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  NEW TOWNS
SUMMER 2005
 

Hometown: Clover Ridge, Chaska, Minnesota

One of the greatest challenges that virtually all well-executed TNDs face is the issue of affordability. Typically, new urban neighborhoods provide reasonably affordable residential options during their initial offering, but then market demand drives up the price of even the affordable units, pushing them out of reach for would-be residents.

In Chaska, Minn., the first phase of a new traditional neighborhood is making significant strides toward creating residences that start affordable and stay that way. One of four neighborhoods within the Clover Ridge development, Clover Field combines a cost-efficient construction technique and uses a land trust organization to retain affordability while allowing homeowners to benefit and profit from their properties' increasing value. In doing so, Clover Ridge starts to deliver on the city of Chaska's vision of being "the best small town in America" by providing a neighborhood filled with a wide variety of housing styles and types -- and just as many price points.



Located just past the southwestern third ring suburbs of Minneapolis, Chaska is the kind of place most people would like to come home to. Incorporated in 1851, the town boasts a thriving traditional downtown and a decidedly small-town atmosphere. Because of its quality of life and proximity to Minneapolis, however, city officials expect Chaska's ranks to grow from 17,000 to 30,000 by 2015.

Where will these people live, and what if they're not earning six-figure salaries when they arrive? That's the question city officials chose to answer in early 2000, when the concept phase of Clover Ridge began, says Kevin Ringwald, director of planning and development for the city of Chaska. "One of the city's early complaints was that we hadn't built an affordable house in eight years," he says. "So we started small, aiming to build at least two affordable units. We ended up exceeding our expectations."

That's an understatement. When Clover Ridge is completely built out -- by May 2007, if all goes according to plan -- 30 to 35 percent of the neighborhood's housing stock will be affordable by those households earning the area's annual median income, which currently is $38,000. At press time, residences in Clover Ridge were selling for between $80,000 and $600,000.

Even so, the affordable price points are not precisely where they originally wanted them to be, says Ringwald. "There were two reasons for this: We had to do additional grading in Clover Field, and the research and development, plus the amount of effort it took to change the design of the 'suburban dinosaur,' affected our overall costs."



But those setbacks didn't come till later. Early on, the city broke records for swift execution. "We started the Clover Ridge concept in February of 2000, and broke ground about seven months after that," says Ringwald.

That's not a typo. City officials had done their homework prior to the planning phase. They knew they wanted Chaska to develop in a more sustainable and traditional fashion than the conventional suburban developments that were knocking on its door, and they knew they needed to solve the affordable housing problem. Keeping in mind the city's vision and its strategies with regard to marketing, historic preservation, and affordable housing, Ringwald and his team drew up detailed plans that would enhance the community's character through thoughtful development.

With those plans in hand, city officials called in prospective developers and told them precisely what was required. "That's probably the most unique thing about how Chaska approaches development," says Ringwald. "There's simply no confusion. We show developers what we want, then say, 'if you will do this plan, we will grease the skids for you and you'll be in and out.' When they leave the meeting, they either say they like the plan or they say no, we're not going to do it."



Clover Ridge is built on land purchased from four different farms; hence, four different neighborhoods comprise the development -- with varying levels of density (and price points): Clover Preserve, Clover Ridge, Traditions at Clover Ridge, and Clover Field. In Clover Preserve, for example, sidewalks and street trees are abundant, but one finds a more suburban pattern dominating: larger lots, conventional suburban house "styles," and front-loaded garages.

Clover Field is Clover Ridge's first phase and the one getting the most attention from new urbanists. Currently near completion, Clover Field hosts Clover Ridge Elementary School and a central park. It has the highest densities, ranging from five units per acre on some blocks, to 50-70 units per acre on others. This helps the Clover Ridge development average 4 units per acre as a whole, compared to roughly 1.4 units per acre in surrounding conventional suburban developments.

Clover Field has the affordable housing, too, most of which is modular construction. The components are assembled in a Wisconsin factory, then trucked to the building site for completion. This computer-driven approach creates a more solid house with truer lines, and helps to manage building costs. The savings are then passed to the homeowners. And since two-story homes are composed of a bottom floor with ceiling joists, plus a top floor with floor joists (with additional soundproofing material between the two layers), the two living spaces are unbelievably quiet -- a big selling point for duplex-dwellers.

Architect and town planner Richard McLaughlin, at that time working with Michael Lamb at Urban Studio at HGA, Inc., in Minneapolis, handled the design of the houses in Clover Field, making sure that the modular construction approach would complement the architectural and aesthetic needs of the homes and the neighborhood. "I was hesitant to get involved with manufactured housing," he says. "But I realized we could influence the design and make it fit the neighborhood character we wanted. I liked that the modules could be constructed in the factory, then shipped to the site, where they are bolted to the foundation and each other. And I was relieved to find that the homes could be sealed on-site -- that's not something you want to do in the factory, especially in the Midwest.

"The houses look good. You can't tell they're manufactured; they feel like regular houses. I don't like the vinyl siding, but everything else seemed to turn out pretty well. For the first one out of the gate, they've done a good job."

To help curtail the swift increase in property values found in virtually every well-executed neotraditional neighborhood in the nation, Chaska officials created the Chaska Community Land Trust (CLT), a community-based, grassroots, nonprofit organization dedicated to creating and permanently preserving affordable housing opportunities, while allowing individual homeowners to build equity in their property.

Here's how it works: The CLT owns the land underneath the houses in Clover Field. Each homeowner owns his or her house, and has a lease to put the building on that lot for 99 years, with an option for adding another renewable period of 99 years. When the homeowner sells the house, he receives the equity off the house alone -- not the land. This strips away some of the equity, which keeps the house and the land upon which it sits affordable for decades because the most important and most volatile piece of the property puzzle -- land value -- is removed from the equation. The housing unit increases in value, but not exponentially, the way land can increase.

"Because of the way it preserves affordability in perpetuity, our CLT approach is truly fiscally conservative and socially liberal," says Ringwald. "It's very socially progressive, and it has broad support of both the business community and the residents."

On the rental side of things, an affordable apartment complex is scheduled to begin construction in early 2006. Dubbed The Sinclair, the 87-unit project will offer approximately half of its units to families earning 50 percent of the area median income for a family of four, says Alan Arthur, president of Minneapolis-based Central Community Housing Trust (CCHT), a nonprofit provider of quality affordable housing and the project's builder.

"Our goal is to add 'life cycle' housing to Clover Field; that is, housing for single individuals, couples, and families with children -- and anyone who finds themselves moving through those cycles while living here. We will maintain the quality of the housing; it will fit into the community very well."


In Clover Ridge, Chaska communicates its dedication to creating a traditional neighborhood with more housing options -- at more price points -- for area residents and newcomers. Currently 75 percent complete, Clover Ridge should be built out by May 2007.

Yet even with all its successes, Ringwald is realistic about the experience. "We know some of our processes and product are not perfect," he says. "We should have built some or most of the town center first, so people could see why they were giving up something in lot size.

"We understand more now about getting the details right, such as build-to lines for the houses. And there were grading issues that caused some house-to-grade relationships to be less than optimal."

These and other lessons are already being brought to bear in the planning of Chaska's next TND, The Heights of Chaska, which at 4,000 units will be four times the size of Clover Ridge. Master planned by Calthorpe Associates, The Heights project is scheduled to break ground in 2006, undoubtedly driven by the same philosophy that grew Clover Ridge from empty farmland: the creation and implementation of a vision.