Joco Opinion

November 5, 2013

Sarah Smith Nessel — Hoping for a lifestyle of dense and vertical

Give me walkable communities with narrow streets lined by retailers and restaurants topped with high-density housing, and I am happy.

Nobody ever asks what I think about the economy.

That’s a shame, because I spend nearly 40 hours a week editing finance-industry publications in a job that doesn’t involve a lot of human contact. My conversational skills slip away day by day as I sit in solitude, reading about housing starts and manufacturing indexes and unemployment filings and retail sales. All that data, and no one to share it with.

Yes, I’d be happy to come to your holiday party! Thank you.

I might even hold your guests’ interest for a short while. I won’t try to do it by talking about the Fed’s stimulus program — I promise.

I’ll do it by talking about 135th Street.

If it’s been a while since you’ve driven along 135th between Metcalf and Nall in Overland Park, you might need a GPS just to reassure yourself that you’re not lost. With buildings and developments going up so fast, I’ve actually become disoriented — more than once — when turning at what used to be a familiar intersection and suddenly seeing multistory buildings that weren’t there the last time I looked. And I look nearly every week.

Development along this stretch has reflected the national economy for nearly a decade. There was a surge of interest in the early 2000s, with plans announced for multiple mixed-use and retail developments. Construction on one of them, Corbin Park, was well under way when the recession hit. Two years and a developer bankruptcy later, dozens of partly built structures sat abandoned, open to the harsh weather for season after season.

Corbin Park at least had a few businesses up and running before the economy tanked. Right next door, Prairiefire, announced with much fanfare, was nothing but prairie for years. No fire seemed to be forthcoming.

But that part of town is certainly heating up now. Both developments are progressing so rapidly that I wonder how the contractors find enough workers to get it all done. And I wonder where the Johnson Countians who declare that the economy is in the toilet and going down faster and faster — ever since Obama got elected, don’t you know — get their information. They don’t get it from actual economists, I can assure you, and they don’t get it from driving around southern Johnson County. Fox News, maybe?

All that progress west of Nall has me curious about what’s going to happen to the east, where Leawood’s last fields of open space remain. A recent article in 913 explained how city officials have been gathering input from residents as they develop a plan for Leawood’s stretch of 135th Street.

That’s where I read a line that jolted me out of my general suburban-development complacency. Mixed-use developments, the article said, “can be difficult to sell to the public. They’re often dense and vertical, precisely the opposite of many traditional suburban developments.”

I’m not sure what “public” that would be, but it’s certainly not me. I’ve been in search of dense and vertical development ever since I landed in Johnson County.

Like many parents, I’m here for the schools. Yes, I like the parks and the shopping and the safe neighborhoods, but my patience for single-family-home sprawl will have been stretched to its limit by the time my son finishes high school eight years from now. I can do without yards, big-box stores and giant parking lots. Give me walkable communities with narrow streets lined by retailers and restaurants topped with high-density housing, and I am happy.

Mixed-use developments like Park Place and Mission Farms are a good start. They don’t have the charm of downtown Overland Park or Old Town Lenexa, but they at least offer a little hope for those of us who wouldn’t consider a six-bedroom McMansion even if we could afford it.

I’m far from the only one who feels this way. Along with finance publications, I edit a fair amount of housing-industry material, which includes study after study finding the same thing: Young people are increasingly resistant to the idea of traditional car-dependent suburban living. Many teens aren’t even particularly interested in getting driver’s licenses — they want to decrease their carbon footprint as much as possible, and they all hang out online instead of in person anyway. This isn’t 1950.

When it comes to real estate development, mid-20th-century thinking is no longer going to cut it. Even once they start families, young people aren’t interested in moving to the suburbs en masse, the way their parents and grandparents did.

So I have to ask the developers of America’s suburbs: If people of my (middle age) demographic aren’t interested in your cul-de-sacs and strip malls, and people of the millennial generation aren’t either, who exactly is your target market?

Perhaps assisted-living developments would suit that market best.

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