Suburbs in KC, elsewhere, see post-recession bounce

06/27/2014 6:44 PM

06/28/2014 10:07 AM

Greg and Adrienne Doring thought they had it all living downtown.

A 15th-floor condo with an expansive view of the riverfront. Close to the Sprint Center and the Power & Light District. A grocery store. An easy walk to the River Market.

“Downtown was going great guns,” Greg Doring said. “I wanted my little piece of it.”

Then came the children. Friends started moving away. Life started changing. The suburbs looked alluring. So they moved.

Nestled into their new, roomier Prairie Village home with three kids and a yard, the Dorings are emblematic of a new suburban growth threatening to steal residents from the city.

“We were moving into a different phase of our life,” Doring said. “It was just time for something else.”

As the Great Recession recedes, the suburbs are fighting their way back after losing luster among young professionals and baby boomers who embraced the energy of city living.

For generations, people fled cities for the suburbs, especially following World War II as the culture depended increasingly on the car and Veterans Administration loans made buying a house possible for more Americans.

Then the recession hit at the same time as a new appreciation for urban lifestyles emerged, especially among the young.

Recently, many of the country’s big cities reversed the longstanding trend in which they grew faster than their suburbs, partly because people were skittish about moving in shaky economic times.

The economy dampened the appetite for the suburbs among young adults. Many were unemployed or underemployed. Fewer jobs were available. Student-loan debt burdened would-be homebuyers.

Now as the economy lumbers back, pent-up demand for yards, garages, quiet neighborhoods and convenient places to raise the kids put the suburbs back in vogue.

As the economy gains momentum, our settlement patterns shift. More young adults are following their parents’ paths back to the suburbs as they marry, buy homes and have children.

Cities in 19 of the 51 largest U.S. metro areas grew faster than their suburbs from 2012 to 2013, down from 24 from 2011 to 2012. In contrast, only eight major cities grew faster than their suburbs from 2000 to 2010.

While the suburbs outpaced the city center here, the gap between the two narrowed as the recession strangled the economy.

The numbers come from a recent report by the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington think tank.

Its report found that while cities continue to thrive, suburbs have ever so slightly closed the growth gap, hinting at a resurgence in cul-de-sac lifestyles.

“It’s not like night-and-day changes,” said Ken Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s the first indication maybe we’re starting to see migration to the suburbs pick up.”

The Brookings data show people across the country increasingly left the urban core from 2012 to 2013.

Meanwhile, the most far-flung areas of the suburbs — such as the less densely populated areas of Johnson County — grew slightly. But they’re growing nowhere near at the same rate as seven or eight years ago.

“It’s really been very slow coming back,” said Bill Frey, senior fellow and demographer with Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program.

Count Fred Dickinson as part of the trend back to the suburbs.

He liked the downtown vibe. He sucked up the youthful energy. Then he married. And life changed. He traded a condo for a subdivision.

Dickinson, 37, left for Roeland Park in 2009. The suburbs offered a house with more space, a faster commute to work, good schools and a neighborhood where families know one another.

“I have a nice big yard. I can barbecue and have people over,” said Dickinson, who now lives in a 2,800-square-foot house in south Overland Park. “It’s a life change. You go from wanting to go out all the time to being OK with staying home.”

While movement from the city to the suburbs often relates to our changing lifestyles as we grow older, the recession may have delayed the transition, Johnson said.

As the recession gives way, he said, it could unleash a backlog of young adults just now moving to the suburbs.

There is no evidence showing these changes are widespread, he said. But the slight increase in suburban migration might be the first indication that the ’burbs are back.

Local suburban cities report that population, homebuilding and commercial development are now growing at a faster pace — just not at the levels of a decade ago when the economy was buzzing.

At the depth of the real estate crisis, Overland Park didn’t issue any permits for single-family homes in January 2009.

But homebuilding in Overland Park has rebounded from those dark development days of the recession.

Last year, the city issued 393 permits for single-family homes, up significantly from the 114 issued in 2009 but still down from the 847 permits issued in 2001.

“We do have a slight resurgence,” City Manager Bill Ebel said. “I think our growth is going to continue. I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be as strong as it was in the ’90s.”

Commercial development, however, is surging in Overland Park and is just about back where it was before the recession.

About $245 million in commercial projects were built in the city last year, including the new Prairiefire project mixing retail with apartments. The development features a museum showcasing exhibits from the American Museum of Natural History.

The value of commercial projects built in Overland Park last year nearly tripled what was built in 2010.

Other suburban cities that once saw their populations soar saw a slowdown during the recession. The growth later picked up, but not like earlier years.

Lee’s Summit’s population growth, for example, was 5.4 percent in 2000. By 2009, that growth had dipped to 0.2 percent. Last year, the city’s growth climbed slightly to 0.9 percent.

In Johnson County, Olathe saw a similar drop-off.

In the early part of the 2000s, the city was growing at about 3 percent a year. Then the recession came. The city’s population grew at an average of 1.6 percent yearly from 2010 to 2013.

“The most noticeable thing was that office and commercial development pretty much dried up at the time,” said Olathe planning manager David Clements. “We’re beginning to see some of that come back now. But it’s taking a while.”

Builders are seeing signs that the suburbs are gaining steam.

“It’s not back to where it was, but it definitely has picked up since the recession,” said Brenner Holland, general manager of residential development for Hunt Midwest, a Missouri-side homebuilder.

That trend is also seen in the Kansas suburbs, where many subdivisions shelved during the recession are being completed.

Greg Prieb builds homes in western Johnson County along Kansas 7. The president of Prieb Homes expects to sell nearly 100 homes this year, beating the 80 or 90 homes he sold annually before the economy went south. Business is “hot,” Prieb said.

The question persists, however: Will this gradual resurgence return the suburbs to their go-go days of the 1990s and the early 2000s? Or have we reached a new normal?

Frey is skeptical that suburban development will ever return to the level it was before the recession and maybe even immediately after World War II when people raced for the suburbs.

“A lot of people say the suburbs are dead. I don’t think I would go that far,” Frey said. “The jury is out on how much of the suburban lifestyle that characterized the post-war United States is going to be as mainstream as it was then.”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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