And the winner is…South Overland Park.
That may not be a surprise. Of course it’s Overland Park.
It’s routinely recognized as a top suburb nationally, let alone locally.
Only this time, it’s just half of Overland Park.
You see, when The Kansas City Star embarked on this first-ever "Rating the ’Burbs" analysis, we split up Kansas City’s largest suburb into two halves, north and south, divided by Interstate 435. We did it because Overland Park is so much larger than any other Johnson County suburb, and the city’s two halves are two distinctly different communities in age and character.
But even with Overland Park cut in two, its southern half still ended up as the region’s No. 1 suburb.
Even without the benefits of North Overland Park’s retail corridors, its downtown charm and the metro area’s lowest property tax burden, South Overland Park still came out on top.
The Star compared 40 local suburbs in nearly two dozen quality-of-life measures, and South Overland Park finished in the top 10 in one-third of them. It had low crime rates and high school test scores, low commuting time and high housing growth.
Indeed, South Overland Park has a lot going for it. It’s just a couple of decades old, in development terms. It has newer schools, newer-built homes and smoothly paved streets, yet its trees have now grown up. Plus, there’s lots of space for golf courses and park trails and new restaurants.
"Everything’s fresh, everything’s clean, everything’s up to date in OP rather than KC anymore, and that attracts people," said Greg Musil, a longtime city councilman who was the first to be elected from south of I-435.
A quarter-century or so ago, Overland Park had a rare opportunity: Create a new suburban landscape from scratch. Johnson County’s growth was heading south and it finally leapt over I-435. What emerged became the blueprint for modern suburbia across Kansas City: reserving a roadway corridor just for office buildings, concentrating shopping centers around intersections instead of lining an entire street, and attracting miles of higher-end subdivisions to fill the shops and offices.
There were a few missteps in this process - notably, the side-effect of traffic congestion. Yet, South Overland Park has long since passed North Overland Park in population and prosperity.
At the heart of South Overland Park’s evolution is a building block that distinguishes it to this day: the sometimes controversial and often misunderstood cul-de-sac.
Dinner is over. It’s time to play. So on this weekday evening, the children at one end of Grandview Street in the Nottingham Forest South subdivision head out to their playground - the street.
The eight preschool and elementary-aged youngsters sit down for a game of duck-duck-goose. Right in the middle of the road. Amid the squeals and screams, their moms and dads sit together in folding chairs at the edge of a driveway, hardly watching, hardly concerned.
There are still some places where kids grow up like in the nostalgic good old days, where they can play together without their parents worrying where they are, what they’re doing or whether they’re safe. One of those places is the end of a suburban cul-de-sac.
The Miller, Hall and Barner families all ended up here as next-door neighbors through different twists of fate but similar yearnings for this life.
Martha and Mark Miller lived in Lenexa but were looking for a bigger house. Anne and Michael Hall moved to the region from Philadelphia, settled in Lawrence first but were afraid to let their children run after a ball in the street. Eric and Jennifer Barner lived elsewhere in southern Johnson County, but on a corner lot along a busy residential street.
Three families, three separate circumstances. But all desired one thing for their next home: to be on a cul-de-sac.
That’s pretty typical. Home buyers in general show a preference for them. The word cul-de-sac may mean "bottom of the bag" in French, but in America it stands for a wide, open, circular dead-end street that’s like an extension of the front lawn.
In a National Association of Realtors survey of recent home buyers last year, one-quarter of the respondents were willing to pay more for a cul-de-sac lot - a higher percentage than those willing to pay more to live near parks or schools. The California-based American Lives Inc. market research firm has asked home buyers for several years whether they preferred narrow streets on city blocks or cul-de-sacs feeding into wide thoroughfares. Cul-de-sacs consistently win by almost 2 to 1.
And South Overland Park is full of them. They web throughout 5-, 10- and 15-year-old subdivisions off Metcalf Avenue, Antioch Road and Switzer Road.
"This is what you get," Martha Miller, an investment fund sales manager, says one weekday evening, pointing to her two children in the duck-duck-goose game with the neighbors’ kids.
"There’s more security. You don’t see strange cars coming down the street," adds her husband, a foreman for an electric power contractor.
Indeed, cul-de-sacs offer safer streets, many studies have found, because traffic from outsiders is almost nonexistent. So children are more apt to go outside to play, according to research by Susan Handy of the University of California at Davis.
Plus, cul-de-sacs tend to encourage more social interaction and sense of community than traditional neighborhoods with a tic-tac-toe-like street grid. Neighbors mingle both in their front yards, around the cul-de-sac circle, and in their back yards, where homes are clustered around a common expanse of greenery. Cul-de-sacs, then, can end up functioning like mini small towns.
"Cul-de-sacs create much more of a social environment than regular residential streets," says Handy.
The neighbors at the end of Grandview Street certainly can relate. The Miller, Hall and Barner families didn’t know each other before buying their homes. As the families moved in one by one, they immediately bonded.
Most warm evenings, like this one, the adults bring out folding chairs to the edge of the cul-de-sac. They chat about the kids’ school. They compare jeeps and wristwatches. They speculate about who’s going to win on "The Apprentice."
"We don’t have a lot of time to socialize with a lot of people, so this is our socialization," says Michael Hall, a surgeon.
As the couples sit in their suburban serenity, however, signs of south Overland Park’s shortcomings are in plain view, too.
All the homes around the cul-de-sac are painted in similar shades of white and beige - they look a lot alike. The neighborhoods tend to be transient, with corporate managers moving in and out of town.
So South Overland Park residents don’t end up feeling very connected to their city - they don’t vote much in local elections, according to The Star’s analysis of suburban data.
Also, the community, being so new, is behind most other suburbs in building up its neighborhood services such as dry cleaners, sporting good stores and ice cream shops. And because of the suburb’s design, with most shopping and offices lined up along crowded thoroughfares, Overland Park has one of the area’s worst accident rates.
Ironically, in some circles, all these suburban ills get blamed on cul-de-sacs.
To many urban planners and architects, the cul-de-sac symbolizes everything wrong about suburbia. The streets are secluded. They wind and wander but lead to nowhere. They lack an identity. They foster a dependency on the car.
All in all, they create an isolated environment, separated from the outside world. As renowned architect Andres Duany and his neotraditional town planners put it in their book, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream: "The result is a new phenomenon: the `cul-de-sac kid,’ the child who lives as a prisoner of a thoroughly safe and unchallenging environment."
The couples at the end of Grandview Street don’t see anything wrong with that. They don’t mind their cul-de-sac acting like a giant security blanket shielding them from outside elements, like strangers.
"It’s worth it from a safety issue," says Jennifer Barner, a stay-at-home mom.
Later on this weekday evening, the game at the end of Grandview Street changes. The 5- and 6-year-old boys are now on bikes, chasing the girls across and around the cul-de-sac circle. Shrieks. Screams. And cackles.
Suddenly, a line of four cars rounds the corner and starts down the street into the cul-de-sac. The adults’ heads all turn toward them. They don’t recognize the makes or models. Their conversation freezes. They’re momentarily jolted. Who are these people? What are they doing on our street?
There’s hardly ever any major crime around here. There isn’t much to be afraid of. But the news is always full of kidnappings across the country. So these parents are always on the lookout.
The kids have scattered to the grassy yards surrounding the circle. The cars slowly enter the circle and, one by one, make a short loop to turn around. They head back up the street. They’re obviously lost, on the wrong street.
As the backs of the cars drift away and around the corner, one of the boys on bikes breaks the silence at the end of the cul-de-sac.
"Hey cars," he yells, "get out of here."