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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.

For a few years in the late sixties, Jonathan, Minnesota was the city of the future

photo of jonathan center building
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Jonathan had a city center with offices, stores, and restaurants.

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of rapid suburban growth. City planners were frustrated by the growing pollution, traffic, urban sprawl. One solution to these problems was the “new town” movement. Designed as planned communities, these “towns” were intended to control population growth in a systematic way. The community of Jonathan, located within the existing city of Chaska, was built according to this concept.

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 “new towns” to be built in the United States was Jonathan. It was the dream of former Minnesota state Senator Henry T. McKnight, who was known for supporting bills and acts that protected 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 its name from Jonathan Carver, the eighteenth century explorer. This self-contained town was built on 8,000 acres of woods, lakes, and farmlands within Chaska city limits. Hazeltine Golf Course and the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum border it.

Designed as a town within a town, Jonathan was meant to be built over a period of twenty years. Designers set out to regulate the growth of population, industry, housing, and recreation. Long-term planning 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 it was 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” had a city center with offices, stores, and restaurants. Housing was offered as apartments, town homes, 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, and 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 speed up 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. When the corporation ran short of funds, partially due to federal housing funding cutbacks in 1976, it halted development. In 2016, Jonathan remains within Chaska’s jurisdiction but is governed by both that city and by the Jonathan Association. No longer considered a “town” within a town, Jonathan is unique, and remains true to McKnight’s dream of creating a community with 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.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Tom Clarke on 04/29/2019 - 10:42 am.

    I don’t think that Jonathan was originally part of the City of Chaska,but began its development as part of a nearby rural township on fatmland purchased for that purpose. Only later was it annexed into t.he City of Chaska. See wiki article excerpt below.
    from wiki: History
    A large single town center was envisioned to straddle the railway between McKnight Lake and Jonathan Lake, and have shops, businesses and higher density housing.[2] Surrounding the center were to have been smaller villages.[2] It was expected to have a total population of 50,000 by the 1980s.[2]

    In 1970, Jonathan became the first new town in the United States to receive a guarantee of financial assistance from federal government as part of Title IV of the Housing and Urban Development act of 1968.[3][4]

    In 1971, Jonathan hosted the very first Minnesota Renaissance Festival, then known as “A Celebration of Nature, Art, and Life!” It would later move to nearby Shakopee, and grow into the largest Renaissance Fair in the nation. [5]

    The development corporation folded in 1979, and Jonathan was annexed by the city of Chaska.

    Between 2005 and 2007, a majority of the Jonathan Association Board of Directors supported an effort to break up the homeowner Association by allowing some neighborhoods to leave.[1] In October 2007, the majority of the board members voted to go to court for a declaratory judgment as to whether or not neighborhoods brought into the association after the 1979 demise of the Jonathan Development Corporation were annexed properly.[6] In February 2008, six (6) of the nine seated board members, all of which supported seeking a declaratory judgement were voted out of office at the Association’s Annual Meeting.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 04/29/2019 - 11:37 am.

    Henry T. McKnight also stepped in to help Keith Heller and Gloria Segal with the first stage–then known as Cedar Square West–of their massive redevelopment project in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. Thus the tallest building, unlike any of the others in that extraordinarily dense housing complex, got a name: McKnight Tower, also known as “M” building.

    The project also had a visionary aspect as a “New Town in Town,” a place where, in theory, all different types of people could live. But it was never designed for families, especially not for medium size or large families. Later, after repossession by the federal government and in a highly irregular sale to two of the city’s inside track developers, it was turned into mostly subsidized housing as a condition demanded by the buyers. It got renamed Riverside Plaza and became largely occupied by families. I’ve seen apartments there full of wall to wall mattresses. In connection with a relatively recent repair of its infrastructure, Sherman Associates managed to obtain extra financing through obtaining historic preservation status which I think highly inappropriate.

    That early Renaissance Fair to which Tom Clarke refers was started by two young men with money from one’s parents. They advertised it as a charitable enterprise although it was actually a profit-seeking enterprise. At the time I was active in a group that pressured the founders into presenting their business in a more honest and straightforward manner.

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