Job sprawl grows in the Kansas City area

Job sprawl has sucked employment from Kansas City’s core.

A report released Thursday by the Brookings Institution said that in 2010 just 16.9 percent of the area’s jobs were in the core, defined as within three miles of Kansas City’s downtown. That’s down from 20.5 percent in 2000.

Dragged down by the Great Recession, the raw number of jobs in the central core also shrank from 180,000 in 2000 to 140,000 in 2010, according to the study.

The report’s numbers were figured before such high-profile employers as the Environmental Protection Agency shifted about 650 employees last fall from downtown Kansas City, Kan., to Lenexa and before AMC Entertainment completes its move of about 400 workers from downtown Kansas City to Leawood.

A “new urbanism” movment has lured about 8,000 more residents to live in the downtown area in the last 10 years. But new residents hadn’t translated directly to job creation in the core by the time the Brookings information was compiled.

Since then, “we’re seeing some small businesses locate in the Crossroads and the like, but they don’t employ that many,” said Jeff Pinkerton, economist at the Mid-America Regional Council. “And we haven’t had any major employer move downtown recently.

“The fact is that jobs follow rooftops, and housing is growing in the suburbs.”

The Brookings report said the 16.9 percent share of jobs in Kansas City’s core in 2010 was lower than the national average of 22.9 percent among 100 large cities studied.

The outward migration of jobs hit a marker in 2006, when more than half of the Kansas City area’s employment was in a ring 10 to 35 miles around the urban core.

Kansas City was hardly alone in an outward shift of employment to the suburbs. Brookings researcher Elizabeth Kneebone found that 91 of the 100 metro areas studied saw job shares dwindle in their central cores over the 10 years ending in 2010.

“Job sprawl was the dominant metropolitan trend across the 2000s,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Consistent with previous analysis, even when downtowns have had a population resurgence, jobs haven’t followed comparatively.”

Joel Kotkin, an expert on cities and social trends, wrote last month in Forbes magazine about the fast-growth trend in the more sprawling U.S. cities, especially in the South and West.

Cheaper land — good for housing and business expansion — is prompting suburban growth in contrast to the “hipster” gentrification of some “hot” urban cores, Kotkin noted.

Pinkerton, the Kansas City economist, concurred.

“Space is important. Lots of businesses like warehouses and call centers need a large footprint,” Pinkerton said. “Plus, in our area it’s easier to get further out. We have highways. We’re not congested. Most people have cars.”

Kneebone pointed out that the recession slowed, but didn’t stop, the outward job exodus in Kansas City and elsewhere in the nation. The years from 2007 to 2011 registered steep job losses everywhere. But the general trend toward job transition toward the outer ring continued.

The result? Higher energy consumption by commuters, difficulty connecting inner city residents to suburban jobs and added strain on roadway infrastructure.

Among all metro areas Kneebone studied, only Washington, D.C., had an increase in both the number and share of jobs in its urban core during the 2000s.

The job sprawl report was produced by the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, a research arm that presents policy ideas to improve the economic health of cities.

“As the economy recovers, policymakers and local leaders have an opportunity to pursue strategies that encourage more compact forms of urban and suburban development,” the report said.

Kneebone said suburban job growth isn’t inherently negative or positive. But her study encouraged cities to do a better job of planning for job sprawl.

When outer ring job growth occurs in “less dense and less accessible ways,” it raises challenges such as “greater spatial mismatches between the location of jobs and low-income and minority residents,” the report said.

In other words, it’s harder for workers, who may not have personal or reliable transportation, to get to outer-ring work. And that’s especially true in the Kansas City area, which has limited or costly public transportation options in the suburbs.

Alice Amrein, director of transportation for The Jo, the Johnson County bus service, confirmed that most routes take suburban riders into the central city rather than the other way around.

“We have a couple of reverse commute routes, but adding more would be contingent on funding,” Amrein said.

Limited current routes, for example, can get commuting riders from downtown Kansas City, Kan., to Johnson County Community College and on to Olathe, or from midtown Kansas City to 137th and Antioch in Overland Park, or from Crown Center to the courthouse in Olathe.

“More are in our strategic plan, but we don’t have the funds now,” Amrein said.

Tom Riederer, president of the Southwest Johnson County Economic Development Corp., said he looks first at the “density factor,” the obvious fact that cities’ cores are built up more densely than the suburbs.

“It’s harder to operate a distribution facility, for example, in a central city,” Riederer said. “They need larger footprints.”

Furthermore, Riederer said, it’s usually more expensive to do “brownfield remediation” — to redevelop core city sites — than to do new “greenfield” construction.

“For a lot of operations, it’s just more efficient to move outward,” Riederer said.

Kneebone, the Brookings fellow who wrote the report, said suburban job growth isn’t necessarily negative. But cities like Kansas City need to pay attention to possible negative effects.

“The more you drive to get to jobs, the more strain you put on roads, the more you affect how sustainable the region is in terms of environment,” she said.

“Also, you need to consider whether you can provide inclusive economic opportunity for the whole population. How difficult is it for low-income workers who may not have reliable cars or may have burdensome transportation costs to get to the jobs?”

Pinkerton, the Kansas City economist, noted that the job flow to the suburbs hasn’t left Kansas City’s downtown bereft of economic activity. A resurgence in cultural and entertainment facilities has brought many people back to the core, if not to work then at least to spend leisure time and money.

Another positive is that the General Services Administration is getting bids with the intent to move about 1,000 federal employees from Bannister Road to downtown Kansas City. If that proceeds as intended, there will be a sizable bump in core jobs.