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With Suburban Growth, Booming Sometimes Leads to a Bust: Part Two

Dallas suburbs are creating urban sprawl in every direction.

Published February 5, 2012 By MICHAEL YOUNG and OTHERS


One simple premise sums up the cycle of North Texas’ suburban growth: If you aren’t growing, you just might be dying.

For every small country town being swallowed by the relentless spread of development — Prosper and Melissa and Fate and the rest — an inner-ring suburb like Richardson or Mesquite or Farmers Branch struggles to stay vibrant. They use location and jobs and tree-lined neighborhoods to counter the lure of the new along the edges of the exurban frontier.

But the edges seem to stretch out farther by the day. And that’s the corollary to the growth premise: If you grow too fast, death could be right around the corner.

Suddenly, commuter traffic jams your quiet country road. Fresh air and sunshine give way to soaring ozone. New schools roll out each year and the kids hopscotch one to another. And at the end of a hot, dry summer, you wonder whether there’s any water left in the tap.

In suburban North Texas, where some neighborhoods settle and mature while others seem to burst fully formed from the dark earth, tremendous growth presents a whole world of problems.

With a more diverse and stable economy and far less fluctuation in housing prices, Dallas-Fort Worth hasn’t faced the crises seen in other parts of the country. Still, those boom-and-bust stories serve as cautionary tales. With little region-wide planning in place, and only cursory oversight from Austin, controlling growth largely rests with the cities. And some cities want to grow.

Consider North Las Vegas, Nev., a Plano-sized suburb that saw its population almost double from 2000 to 2007, and its assessed tax value more than quadruple, to $9 billion. Using a growth plan with few limits, and empty land stretching into the Mojave Desert, the city routinely processed hundreds of new home permits every month.

With construction money and gaming income fueling the good times, the city had large budget reserves and even bigger plans, including a new nine-story city hall with a $130 million price tag.

And then the economy changed, hitting both gaming and construction hard. Jobs disappeared. Developments stalled. Foreclosures soared, affecting one in every six housing units in the city between 2007 and 2009, up to 700 per square mile.

The loss of tax revenue forced the city to slash its general government budget from $68 million to $28 million. That meant such severe cuts in services and personnel that the local police union posted signs, soon ordered removed, that read: “Warning: Due to recent police layoffs, we can no longer guarantee your safety.”

More devastating was the human toll.

Brandi Whitehouse, a stay-at-home mom, moved with her family to North Las Vegas five years ago, buying a new $350,000 home.

It’s worth about $130,000 now, and she and her husband declared bankruptcy to get out of their mortgage.

“When we bought the house, we thought it was going to be a good deal,” said Whitehouse, 31. “Homes were just popping up so quickly. Now there isn’t a single one of my neighbors who isn’t under water with their mortgage.”

Nothing so dire has happened in the booming areas of North Texas. The pace of growth has slowed, but every improvement in the economy brings back the whine of power saws and the pneumatic whap of nail guns.

The leapfrog development in Collin, Denton, Rockwall and adjacent counties follows a pattern drawn more than 60 years ago on the empty potato fields of Long Island to house America’s postwar boom.

“It’s interesting now, with Dallas-Fort Worth one of the few parts of the U.S. that continues to grow, to see this postwar development pattern continue,” said Patrick L. Phillips, chief executive officer of the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. “In many American cities, we’ve seen that pattern reversed. Metro Washington is a good example, with a healthy downtown and inner-ring suburbs that are doing well.

“What I worry about in terms of the viability of [the traditional suburban] model is gas prices and commuting costs and this long separation between where one lives and one works,” Phillips said.

Commuting Challenges

Add deteriorating air quality and a lack of money to build new highways, and the scope of the commuting challenges becomes clearer.

“For the region to sustain itself when we don’t have enough money to build new roads, we’re going to have to have better and more efficient land-use development. It’s that simple,” said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Dr. Barbara Becker, dean of the School of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the time is coming when people won’t be able to commute long distances by car, because of fuel costs and pollution.

Ozone is a particular problem in the D-FW area, which ranked 12th-worst in the American Lung Association’s 2011 State of the Air report. The region exceeded federal eight-hour ozone limits 38 times in 2011. Its average ozone readings over the last three years were worse than Houston’s.

“Unless we develop a complex, far-reaching modal transportation system, it’s going to start turning the ability to keep growing,” Becker said.

But there’s little money or will to do that.

Where’s the Water?

The situation seems no better for what might be the most pressing need facing North Texas: water.

The Texas Water Development Board, in its 2012 plan, said the D-FW area will need more than $21 billion to provide enough water to meet the needs of a population projected to double to more than 13 million by 2060.

The water supply is so precarious that the North Texas Municipal Water District has already mulled Stage 4 water restrictions that would essentially ban watering lawns and landscaping across portions of six counties and dozens of cities.

The water development board’s plans call for four new reservoirs to serve the heart of the D-FW region, including fast-growing Collin, Kaufman and Rockwall counties, said Dr. Dan Hardin, director of water resources planning.

The reservoirs would be located elsewhere, in parts of the state that receive more rain. And that poses problems.

“In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I think there is wide recognition of the need to develop water supplies,” he said. “But in areas where water supplies are plentiful, there’s a reluctance to do anything.”

And that may include sending water to the state’s big cities and growing suburbs.

So far, though, none of these challenges have had a particularly damaging effect on growth.

A New Boom Coming

The only thing that has slowed the suburban push has been a balky economy that knocked the number of new single-family housing starts in the D-FW region from about 50,000 in 2005 to fewer than 20,000 in 2009, according to the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Some projects sit at full stop across the northern tier, with street signs and utility connections the only indications of what could have been.

But while single-family homes were off, multifamily housing boomed, from less than 10,000 new starts in 2006 to almost 15,000 in 2009.

And the demographic shorthand for projecting growth in the region remains about a million new people every decade, from 6.7 million in 2010 to 9.8 million in 2030 and 10.5 million in 2040, according to Council of Governments numbers.

Some of those people will find homes near the far edges of development. But others will settle in the major cities and inner-ring suburbs that define the real estate truism: location, location, location.

But those bring a whole different set of challenges — aging infrastructure, declining retail, aging populations.

“The housing stock isn’t as new in the inner-ring areas and can be less competitive in the market,” said Phillips of the Urban Land Institute. “The inner-ring neighborhoods are often gateway areas for immigrant populations or lower-income residents. And the schools can be challenging.”

That’s true for both newer and more settled suburbs.

Education Equation

Richardson and Plano have maintained very strong school systems while growing increasingly diverse over the past decade. But diversity is a part of education almost everywhere.

In Frisco, students speak more than 70 languages. Almost 20 percent of the school population in Plano is now Asian, while non-Hispanic whites, who made up 69 percent of the population in 2000, now account for 58 percent. And students from low-income families make up 25 percent of the school population, up sharply from 9 percent 10 years ago.

“You think growth is hard,” said former Plano ISD Superintendent Doug Otto, who guided the district for almost two decades. “Being mature is harder.”

But growth poses interesting challenges, too.

The Frisco Independent School District has added 45 school campuses in the last 14 years as enrollment soared from 4,500 students to 40,000. The district adds two to six schools a year, requiring almost annual boundary changes. And that means some students will attend as many as three different elementary schools.

The struggle for more mature districts is maintaining and improving infrastructure. Plano rebuilds or remodels schools every two decades, an expensive proposition. An upcoming modification at Plano West High School, for example, will cost around $10 million.

Reviving the Inner Ring

Brand-new developments, where houses wear that fresh-paint smell, allow buyers to pick and choose exactly what they want.

But Richardson City Manager Bill Keffler said older towns offer their own particular advantages.

“We have neighborhoods [where houses] aren’t built like boxes, and have lots of interesting terrain from the creeks we have on both sides of town,” Keffler said. And there’s housing for just about any price range.

