One hundred and fifty years ago, Ramsey was the fur-trading center of Minnesota. But because of a modern-era no-growth policy on the part of the town fathers, the 30-square-mile city cradled by the Mississippi and Rum Rivers northwest of the Twin Cities has all but been ignored by progress.

"A stoplight amid RV dealerships along busy Highway 10" is how the Minneapolis Star Tribune, in a recent article, described the place travelers find about halfway between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. Ramsey's city administrator Jim Norman told the paper that for years the town "has been the poster child for urban sprawl," a place where people bought land for inexpensive starter homes.

As a result, the lion's share of the growth that occurred in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area's northern tier in recent years has leapfrogged over and around Ramsey, leaving the town's 18,500 inhabitants starved for shopping, convenience, and local employment in a town with no center.

But when the city was designated as one of six "Smart Growth Opportunity" sites by Minnesota's Metropolitan Council, the good folks of Ramsey rose up and seized the chance to take an active role in shaping their town's future. Residents formed the "Citizens of Ramsey Town Center Design" and went door-to-door to obtain 1,600 signatures in support of a new town center, while still preserving the community's rural flavor. And on Nov. 6, 2001, with 61 percent in favor, they voted to move ahead with the idea.

Now, nearly two years later, ground is about to be broken on the new 322-acre Ramsey Town Center, a mixed-use, master planned community valued at some $1 billion at completion.

"It was the recognition that the American Dream -- often symbolized by an expansive home on a large suburban lot -- comes with a steep price tag," says Bob Close, founder of Close Landscape Architecture in St. Paul and one of the lead master planners for the town center, of the groundswell of public support. "Instead of the promised rural neighborhood set in a soft green landscape, many people were experiencing long commutes on severely congested freeways, the rapid disappearance of the surrounding countryside that attracted them to their new homes, wide placeless streets lined with garages and no sidewalks, and seemingly endless commutes from home to school, the grocery store, church, and even parks."

While the entirely new community will offer a variety of shop, work, and play options, including neighborhood-oriented retail, medical services, schools, daycare, and a business campus, housing will be at its core. Housing, in fact, will occupy 160 of the 322 acres. And not just housing, either, but all kinds of housing.

Density by Design

Based on the desires of the people and their elected officials, the 2,400 units will include zero lot-line houses, villas, townhouses, condos (some two-story, some with lofts to add "verticality"), apartments, and senior housing. In fact, it will include practically everything but single-family houses on large lots.

Varied Value: Ramsey Town Center in Ramsey, Minn., is a mixed-use, master planned community valued at $1 billion at completion. Courtesy Ramsey Town Center LLC "The whole idea is density," explains John Feges, who prefers the title of "community builder" over that of developer because it is more indicative of the how closely he and partner Bruce Nedegaard, an NAHB life director, are working "in a collaborative role" with the city to bring its vision to fruition. Nedegaard Custom Homes, founded 32 years ago, was the first builder to participate with the NAHB Research Center to define quality standards for builders and has won numerous quality awards through the years.

Feges, who acquired the property while working for Elness Swenson Graham Architects, the other lead planner on the project, says the goal "all along has been to urbanize." Noting that 96 percent of Anoka County's housing stock is single-family houses, he says the need now is to offer options to residents in all their life stages. "Density drives not only the social component and the urban feel [of the new town center] but also the tax dollars coming back to the community. And that, in turn, helps create the subsidies we need to attract retail [businesses]," he adds.

"Young people are looking for a more socially expanded experience than is available in our sprawling communities, and older people are more congregate, too. They want to move horizontally, not up and out," says the community builder.

Mirroring the price range of other houses being sold in the region, 10 percent to 15 percent of the town center homes will be priced at $150,000 or less, while about 5 percent will be at $400,000 or more. The remainder will fall somewhere in between.

Density Demand: At Ramsey Town Center, 160 of the 322 acres will be occupied by all types of housing, except single-family homes on large lots. Courtesy Ramsey Town Center LLC To achieve that, Ramsey Town Center LLC created a Builder's Guild for the Ramsey Town Center project that included Nedegaard Custom Homes. And at press time, the group was expected to announce the selection of Arappco, Cambridge, Continental, Dietz-Crane, Dobson, Emerald, Melody, Milburn, Schuler, SGS, Stafford, Torrey, Trimark, and Western Pacific -- all of which are part of the D.R. Horton family of Minnesota Builders -- as additional builders responsible for 900 new multifamily homes within the town center.

Rich Mix

The developer promises that Ramsey Town Center will not be what he calls "a monochromatic sea of taupe." It will have "design character," he says. "It will be an eclectic town, a true city that looks as though it evolved over time."

The first phase of construction will begin in a matter of weeks and will reflect a range of popular home designs, including:

  • Coach Homes -- offering 1,500-plus square feet of main floor living space geared to the active adult population;
  • Twin Homes -- similar to Coach Homes but with higher ceilings, additional living area, and more interior amenities;
  • Village Row Townhouses -- a two-story tuck-under garage town home with full front and rear window elevations and 1,680 square feet of living area;
  • Villa Homes -- a two-story, tuck-under garage condominium with front and side yard window elevations with vaulted entries, clerestory windows, and other interior amenities not typically found in affordably priced homes.

The home plans will be built in various groupings from two to 12 units. Buyers will have the opportunity to purchase homes with partial basements on up to full walkout basements.
Unlike other new town centers, it won't be developed over time, at least not a good portion of it. Work on about half the houses and 30 percent of the retail will get under way simultaneously, according to Feges. Starting construction at the same time will eliminate the "pioneering stage" that is typical of other large-scale projects. And a significant portion of the build-out is expected to be completed in three to five years.

What began as a "Smart Growth Opportunity" site may well turn out to be a smart growth reality site.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN.