They hailed it in 1970 as a “New Town” planned community, a $200 million development that would eventually put 15,000 additional residents in Eden Prairie amid a unique blend of housing, shopping, and natural areas.
The Preserve neighborhood didn’t turn out exactly as planned. And yet, as the homeowners association that has paralleled it turns 50 years old this week, it’s clear that The Preserve of southeastern Eden Prairie is still unique in a lot of ways.
At nearly 1,700 homes instead of the original vision of 4,400, it’s still among Eden Prairie’s biggest neighborhoods. Its mix of housing – one-third single-family homes, one-third apartments, and one-third townhomes and condominiums – achieved that “something for everyone” goal in the original plans. And, the overarching homeowners association set up to manage and maintain The Preserve’s amenities stands out as one of the more successful homeowner groups of its kind, with the financial wherewithal to keep its trails, tennis courts, community center, and unique sand-bottom pool in great shape for years to come, without city assistance.
On Tuesday, July 19, The Preserve Association kicks off nearly a week’s worth of events meant to celebrate its 50th birthday, the development’s lofty aims, and the amenity-rich neighborhood it came to be.
It’s a celebration that Scott Anderson, general manager of The Preserve Association, hopes will attract not only the immediate neighbors but also others in Eden Prairie who wish to learn about and commemorate The Preserve’s unique history.
The organizers are feeling a little like the Kevin Costner character in the movie “Field of Dreams,” he says. “We’ve built it, and now we hope they come,” Anderson quipped.
FROM FARMS TO NEIGHBORHOODS
The Ralph and Stanley Nesbitt families had been approached before by developers interested in buying their 300-acre farm, as it became clear that Twin Cities suburban development would continue its inexorable march southwestward, past Edina and Bloomington.
The descendants of Eden Prairie pioneers Ralph and Stan had sold their family dairy operation in 1963, but still had beef cattle as well as corn and hay crops when they were approached by a pair of developers with a plan that was decidedly different.
That idea was to develop farmland into suburban neighborhoods, but respect the contours of the land and preserve its woods and waters. That appealed to Ralph and Stan and their families, says Ralph’s daughter Merrianne Nesbitt, who graduated from Eden Prairie High School, the class of 1972.
They were proud of their heritage and protective of the land, accustomed to giving tours to foreign visitors because of the Nesbitts’ connections to 4-H and the Minnesota Extension Service. And, proud not just about the family’s farming roots, but what came before, says Merrianne, including the nearby Native American trail that connected the Shakopee area with the Anderson Lakes in Eden Prairie and Bloomington.
Developers John Gertz and George Carter, of Carter & Gertz, Inc. aspired to join the Nesbitt farm with other properties to create The Preserve, something different from and better than the typical suburban development. Some of that was a variety of housing types, but probably more important was integrating open space and nature into the various neighborhoods.
The principle was expressed in lofty terms. Above all, stated a planning document created by the developers, “… the planning of The Preserve means a recognition of the individuality of man and the nearness of nature. It is consistent that at the same time as The Preserve honors the existing natural environment it will honor man and his needs.”
THE VISION AND THE REALITY
The Preserve would be the first large-scale development by Carter & Gertz, and it would be a product of their interest in what was called the “New Town” development concept, which brought together residential, commercial, educational, and recreational planning, with a heavy emphasis on preserving the natural environment.
They had viewed the New Town concept in practice during a tour of communities near London, England, but also in Finland and Russia. “They were pretty enthusiastic about the things they had seen,” John Gertz’s son, also named John, recently recalled.
Their first Eden Prairie land purchase, in 1971, included the farmland owned by Ralph and Stan Nesbitt. “Both my dad and George visited the area early on and saw great potential in the rolling hills, forested area, open space, and Anderson Lake,” noted John. “Foremost in their planning was to ‘Preserve’ the natural beauty of the area and utilize it to their advantage. Also, the proximity to the Twin Cities made it very attractive.”
Carter & Gertz also purchased the former Frank and Lois Griswold farm to the south – at the time owned by Charlie Saunders, of Charlie’s Cafe fame – to get The Preserve off the drawing board and into formal plans presented to the City of Eden Prairie for approvals.
Initial approvals were won, the development’s homeowners association was launched with great fanfare – U.S. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey attended – and work got underway. But, obstacles were ahead.
The land and development costs were high, so Carter & Gertz brought in the Minneapolis Gas Co. – soon to be known as Minnegasco – as a capital investor. City officials put their own limits on the plan, and the recession of the late-1970s and early-1980s had a major impact on the project, according to John Gertz.
The high interest rates of the early 1980s “were insane. And it killed them,“ John recalled. “That made their future plans go up in smoke, really.”
“They did manage to emerge from it, but there were losses too,” he noted. “Certain projects were dropped or scaled back, and the City of Eden Prairie, as I recall hearing, was not entirely on board with the full-scale New Town concept. I remember the planning firm working with Carter & Gertz (Hodne Stageberg Partners) was very upset and thought it was an opportunity lost. I think the city just didn’t like such a departure from the more typical suburban planned-unit development so commonly approved.”
SPECIAL IN MANY WAYS
And yet, the core concepts of The Preserve persevered.
“The Preserve today is very close to what was planned,” John Gertz stated in an email. “Things unique to The Preserve, especially for the time, are the pedestrian pathways, sand-bottom swimming pool, restoration of Neill Lake, animal-friendly corridors (primarily deer), and tree and open space preservation. It was intentional and very much a part of New Town planning to create a pedestrian-friendly community. The Preserve aimed to create that community, and with some limits imposed by the city and a tough recession came very close.
“My dad and George were proud of what they did accomplish, and as for my opinion, I see in today’s development planning so many of the concepts utilized in Preserve planning now just common practice. I guess The Preserve was 50 years ahead of the times, at least in our part of the world.”
Indeed, The Preserve would come to have at least a small influence on subsequent development in Eden Prairie. It was the community’s largest planned-unit development, an approach used by cities to provide zoning flexibility to attain certain development goals, without changing zoning requirements already in place.
“I think it could be argued that the success of The Preserve and the city’s subsequent widespread use of PUD zoning did influence the balance of development in Eden Prairie,” said David Lindahl, the city’s economic development manager.
The homeowners association has come to be one of The Preserve’s other success stories. Carol Bomben, who has spent 16 years on the association board and was its general manager for about six years, credits early, wise decisions for that solid reputation, including a decision to create a reserve fund to cover future improvements and maintenance.
For example, says current General Manager Anderson, if the 47-year-old rubber liner that is integral to the sand-bottom pool were to fail tomorrow and the association faced a bill of hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair or replace the liner, “we have the money to make that happen.”
Fifty years after The Preserve’s beginnings, its connections to earlier days endure. There is Nesbitt Park, for example. The word “Franlo” in Franlo Road is a mash-up of Frank and Lois Griswold’s first names.
Merrianne Nesbitt, who has lived in four homes in The Preserve, says she treasures the area. “It stands as a strong example of, ‘This is the future,’” she says.
And, she adds that her late father was happy with how it turned out, too.
“He was very proud of the beauty of it.”
(Two sources for this story, Carol Bomben and David Lindahl, are members of the board of directors for Eden Prairie Local News.)
Celebrate The Preserve’s 50th
Here are activities that have been scheduled to celebrate The Preserve Association’s 50th anniversary, many of which are detailed in the EPLN calendar of events:
● Tuesday, July 19, 5 p.m. – Garden Tour
● Wednesday, July 20, 5 p.m. – Celebration Kick-Off with Special Guests
● Thursday, July 21, 6:30 p.m. – Summer Cooking Demonstration with Chef Royal
● Friday, July 22, 5-9 p.m. – Bingo
● Saturday, July 23, various times – Extravaganza, including a 5K run, pickleball tournament, kids bike parade, face painting, petting zoo, food trucks, street dance, and more
● Sunday, July 24 – Beach Blast (guests free with Preserve members), with sand-sculpting competition at 9 a.m., pool time starting at 11 a.m., a swim and dive contest at 2 p.m., and various other activities from noon to 5 p.m.