Overland Park’s other half is no dog

If South Overland Park is the Cinderella of The Kansas City Star’s suburban rankings, North Overland Park is hardly the ugly stepsister.

The northern half of Kansas City’s largest suburb is a strong community in its own right. It just missed breaking into the top 10, finishing at No. 11, ahead of such well-regarded places as Fairway, Blue Springs and Parkville.

North Overland Park — that part of the city north of Interstate 435 — had lower property taxes than any suburb in the region. It also rated among the top 10 local suburbs in average ACT test scores in its high schools and in retail businesses per capita, thanks to its long stretch of Metcalf Avenue.

In the mind of Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach, however, the north and south halves of his ’burb shouldn’t be treated separately. They’re both part of one city.

“We are one community. It’s a terrible idea to split it,” Gerlach said. “All cities have a makeup that’s diverse, in housing stock, in incomes, in home values. And that’s good for a community. It makes it well-rounded.”

Indeed, Overland Park would have topped The Star’s suburban rankings if it hadn’t been split in two.

The Star, however, split Overland Park for several reasons. With some 163,000 residents, it’s 50 percent larger than any other Johnson County suburb, giving it an overwhelming advantage in statistical measures where bigness matters, such as building permits and recreational offerings.

Plus, Overland Park’s two halves are distinctly different in age and character. The north has an older, smaller housing stock, while the south has expansive homes on cul-de-sacs. The north is landlocked, while the south is growing. The north has a quaint downtown strip, while the south has a modern office corridor and business park.

Residents of the two parts of town often consider themselves separate communities. Ask south Overland Park residents where they live, and they’re more apt to answer “out south” than “Overland Park.”

Overland Park leaders, though, have always blanched at this.

“When I was on the council, it used to aggravate the mayor and chamber (of commerce), because they thought talking about north and south was divisive,” said Jay Lehnertz, who retired from the council a couple of years ago after almost two decades. “I never thought it was divisive. I thought it represented reality.”

But when it comes to community rankings, Overland Park is used to being considered one place, just like it’s used to being on top within the Kansas City area. A family advocacy group ranks “kid-friendly” places just about every year, and Overland Park always places higher than any local suburb. More recently, Money magazine rated places to live across the country, and Overland Park was again the highest-ranking local community.

“I don’t think Money magazine split us into two different cities,” Gerlach said.

But even with the split, half the city was still better than any other local suburb.