Your author has spent a good deal of time in Lakeville. My wife grew up there, and it’s where my in-laws still live. In fact, our family of four lived there for a summer in between selling and buying a house. My father-in-law runs a small business there, and I’ve even spent a number of days riding my bike alongside its mayor. For the first ten or so years of my time spent going to and from the city for requisite family functions, I’m not sure that we ever went further south than about 185th Street. It was a pretty standard affair; get off I-35, travel a couple of four lane collector roads into the subdivision, turn right at the third cul-de-sac, and then you’re there. The average walk score in an unscientific review of said neighborhood seems to be somewhere around 3. We’d order Green Mill or Pizza Ranch for delivery and that would be the extent of our time there.
A few years ago, I first attended Lakeville’s annual Pan-o-Prog, which is some combination of classic car rally and downtown block party. It was at that point that I realized there actually was a downtown Lakeville. There are probably varying definitions of what constitutes downtown, but on a map it could be loosely described as Holyoke Avenue between 205th and 210th Streets. The houses are much older, the streets almost all follow a grid pattern, and there are even traditional sidewalks on most of the streets. That said, beyond Babe’s, something of a Lakeville institution, there wasn’t much else to do or see as far as I could tell.
Then in close succession, two breweries both opened within sight of each other in 2015 and 2016 – one as an adaptive reuse of a hardware store and the other transforming Lakveille’s VFW into a brewpub. These additions to some of the existing small dining and retail independent businesses, began to turn this area into a destination not only for residents, but also for those that don’t live in the area. Now, you can truly spend the better part of a day shopping, running errands, and dining all within this 5 block area of the city. So why does this feel like a very different place than the part that I spent blithely going to and from for so many years?
As noted by Brent Toderian in this 2017 interview with Vox:
“The fact that you get pockets of urbanism out in the suburbs can be the result of a few things. One, sometimes these pockets are original urban places – traditional towns or villages that stood on their own, initially – that got gobbled up by sprawl. Andy they’ve become special places within those suburbs. I know so many suburban communities where, if you ask where the best place is, they will name those places, because they’re the places with scale, character, and walkability”
As has been well documented in various annual rankings of “best” or “growing” Twin Cities suburbs, Lakeville has been a mainstay in the top 10 places people want to live. As with many, but not all, of the places on these types of list, some combination of good schools and ample land to build new homes likely have much to do with it. But I’d venture that the appeal of also having some unique, local businesses to support may also be a small part of it as well, and something that differentiates the city from some other suburbs that don’t have a “downtown” or other organically created commercial district. Bloomington, Plymouth, Eagan, are a few that some to mind – not necessarily for a lack of trying – for example, the Penn-American district in Bloomington. However, when the majority of the community and land use starts with housing for those that commute elsewhere for work or entertainment, it’s hard to reverse engineer walkable areas into places that were designed around the automobile.
So what’s missing here? We have a city that families, particularly, young families are flocking to live in, and a great walkable downtown with many of the things that all people, not just urbanist Twitter, think are great community amenities. However, they seem like they are happening in parallel universes, mostly unconnected to one another. As it stands, it feels as if to access the hidden gem of Lakveille’s downtown requires even its residents to jump in the car and drive to it, no different than visiting from a neighboring town.
Looking forward, how might the city begin to bend the curve of its development and land use to connect these two seemingly disparate features of the same community? Three things come to mind:
The first and most obvious is to begin finding ways to better connect new and existing housing to the downtown area and to other commercial districts as well. From nearly any of the places where people live and say they want to live, it’s nearly impossible to get to this area without a car. It’s also a community that has both a concentration of kids and aging families, both of whom need transportation options beyond the car. Today, the ways to get to this desirable area of town are via 45 or 55 mph roads that are relics of the cornfields that once surrounded them. Yes, they have wide shoulders and at times have a single-side sidewalk, but it can still be a harrowing experience to walk, bike, or take any alternate form of transportation.
Secondly, as noted here almost four years ago, there is little to no public transportation service in Lakeville beyond commuter service at the far edges of town or in neighboring suburbs. While this may be just fine today for serving commuters to and from Minneapolis and St. Paul, it negates serving the city itself, especially for those that may want to age in place and not leave the community that they or their families grew up in. Given the generally low density of the city as a whole, this isn’t an easy thing to solve. While the proposal above is certainly something to aspire towards, something like Edina’s Clover Ride service could be an instructive starting point for trialing service within the community. Not just for purposes of accessing the entertainment of an area like downtown, but also to provide options for residents to access healthcare, shopping or other necessary services.
Lastly, as noted in Erick Ecklund’s Vision for the Dan Patch Corridor, the Dan Patch line runs directly through downtown Lakeville. Of course, as also noted in said article, the aforementioned mayor has already stated his opposition to any sort of passenger rail service in Lakeville. However, once the heady days of growth slow down from converting the remaining cornfields into housing, Lakeville will have to exist on its own merits and give people a reason to stay there as residents, and to attract people to the city for its amenities. As I referenced in a prior piece about the future of the public works site in Edina, much of the foundation is already there to make passenger rail successful as more than just commuter service. Imagine that people could come to Lakeville from other suburbs north or even from Northfield in the south to spend a day or evening exploring and experiencing the variety of businesses all concentrated in the downtown area. And to the prior point, providing alternative transportation options for residents who cannot or choose not to drive will only become more important. For example, here is a senior housing facility that’s directly between the rail line and Holoyoke Avenue – it has a walk score of 49 – not too bad for this location. But it has a transit score of 0 – so despite all of the good of the downtown area, its residents are still car-dependent beyond what’s within immediate walking distance.
Lakveille has its faults like nearly all 2nd and 3rd ring suburbs, some of which are by design, some of which are by happenstance. It also has a benefit and opportunity that not all of its neighboring communities have. While it may be tempting to rest of the success of the last few years in revitalizing its downtown area, there’s so much more that can be done to better integrate it with the rest of the city, and learn from the lessons of what has made it successful and apply those lessons to how new development and infrastructure is built. Thinking not just about what works today but what a desirable city looks like in the future is what will provide Lakeville the chance to continue to live up to its slogan as “Positioned to Thrive”.