As developers have moved in recent years to convert some of the boardrooms in St. Paul’s historic downtown office high-rises into bedrooms in new residential units, some at City Hall have called for caution.
Their cause for concern?
“We don’t want St. Paul to become a bedroom community,” Ward 2 City Council member Rebecca Noecker told the Star Tribune in 2016.
The insinuation seemed to be that if the balance of development downtown tipped too far into the realm of the residential, people who lived in the rehabbed office buildings would have nowhere to work and shop and have fun, and then, they wouldn’t stick around.
The idea that development could turn St. Paul into a “bedroom community” gets to the heart of the debate over what a desirable place to live looks like: Should it be a place where people both live and work? Or should it be a place where people sleep, only to commute to their jobs elsewhere?
Birth of the bedroom community
When people use the term “bedroom community” they're usually referring to places where people live, but don’t really work, said Christopher Niedt, a professor of sociology and the academic director of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies.
In this era of new urbanism — an urban planning concept that attempts to create spaces to both live and work in denser, more walkable communities — that many cities, even suburbs these days, subscribe to, the term bedroom community now can sound sort of pejorative.
And though the term is loosely defined, St. Paul is pretty far from being a bedroom community. The city gains far more workers from other cities each day than it loses to them, according to data on where people live and where they work from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The most recent data available is from 2009 through 2013. The survey asks respondents where they primarily worked the week prior, so while it's a good measure of commuter flows, it's not perfect.
Bedroom communities tend to be thought of as the tract-home suburbs that coincided with the rise of the automobile and the GI Bill.
“Once the automobile was introduced, that allowed developers like the Levitts, famously (who built Levittowns, the iconic postwar American suburbs), to build these working-class, middle-class suburbs outside of the city,” Niedt said: When people could drive to work, they could live farther away from their jobs.
“You had this stereotypical image of bedroom suburbs — (where) people lived and built their family lives and the breadwinners of these, again, stereotypically nuclear families would travel into the city for work,” Niedt said.
Where the bedroom communities aren’t
But then, and even more so now, Niedt said, that was an oversimplification of suburbs.
More and more, even in some places that people might think of as suburban bedroom communities, people who live there aren’t necessarily commuting to the city for work; they’re commuting to other suburbs, Niedt said.
Over time, as companies have looked for room to grow, more of them have moved out to the ’burbs, which may explain why Twin Cities suburbs like Bloomington, home to the Toro Company and Holiday Stationstores corporate headquarters, and Golden Valley, home to General Mills and Allianz Life, gain far more commuters from other cities than they lose.
You might think of places like tony Wayzata, known for multimillion-dollar mansions on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, as bedroom suburbs, but it, too, gains significantly more commuters than it loses to other cities.
Today, the term bedroom community is often associated with exurban communities rather than with inner-ring suburbs.
But if a bedroom community is a place where people live and don’t necessarily work, they could be anywhere.
“What, to me, defines a bedroom suburb is that the jobs aren’t there. The housing is there but the jobs are not,” Niedt said.
“Stereotypically, they have a lot of residential development, but far less commercial and industrial and mixed-use land uses,” Niedt said, which can present challenges, as homeowners bear the brunt of the property tax burden, he said.
Where the bedroom communities are
Several of the Twin Cities’ northern suburbs, including Brooklyn Park, Crystal and Champlin, see more people commute out, the data show, than in, which isn’t a hard, fast definition of a bedroom community, but gives us a sense of where more people live than work.
Note that this analysis doesn’t take into account the length of commutes. In some cases, while a person may work in a different community from the one they live in, they might not be traveling far.
The numbers don’t surprise Jeff Kolb, Crystal’s Ward 2 City Council member, just north of Minneapolis. If you look at a land use map of Crystal, northwest of Minneapolis, he says, it’s largely residential, with an airport, one main commercial area, and a few light industrial areas and office buildings, he wrote in an email.
“I don’t have the numbers handy, but if you compare New Hope (next door and almost exactly our same size) there should be a noticeable difference in our percentage of land use,” he said. While Crystal sees a net loss of about 6,900 commuters, the data show, New Hope gains about 1,240.
With proximity to jobs in Minneapolis, Plymouth and Maple Grove, Crystal is a very convenient place to live for many. And for many, Kolb wrote, Crystal is in the “goldilocks zone” — “not too suburban (our streets intersect at right angles) but not too urban (you still get a backyard and a garage).” Furthermore, he wrote, the city has retained a small town feel despite its proximity to the big city and easy access to major thoroughfares.
Sleeping in the exurbs, working elsewhere
Today, many bedroom communities are located in the exurbs, where a large share of the resident population commutes into the cities or larger suburbs for work.
These are places like Carver, in Carver County, a historic exurban town of about 4,600 on the Minnesota River that’s seen population growth in recent years. It has a lovely main street, but not a lot of its residents work there.
Carver sees a net loss of about 1,660 commuters each day, largely to nearby Chaska, Shakopee, Minneapolis, Eden Prairie and Bloomington, the Census survey data show.
Elko New Market, on the southern fringe of Scott County, would also likely make a list of Twin Cities bedroom communities.
This town of about 4,600, 30-or-so miles south of Minneapolis and home to Minnesota’s only NASCAR track, saw a net loss of about 1,950 commuters. Most Elko New Market commuters head to south and western Twin Cities suburbs like Bloomington, Burnsville, Lakeville, Shakopee and Savage, the data show.
On the banks of the St. Croix River in Washington County, more of Lake St. Croix Beach’s 1,100 residents leave for work than the city attracts, the data show: The city sees a net loss of 520 workers, and many residents commute to work in St. Paul, Woodbury, Stillwater, Minneapolis and Bayport, the data show.
Some of these exurban communities have seen rapid population growth in recent years, suggesting that while St. Paul isn’t looking to become a bedroom community, the idea of living in a largely residential city isn’t distasteful to everyone.
Correction: This article previously incorrectly identified the location of Cargill's corporate headquarters. It is located in Minnetonka.