Jodi’s Journal: As millennials return to suburbia, a cautionary tale from a fellow ‘best place to live’

July 14, 2019

Before city rankings proliferated across the internet – basically, before there was an internet – there was Money magazine’s annual list of the best places to live in America.

As you probably know, Sioux Falls topped that list in 1992, sparking a blast of civic pride and giving the city national notoriety that had been relatively rare until that point.

I found a copy of that 1992 article, which noted Sioux Falls “gets a perfect score in economy and makes strong showings in transportation (availability of mass transit and commuting time), housing and health.”

The area population was listed at 123,000. That has more than doubled today. The unemployment rate was 2.6 percent. It has ranged between 2.4 percent and 2.8 percent this year.

In 1992, the magazine reported, a three-bedroom house in Sioux Falls cost an average of $86,000. The property tax paid annually was $1,800. The city population was 97 percent white.

“Sioux Falls is practically a mirror image of the rest of America,” the Money article said.

“Every business day, while the nation as a whole loses an average of 1,500 corporate jobs, Sioux Falls creates six new ones.”

I looked all of this up after learning more about the 2015 winner of Money’s best places to live: Apex, N.C., a suburb of Raleigh. Nicknamed the “Millennial Mayberry,” it’s now the nation’s fastest-growing suburb, according to Realtor.com and it’s struggling to handle the influx of residents.

The population, now 57,000, has grown 54 percent since 2010, leaving schools at or above capacity, a lack of downtown parking, tax increases and traffic jams.

“Everyone says the same thing,” the town’s mayor, Lance Olive, told The Wall Street Journal in a recent piece. “I love it here, but I can’t turn left out of my neighborhood.”

The newspaper told the town’s story and that of others like it in a story titled “American suburbs swell again as a new generation escapes the city.”

“The back-to-the-city trend has reversed,” Brookings Institution demographer William Frey said in the piece, which reported 14 of the 15 fastest-growing U.S. cities are suburban communities.

The difference between the post-World War II suburban migration and today’s is that millennials are driven more by warm climates and job opportunities, and discouraged by rising housing costs in more urban areas, Frey added.

Climate difference aside, I think there’s a cautionary tale unfolding in Apex and communities like it that Sioux Falls shouldn’t ignore if it wants to continue to attract millennials and other residents.

I am becoming moderately concerned by a couple of unfolding factors. This week, we reported the average price of a home sold in the city of Sioux Falls in June was almost $270,000 – the highest I can remember seeing in any given month and a 5.5-percent year-over-year increase. The median price was $229,000, a 4.6 percent increase.

If you’re looking for new construction in Sioux Falls, I think you’d find it hard to buy a single-family home for less than $300,000 – and honestly that doesn’t buy much square footage either.

Builders and real estate agents will point to many factors behind these rising prices, from limited inventory and labor costs to the amount it takes to develop farmland into residential lots. I don’t disagree with any of them, and I realize there’s only so much policy-makers can or should do to influence market conditions.

But I think a renewed focus on improving existing housing stock, redeveloping core neighborhoods and investing in infrastructure and amenities that draw people to those neighborhoods could help.

I can point to multiple large neighborhoods in development on the edges of Sioux Falls and its surrounding communities. But I can’t think of any core neighborhood where large-scale redevelopment is taking place, other than downtown.

The next five years also very likely will bring two major road projects – interchanges at Interstate 90/Veterans Parkway and Interstate 29/85th Street – that will continue to drive suburban development more than they support the core of Sioux Falls. We need visionary thinking and investment for urban infrastructure in the same way – and that goes far beyond rebuilding roads and patching potholes.

Our upcoming master plan for the Parks and Recreation Department needs to be critically examined because our long-range park development could influence our residential development. We reported this week that a survey being used to develop the park plan found residents want to prioritize trails and neighborhood parks. That’s not surprising because those amenities are the most commonly used and relatable for the most number of residents.

But, again, if we build new assets instead of upgrading existing ones, we encourage people to live farther from the core of the city, and we increase the financial burden on the entire city – as every new road and new park we build has to be maintained along with our existing ones.

Soon, the city will once again vote on its next budget, including its capital improvement plan. The City Council will be asked to endorse a parks master plan by the end of the year. It’s critical to look at where and how we’re planning to invest as a community and what the ramifications of those investments could be.

If we don’t, I believe we are going to continue to drive residents to our version of “the suburbs” just as places such as Raleigh are driving them to Apex. And while I think that inevitable regionalization ultimately should be a good thing, it also has the potential to put similar strain on communities such as Brandon, Harrisburg and Tea.

If The Wall Street Journal projection is correct that millennials are increasingly inclined toward “suburban” living, Sioux Falls actually should be positioned to capitalize on it. We offer many of the same quality-of-life elements that large suburbs do. But we’re only going to hold onto that “best place to live” status if we’re mindful of maintaining the qualities that got us there.

Jodi’s Journal: As millennials return to suburbia, a cautionary tale from a fellow ‘best place to live’

Sioux Falls was once named the best place to live in America. So was this town, nicknamed the “Millennial Mayberry.” But things aren’t quite idyllic there — and it could serve as a cautionary tale here.

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