Then there’s the chance to transform something older into something new.

Both Phillips and Becker, of UTA, said shifting demographics place inner-ring suburbs in a prime spot for redevelopment.

As baby boomers age, many find themselves empty nesters, in homes they can’t maintain, Phillips said. At the other end of the spectrum comes an even larger group, the 15- to 30-year-olds in Generation Y, 78 million of them.

“I see more of these young people craving a more urban environment,” he said. “Many of them won’t have the money to buy a 3,500-square-foot house in the suburbs.”

To woo both groups, towns ringing big cities “need to take advantage of their natural strengths,” he said. “They are more walk-able, or can be made more walk-able. They’re more kid-friendly and pedestrian-friendly.”

And cities that offer easy mobility will be highly attractive, Becker said.

“The ones with rail, they’ll be in a strong position for certain populations — the young affluent, the elders — if they respond to market pressures,” she said. “And I think the market is smart and it will respond.”

Richardson already sees some of that, Keffler said.

“We have four transit-oriented developments at our four [Dallas Area Rapid Transit] light-rail stations and all include high-end apartments with high rents, and some townhome developments, too,” he said.

“These prospects for an urban lifestyle are starting to take place. Go out to the Renaissance Hotel and look at the people getting off the train, walking to Bank of America and Blue Cross Blue Shield,” Keffler said.

So far, he said, the formula of bringing residential and retail development to major job centers is working for Richardson, which added 5,600 jobs in the last year and filled 1.5 million square feet of office space.

Keffler doesn’t discount the lure of the newer suburbs — “No doubt the fresh look north is going to be an enticement” — but said the combination of transportation, jobs and a $66 million city bond issue for neighborhood revitalization will keep Richardson an attractive option.

“We’re absolutely convinced that people care about air quality, fuel costs and quality of life,” Keffler said. “That will keep maturing cities with established employment centers very, very competitive.”

The Lure of the New

Still, many families want a home that’s uniquely theirs.

Samantha and Nick Ariens moved to Texas from Wichita, Kan., three years ago. They had a weekend to find a house for their family of five and discovered one in Fate. But the kids are gone now and the Arienses plan to build a downsized dream house in Prosper.

“Prosper offers us a larger lot size for a one-story house for us and the critters with a three-car garage,” Samantha said. “We can get everything we want, and that’s the main reason we’re looking here.”

Plus, she grew up as an early settler in a new area near Wichita, “all wheat fields when we moved in,” she said.

“To go back now and still see things popping up, that’s cool to me.”

Staff writers Theodore Kim and Jessica Meyers contributed to this report.

ABOUT THE SERIES: Suburban Growth

Last summer, a Dallas Morning News team of editors and reporters began scrutinizing the North Texas growth wave. The team convened a roundtable of public officials, business leaders, planners and educators to discuss sprawl and its ramifications. Reporters interviewed dozens of experts and traveled from Plano to North Las Vegas, Nev., to Portland, Ore., to explore suburban growth, its causes and downsides.

This three-part series — reported by Theodore Kim, Jessica Meyers and Michael E. Young and edited by Eric Nelson — explores these forces, the consequences and what the region can do to foster better growth. Other key contributors include Emily Fox, who aided our reporting and coordinated this package’s graphics; photographer Louis DeLuca, photo editor Michael Hamtil and graphic artist Tom Setzer; and former staff members Clay Zeigler, Ian McCann and Arnessa Garrett, who helped conceive the project.


The basic ingredients for growth can be found in any suburb: open space, decent schools, access to work. Yet in North Texas, and particularly Collin County, those forces are amplified. We decided to take a closer look at the forces causing supercharged growth, the high cost of sprawl on communities and ways to better control expansion.

SUNDAY: No End in Sight
TODAY: Sprawl at What Cost?
TUESDAY: Controlling the Tide




About the author

Staff writers Ms. Meyers, Ms. Fox and Mr. Young contributed to a report on urban sprawl in Dallas, Texas.

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