Stronger downtown vs. KC's attractive suburbs
The Kansas City Star
In theory, lots of people want to live in population-dense communities like downtown Kansas City and the Crossroads, areas rich with older buildings, cultural activities and transit options.
In theory, young and creative people especially want these amenities as they create lively new urban areas in the 21st century.
But in reality….
More people are moving into Kansas City’s Northland or far-flung suburbs. In reality, sprawl is spreading, the $600 million Johnson County Gateway of costly road expansion is under way, large new houses are still selling in the ‘burbs and the car is the only way to get from place to place in most of this metropolitan area.
Yet that kind of reality wasn’t much talked about at last week’s conference on The New American City held in downtown’s dazzling Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Instead, an upbeat gathering of mayors, arts leaders, business officials and start-up tech nerds were speaking and tweeting on various strategies to rebuild cities’ cores. Young entrepreneurs talked up high-speed Internet service, bikes, walking and a two-mile streetcar line as good ways to make urban life more viable for more people.
They were promoting the familiar story lines that people should come back to the heart of the city, that downtowns can still be essential civic hubs for metropolitan areas and — notably — that the old ways of doing things such as building suburban-style housing everywhere aren’t sustainable.
These are romantic views. They contain nuggets of reality.
But in the big picture, they don’t coincide with the facts and how people are really living their lives these days.
As a Kansas City resident and believer in the urban experience, and even after hearing all the happy talk from last week’s conference, I have to point out this inconvenient truth: Downtown is growing — but the suburbs (and Kansas City’s Northland) are growing more quickly.
Downtown’s population has risen from an anemic 6,300 residents to a healthier 19,590 in the last decade. That increase of about 13,300 is excellent news. It makes the case for more schools, more grocery stores, more amenities in the core.
But Kansas City north of the river added 38,394 people from the 2000 to 2010 census, almost triple downtown’s growth. Many of the new residents live miles from downtown in Clay and Platte counties.
Other big growth drivers from 2000 to 2010 were in the far-flung suburbs. A few examples: Olathe grew by 32,860 people; Overland Park by 23,109; Lee’s Summit by 20,662; Shawnee by 14,213; Gardner by 9,646; Raymore by 8,115; and Grain Valley by 7,476.
Put another way, Raymore and Grain Valley — about as exurban as growth gets in these parts for now — gained 2,300 more people than downtown did in the last decade.
One more point on the supposed love of urban living: As Unified Government Mayor Joe Reardon is fond of pointing out, Wyandotte County has added economic muscle with Kansas Speedway, a new casino, lots of shops, a soccer stadium and the ongoing Cerner office development.
However, all of that has occurred far from downtown Kansas City, Kan. And even after all the good news of the last decade, the city lost 1,080 people from 2000 to 2010.
Fact is, Johnson County is getting dense, too, with lots of people and growing traffic concerns. Last week I had a lunch appointment at a 300-seat restaurant at 114th and Metcalf in Overland Park. The wait to get seated was 20 minutes.
Justifiably so, there’s plenty of excitement about the possibility that Kansas City’s core will continue to gain residents and attract jobs, especially going the high-tech route. We can’t give up on fighting for a stronger urban experience in Kansas City.
But in the big picture, more people are still locating to the suburbs (and the suburban parts of Kansas City) for the schools, safety and an entirely different experience. Not necessarily better. Just different.
Reach Yael T. Abouhalkah at 816-234-4887 or email email@example.com. He blogs at voices.kansascity.com and appears on “Ruckus” at 7 tonight on KCPT. Twitter @YaelTAbouhalkah