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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Sen. McKnight’s dream of rational suburban development was not to be

Courtesy of Carver County Historical Society/Minnesota Historical Society
An artist’s rendering of Jonathan Village, late 1960s or early 1970s.

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of rapid suburban growth. City planners in these decades were frustrated with the growing problems of pollution, traffic, and creating new neighborhoods as cities spread. One solution to this idea was the “new town” movement. Designed as planned communities, these “towns” tried to organize the design and growth of the town in advance to better deal with urban sprawl. The community of Jonathan, located within the existing city of Chaska, was built along these concepts.

The idea of a “new town,” designed to meet the needs of the people living there, has been around for centuries in military and trade towns. The idea did not really catch hold until an Englishman named Sir Ebenezer Howard suggested “garden cities” within the area of London in 1898. “New towns” were planned in Finland, England, Scotland and the United States.

One of the first to be built in the United States was Jonathan. Jonathan was the dream of former Minnesota state Senator Henry T. McKnight. He was known for supporting bills and acts protecting natural resources. On April 29, 1966, McKnight joined with other individuals to form the Ace Development Corporation. Ace grew into the Jonathan Development Corporation in 1967, taking the name from Jonathan Carver, the eighteenth century explorer. This self-contained town was built on eight thousand acres of woods, lakes and farmlands within Chaska city limits. Hazeltine Golf Course and the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum border it.

Planned as a town within a town, Jonathan in Chaska was meant to be built over a period of twenty years. Plans included the growth of population, industry, housing and recreation. Thinking for the long-term allowed the city to save time in future construction. It also helped protect the surrounding natural environment while allowing residents to be closer to it. Initial development plans left one-fifth of the land open for future development.

Though within Chaska city limits, Jonathan was more than just a neighborhood. Designed to grow into a series of five villages, each with schools, churches, recreation areas and more, Jonathan was unique. This “town” has a city center with offices, stores and restaurants. Housing was offered as apartments, townhomes, or houses. Jonathan fell under the jurisdiction of both the city of Chaska and the Jonathan Development Corporation.

By October 1967, most of the land had been acquired. Community plans were made public. Construction began that same year. In October 1970, Jonathan became the first large-scale development to gain federal aid under Title IV of the New Communities Act, part of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. This act provided a loan guarantee for up to $21 million, allowing developers and builders to increase the speed of construction.

Jonathan did not become the “town” it was expected to be. A recession and loss of interest in planned communities in the early 1970s slowed growth. With the death of Henry McKnight in 1972 the driving force behind planning and development was lost. Rezoning removed industrial and commercial shopping areas, leaving behind only homes. Development was also halted by the corporation running short of funds, partially due to a stop in federal housing funding in 1976. Jonathan remains within Chaska’s jurisdiction, but is governed by the Jonathan Association as well. No longer considered a “town” within a town, Jonathan is unique, and remains true to McKnight’s dream of having more parks, wooded areas, ponds and walking paths than most neighborhoods, keeping it closer to the natural world.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Christopher Williams on 12/03/2013 - 09:14 am.

    Good Timing

    There was just a PBS special on this, on one of TPT’s off channels (whatever the Minnesota HD channel is, 2.3 or whatever). Very interesting. If you liked the article, search out the TPT episode!

  2. Submitted by Elizabeth Lincoln on 12/03/2013 - 09:56 am.

    state legislator

    Henry T. McKnight was a Minnesota state senator rather than a United States senator. Further biographical information about Sen. McKnight is available here: http://www.leg.state.mn.us/legdb/fulldetail.aspx?ID=13814

  3. Submitted by Molly Huber on 12/03/2013 - 10:41 am.

    Senator McKnight

    Thank you for the correction! The correct information about McKnight’s government service now appears in the Jonathan article on mnopedia.org.

  4. Submitted by Jim Young on 12/03/2013 - 01:57 pm.

    I got the Johnathan “pitch” way back when

    I remember going out to Johnathan and listening to them pitch their ideas back around 1970. It was a bold attempt to build more than just “a few houses in a subdivision” like most developers did. I liked the idea but didn’t want to live there which, in retrospect, maybe was their problem.

    One particular thing that I remember them mentioning was the possible transit corridor all the way from near there to downtown Minneapolis following the old railroad right of way which I think is the same corridor we’re now planning on for the SW light rail line. Talk about being ahead of their time! Too bad, though not terribly surprising, that they couldn’t make it go. Had it worked, it might have made a real impact.

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