Quick, describe the area around Kansas City International Airport.
Office parks, farm pastures and maybe that bull statue along the interstate, right?
Right -- and some of the top-rated neighborhoods in Kansas City, too.
Of course, they aren’t your typical urban neighborhoods with arching trees, criss-crossing streets and loads of legacy. Instead, they’re mini-mansions without trees. They’re estates on acres of land. They’re new subdivisions across the street from old barns.
It’s a little bit country, a little bit city, a little bit suburb.
"You’re in the big city, yet it’s like you’re in a small town," said Larry Faitz, who moved there six years ago.
KCI’s blend helped give it the best quality of life on Kansas City’s northern outskirts.
The Star’s series on neighborhoods is profiling the top-performing cluster in each section, one section each day. Today’s section is the Outer Northland, roughly north of Northwest 68th Street in Platte County and Northeast Pleasant Valley Road in Clay County.
The top performer in the Outer Northland was the KCI cluster, a large expanse basically west of U.S. 169 and north of Missouri 152.
But don’t feel badly if all this is news to you.
"If you don’t pay attention or just drive to the airport, you don’t see all the dirt moving," said Pete Fullerton, executive director of the Platte County Economic Development Council. "For a lot of natives in this metropolitan area, there’s still a surprise of, ‘Wow, you wear shoes up there?’ "
Indeed, after the airport opened in the early 1970s, city leaders waited for a growth boom around it. And waited. And waited. Only in the last decade has the area finally taken off, thanks to the new Missouri 152 and increased interest in being close to the airport.
In some ways now, KCI neighborhoods are becoming Kansas City’s version of southern Johnson County -- mostly white and affluent with good schools, upscale housing, low crime, plenty of open space, a recognized office corridor and an ever-expanding choice of retail centers.
But it’s not Johnson County yet. KCI is still a new opportunity. It’s the mostly blank canvas of an Impressionist painting, with different painters taking turns applying dots of color to create a clear picture.
Some of those painters want it to resemble the Kansas suburbs. Other painters want it to look more citylike, with some urban densities.
For now, though, KCI’s hybrid of country-city-suburban life is serving Kansas City quite well. Well enough to attract families such as the Lockharts.
Shirley Lockhart and her husband started raising their children in a post-World War II house with tiny bedrooms, and on a block with no other young kids. So they traded that for the Bristol Park subdivision, where their new home has an open floor plan, the development has two pools and their street has "kids like you wouldn’t believe," Lockhart said.
It’s also a place where the three Lockhart kids can grow up not only reading about farm animals but seeing them, too -- cows, calves, horses, even peacocks out a bedroom window.
"This is a cul-de-sac that backs right up to a historic farm," Lockhart said.
The Outer Northland is divided into six neighborhood clusters: KCI, Zona Rosa and the North Line Creek Valley on the Platte side, and Metro North-Gashland, Nashua-Northern North Oak and the Shoal Creek Valley on the Clay side.
They include some of the Northland’s most notable landmarks, such as the airport, Hodge Park and the neo-traditional Zona Rosa shopping district.
Taken together, this is Kansas City’s main growth zone. The city would continue losing population without it. So its character is pretty clear: new, new, new.
And that translated to high marks in some portions of The Star’s quality-of-life analysis. Outer Northland clusters occupied four of the top 10 spots in both new retail growth per capita and new housing permits.
Plus, with new schools, Shoal Creek elementaries topped the rest of the city in math scores and Metro North elementaries led in reading scores.
"People like new," said Brenda Shores, a Realty Executives real estate agent who sells in Platte County. "They like new schools. They like new shops. They especially like new homes. You get the newest trends."
Growth, however, does have its down sides, and they’re evident in the Outer Northland.
Crime is increasing in some cases. Mass transit is almost nonexistent. And with so many new houses, the resale market is slow -- in fact, half of the Outer Northland ranked in the bottom 10 in housing appreciation citywide.
KCI’s cluster avoided some of these pitfalls -- it tied for the largest percentage drop in violent crime rates, for instance, and finished middle-of-the-pack in housing appreciation.
Overall, in The Star’s comparisons of neighborhood clusters across the city, KCI finished in the top 10 in one-third of all quality-of-life measures. They ranged from expected ways (housing permits, housing conditions) to the unexpected (voter turnout rates, park acreage).
But one asset that sets KCI apart is something no other area of town can duplicate: the airport itself.
The airport is a magnet, and that has ripple effects on neighborhoods’ quality of life.
The KCI cluster had the highest concentration of restaurants in the Outer Northland, partly because the workers in all the glass office towers near the airport provide a larger customer base. And KCI residents, despite being on the edge of the city, had average commute times because of those nearby jobs.
In coming years, too, the airport will likely shape the nature and complexion of KCI’s future neighborhoods more than anything else.
That’s because the airport isn’t a typical real estate market. In most growth corridors, rooftops come first and everything else follows. Around the airport, though, job growth is driving residential construction.
Now look at what companies the KCI cluster has been attracting lately -- call centers, travel services, distribution centers. Those employ the lower and middle classes.
How Kansas City ends up accommodating those people -- or doesn’t accommodate them -- will likely serve as a lesson for other growth corridors on the city’s north and south ends.
On the one hand, Platte County is building an image for luxury housing, with developments like Riss Lake, the National and KCI’s Tiffany Greens, which has fountains, traffic circles and homes typically priced at $400,000 and up.
So if there comes a day when Frankie Hawkins can no longer take a cup of coffee out on her back patio and enjoy a view of a peaceful pasture, she’d rather not have it spoiled with cookie-cutter subdivisions. Mansions, though, would be fine.
"That would give it a first-class spark ... like Ward Parkway," said Hawkins, a leader in the KCI Neighborhood Association.
On the other hand, some Kansas City officials and planners believe KCI needs to diversify its housing stock and offer more affordable options. In The Star’s analysis, KCI ranked in the city’s bottom 10 in its range of housing offerings, meaning there wasn’t much. It could use some apartments and lower-priced homes.
"I don’t think we have the capacity for everything to be executive housing," said City Councilman John Fairfield, who grew up in the Northland and now represents the KCI cluster. "All the people who make a community work need to have housing as well."
In the end, City Hall can’t control what private developers want to do. City planners can only urge and wish for a mix of housing types. Lately, those wishes have been granted. Of 10 active residential developments in the KCI cluster, nearly half offer home prices starting under $200,000 or multifamily units, according to their Web sites.
If there’s one common thread in The Star’s series on neighborhoods so far, it’s that high-ranking neighborhood clusters offer a wide range of housing options and prices.
So, although the KCI cluster already finished high in The Star’s rankings, it has an opportunity to become even better.
"There’s only so much demand for housing up in those upper price brackets," said Tim Underwood, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City. "If KCI’s going to continue to grow, it’s going to have to have a greater diversity in prices."
And then maybe it’ll be a more complete neighborhood -- known for more than office parks and a bull statue.