000 have been demolished and replaced by McMansions that go for two or three times that much.

There are fewer than 400 homes for sale in Edina right now. My real estate friend says that more than 30 are listed at $1.5 million or more.

Southdale Center, America's first fully enclosed mall, became a magnet for Minnesotans with suburban dreams.

Southdale Center, America's first fully enclosed mall, became a magnet for Minnesotans with suburban dreams.

I’m not even sure my bank has that much money. If it does, it’s only lending it out to those whose incomes are well into the six figures.

This reality is fine for surgeons and the lawyers who handle their malpractice suits. But the market is pricing out teachers, nurses, and firefighters — people who make a community livable. And a community.

It’s a troubling trend for anyone who wants their kids to learn to read, or wants help putting out the fire started by the cigar some fat cat just pitched out the sunroof of his BMW.

Edina got this way by design. Back in the 1920s, realtors lured buyers with lots adjacent to the Edina Country Club. In the 1950s, the Dayton brothers — in their pre-Target period — launched Southdale Center, the first fully-enclosed shopping mall in America. They hoped to “create a community” out of whole cloth, turning fields and tree stands into a teeming suburb.

Their move turned the old method of civic-planning-via-corporate-blueprint on its head. Instead of opening a factory or a mine and daring the hard-up to work themselves to death, Edina was inviting the well-to-do to shop till they dropped.

It worked. A little too well. Minneapolitans packed up spouses, kids, and their better set of golf clubs and poured in by the tens of thousands. Edina’s population tripled to 30,000 during the 1950s and added another 14,000 over the next decade.

It has hardly grown in the 50 years since, though not for lack of interest. When the land ran out, the housing market turned into a bidding war among the already affluent.

Edina ought to be the envy of American cities, most of which are just getting to their knees after the housing collapse. High-end developers are beating down the city’s door, and the market apparently can’t get enough.

But rather than toasting their success, city planners are trying to pump the brakes. Earlier this month, Edina approved a broad set of policies that would, in principle, help it force developers to subsidize more affordable housing. The city council set a 10 percent benchmark, meaning a new complex with 200 units would have to make 20 of them within reach for those who don’t have offshore bank accounts.

Developers could also be fined for each affordable unit they won’t build, money that would be funneled toward inexpensive housing elsewhere. Ideally, it would mean three-bedroom units renting for about $1,125.

At One Southdale Center, a new high-rise condo building in Edina, that amount will get you a cramped one-bedroom (almost), but your kids will have to sleep in the tub.

This problem has long been coming, but the city’s just now getting aggressive about solving it. Why the delay? Edina put its faith in good old unfettered capitalism.

“We’ve been longtime believers in the market, and letting the market function,” says Mayor Jim Hovland. “Now we’re having conversations about whether we’re leaving some folks behind and denying some of us the opportunity to get into our town.”

Only developers who need rezoning approval will face the new rules, and the plan allows for “a lot of options” in getting a deal done, says the mayor. His hesitancy to interfere is understandable. Hovland makes his living as a business lawyer whose firm, Hovland & Rasmus, does commercial real estate work.

But the thought of tripping up a juggernaut is just as unnerving to City Councilwoman Mary Brindle, a former schoolteacher who arrived in Edina with her engineer husband back in the mid-’80s.

“It does give you pause,” Brindle says. “We don’t want to tell a developer ‘no.’” But the only way to know if this puppy’s got any teeth is if it refuses to roll over the next time it encounters a mega-developer.

Brindle desperately hopes it works. “Those of us in a position to afford to be here are pretty passionate about the fact our kids aren’t going to be able to live here,” she says. “Even some peers who I grew up with can’t do it anymore.”

Redemption might be out there.

If something comes of this new strategy, it could be a model for how suburbs reclaim the middle class ideal Minnesota once conceived.

Dream on, Americans.