The death of suburbia is greatly exaggerated

10/12/2013 5:00 PM

10/12/2013 7:27 PM

The End of the Suburbs.

That is a very provocative name for a recently released book written by an author who clearly detests cul-de-sacs, McMansions, and sprawl — otherwise known as outward growth.

Leigh Gallagher, the author, has made certain assumptions that have led her to proclaim, “The sprawl demon is dead. It is not coming back.”

She claims that a whole generation of millennials, those born between 1977-1995 (bigger than baby boomers, she writes), will want nothing to do with suburbia, as we know it. Rather, they will seek places to live where they can walk everywhere and avoid driving, which she says they hate. They want, she writes, an urban lifestyle.

Changing demographics will also turn suburbia on its head. She cites projections that by 2025, as much as 80 percent of suburbia might be without children at home. Thus, there will be a strong downsizing movement, meaning the virtual end of McMansions.

Also, because of that future shrunken population of children, schools will not be the magnet for living in the suburbs that they have been for the past half century.

Gallagher also notes a trend — which we have seen starkly in Johnson County — of an increase in suburban poverty. In Shawnee Mission School District, for example, 40 percent of children are on free or assisted subsidies for lunch. She projects that higher crime rates will follow the trend in poverty, which will make suburbia less attractive.

And then there is the high cost of fuel, which Gallagher believes is having a permanent effect, dampening the desire of people to live farther out and face the need to drive more.

Add it all together and a community like Johnson County or most other growing suburbs in the Kansas City area can extrapolate that their best days are behind them, and growth will slow to a crawl.

Two pioneer builders in Johnson County see things somewhat differently.

Jeff Alpert, principal of the Alpert Companies, and a longtime developer in Johnson County, seized the opportunities of urban-style living that Gallagher describes, although in Johnson County, not in the city. He recently created a high-density, mixed-use urban-style development called Park Place in south Leawood.

He sees close-in areas like downtown Overland Park as ripe for high-density apartments and offices. He believes there is definitely a movement to want to live closer in, but not necessarily for millennials.

Where Alpert and Gallagher differ is Alpert believes as long as millennials have children in school — like his own adult children — they will choose to live a suburban lifestyle near the best schools, even if means driving and living in suburbia as we know it.

Then there’s Gallagher’s antithesis, Darryl Rodrock, the king of sprawl. He has built so many homes in Johnson County that 28,000 people in Johnson County live in a Rodrock community.

Rodrock just recently bought $9 million of empty land on the Johnson County side of 175th Street and State Line Road. And he said his company owns enough empty land in the county to house an additional 20,000 Rodrock residents.

Rodrock says his developments follow the construction of sewers, and he sees no end in sight to the growth of the county. He believes it will grow south all the way to Miami County. He cites quality schools as the main reason for the continued growth. He obviously disagrees with Gallagher that millennials will want to move where they won’t have to drive.

Rodrock also believes the BNSF Intermodal project in Edgerton in southwest Johnson County will trigger a boom.

In Johnson County, where there is empty land available south and west, sprawl is anything but dead, if you believe Rodrock’s optimism.

Gallagher quotes a retired broadcast producer who moved to Johnson County from an urban area in another state. He said Johnson County is like living in “Nirvana.” Although without children in school, he chose to live in suburbia and loves it. Gallagher did not explain that inconsistency.

“The End of the Suburbs” is a catchy title, but at least in Johnson County, sprawl is very much on the drawing board for the foreseeable future.

After 2025, with a dearth of children, things may change dramatically.

But for now, those who know our market best are betting on continued growth.

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