Cottage Grove: Suburban edge where urban meets farmland and open space

Date: Monday, July 17, 2017

Bordering the Mississippi River in southern Washington County, Cottage Grove is a community where “city” meets “nature.


Location – Southern Washington County
Population –35,939*
Households – 12,169*
Jobs – 7,964*
Top employers – School District 833,
3M Cottage Grove, Up North Plastics, Renewal by Andersen
Notable features – 39 miles of shoreline and bluffs on Mississippi River, plus  several islands in the river itself
Regional Parks – Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park
Major highways – Northwest-southeast: Hwy. 61, North-south: Hwy. 95
Transit – Express service to downtown Saint Paul (Route 361) and downtown Minneapolis (Route 365)
*Metropolitan Council 2016 estimates

Residential neighborhoods, dozens of parks, and major commercial and industrial activity reinforce its suburban character. At the same time, the city features wide expanses of natural open space.

More than half the city’s land area is undeveloped or in active agriculture. It can lay claim to more shoreline along the Mississippi River than any other city in Minnesota. And courtesy of glaciers millennia ago, torrents of water under tons of ice carved out a ravine half a mile wide with slopes up to 100 feet high, forming the main attraction of the 500-acre Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park.

Pioneer settlements in Cottage Grove date from the mid-1800s, when immigrants from New England started farms and built stores to serve them. For more than a century, Cottage Grove remained a rural township, but in the late 1950s, suburban housing developments arrived, boosting the population from a diminutive 800 in 1950 to more than 13,000 by 1970.

Incorporated as a village in 1965, Cottage Grove officially became a city in 1974. Today, it’s home to nearly 36,000 residents, and over the next 20-plus years, the population of Cottage Grove is expected to grow by another 11,000.

Planning for the city’s future

A new affordable housing development for people ages 55 and over is under construction near Hwy. 61.To meet the challenge of growth, the city is now in the process of planning for the community’s future to the year 2040. As part of the effort, the city reached out to its residents to help set general directions for the plan.

“We wanted to hear from our residents about what they value about their community and what they want for their community in the future,” said Jennifer Levitt, Community Development Director and City Engineer.

Using Facebook Live to draw community input

A family plays at Cedarhurst Meadows Park in Cottage Grove’s new East Ridgewoods development.In drawing residents into the effort, the city went beyond the traditional format of surveys or town hall meetings. “We held Facebook Live sessions in the evening so we could reach more people who wanted to express their opinions and aspirations for the community,” she said. “People could jump in and comment live, and respond to comments of previous speakers.” 

One sentiment emerging from the outreach activities was ensuring that Cottage Grove was well-positioned to deal with future growth. “Meeting that challenge is much like three legs of stool,” said Levitt. “One is expanding housing opportunities for people at all stages of life. Another is increasing retail and related commercial activity, and the third is expanding our business parks to spur business activity and increase jobs in our community.”

Making Cottage Grove a recreation destination

The city has abundant parks and natural areas. Shown here is a channel of the Mississippi River and, on the far shore, the city’s Mississippi Dunes Golf Links.From residents’ feedback, another theme came to the fore – to take advantage of the city’s natural land and water resources in ways that can make Cottage Grove a recreation destination. The city has 39 miles of shoreline and bluffs, and in 2015 it acquired a three-acre island that occupies a short reach of the Mississippi River.

Between the bluffs and Lower Grey Cloud Island lies a narrow stretch of water that could comfortably accommodate kayaks and canoes. Then, overlooking the river is the Grey Cloud Sand Dunes Scientific and Natural Area, a dry prairie remaining from an ancient glacial river. “The Mississippi River is huge for us,” said Levitt. “The question is, how do we enable people to enjoy and explore the wide variety of opportunities for nature-based recreation that they offer?”

Looking at the trail and sidewalk network to promote active living

The city is pursuing other directions as well. “One of our big topic areas is transit opportunities, she said. “Another is community resilience and sustainability, and looking at how the parts of our plan can contribute to healthy, active living. For example, we’re looking at our trail and sidewalk network to see how people could walk or bike to the grocery store and other retail services.”

Cottage Grove residents recognize the need to grow, said Levitt, and because they have pride in their community, they want to be thoughtful and make sure it maintains its unique character. “They’ve told us that Cottage Grove is full of potential, that it’s on the cusp of being an exceptional place to live. So when we’re looking ahead, that’s what we’re striving to accomplish.”

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Posted In: Communities, Planning

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