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Kyle Johnson admits that his first glimpse of the Jackson Meadow development in Marine on St. Croix was a skeptical one. It was too perfect, a Stepford Wives-style project.

"It was like, 'No way, this is freaky!' " he said.

Johnson lives in one of the Instagrammable subdivisions with first-class architecture that sprang to life beginning in the 1990s. Not all of them worked as well as planned, and many who moved there even came to despise such planner-driven brainstorms as communal mailboxes, designed to get residents to mingle but hard to reach during blizzards. Many remain studded with empty lots.

But academics and environmentalists say those experiments in planning encouraged developers to approach conventional subdivisions differently — seeking to build a community first, rather than just too-wide streets and four-shades-of-taupe homes.

Developments such as Fields of St. Croix in Lake Elmo, Mayo Woodlands outside Rochester and Wild Meadows in Medina sought to counter the biggest complaints about sprawl by stressing great design, communal features and vast stretches of protected nature.

Jackson Meadow is more intriguing than most because it's one of the weirdest. A series of YouTube videos of the place, suggesting it was the home of some suspicious cult, once created so much drive-through traffic that police were called. " 'Oh, you live there. The crazies!' " Johnson said he has heard.

But seven years after moving there, Johnson finds his home in catalog photos by the likes of Smith & Hawken, the gardening lifestyle brand. Art directors tell him it's amazing to find a hip feel more common on the West Coast in this little slice of Washington County.

"We probably have more conservation developments around the Twin Cities than anywhere in the country," said Kris Larson, executive director of the Minnesota Land Trust, which midwifed a lot of them. "The big bell curve was from 2002 to 2007," with his agency alone overseeing more than 30 statewide.

'Rancor in the Grass'

Jackson Meadow is a coolly Scandinavian collection of seemingly identical stark white-on-white architectural creations spread across a plain above Marine's village center, near miles of public trails.

Its homes are clustered on just 40 of 300 acres, leaving wide vistas to enjoy; for those with massive windows, the meadow and woods supplant interior decor. Anne Kane, White Bear Lake's top planner, said she wouldn't mind creating a "small-concept Jackson Meadow right here in town."

Fields of St. Croix set aside two-thirds of its hundreds of acres for ecologically restored open space. It did well enough that developer Bob Engstrom recently created a sibling nearby called Wildflower, with 60 acres of nature preserve.

But Mayo Woodlands was the subject of a 2004 New York Times takedown headlined "Rancor in the Grass." The project, created by the same design team as Jackson Meadow, was sold off and became much more conventional.

"Mayo was even more radical than Jackson Meadow," said Tom Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota. "It was really totally blurring boundaries of where your property ended and someone else's began.

"It was brilliant and won all kinds of national attention, but it may have gone a little too far" for a city like Rochester.

The communal mailbox type of thinking has faded since, Fisher said.

"You can't force 'community,' " he said. "You have to provide opportunities for it to happen more organically."

Many believe that the mold-breaking of the '90s ultimately influenced more conventional developments to approach things differently.

A 520-acre development in Lakeville featuring a historic barn as community center was described as a shift "from ordinary suburbs that isolated neighbors to a new community that brought them together."

Ads today for Provence on the River in Belle Plaine, with 15 acres of parks and open space, speak of its being "thoughtfully laid out" — a hip check to the image of bulldozers grubbing up magnificent oak trees to create a subdivision with shivering saplings.

A sense of community

For all the critiques of experimental subdivisions, they did create a powerful sense of community among folks seeking the same road less traveled, said Bill Smitten, who lives at Jackson Meadow and markets lots there.

That's not the case, he feels, in suburbs like Woodbury, which seek to reverse-engineer a sense of community after surveys showed that few residents feel connected.

"Woodbury's problem was an initial failure to create any sort of walkable Main Street as a town center, as we have in Marine," Smitten said. "Woodbury is four-lane arterials where it's stoplight, stoplight, stoplight, Kowalski's, stoplight, stoplight, stoplight, home." At Jackson Meadow, he said, "I know everyone."

A committee at Jackson Meadow makes sure every house stays white and has the same pitched roofline, to the point where Johnson jokes of "white homes, white cars — even white dogs, it's such a clean aesthetic."

On a recent day, Carol Teasdale, wife of original developer Harold Teasdale, emerged from a trail walk to report that while she once feared their marriage would end while painfully whacking out trail corridors, she now finds the area "blissful."

Smitten and his wife, Kristina, said they had pursued homes in both St. Paul and at Jackson Meadow, wanting community wherever it could be found. Now, he said, he crosses Manning Avenue on his way home and feels like he's "nearing the cabin." 651-925-5039