What’s Behind the Fastest-Growing Suburban Cities in America?

Pop quiz: Name five of the fastest-growing suburban cities in the country.

Give yourself a point if you came up with Frisco, Texas. Add another if you named Carmel, Ind. Ditto for Sugar Land, Texas, South Jordan, Utah, and Franklin, Tenn.

These suburban cities are booming because they’re more than suburbs. They’re destinations for families and businesses. They’ve got character and a uniqueness — things so hard to find in the mass of cookie-cutter and strip-mall-dominated suburbs. They’re also the result of diligent planning. Finally, luck plays a part. Each of these go-go suburbs is located within an economically healthy metro region.

The leaders of these cities are not only planning the wisest ways to build on their already-burgeoning populations. They’re also planning to head off the challenges that typically follow rapid growth. Only time will tell the success of that planning, but they’re confident they’re on the right track.

No more blinking yellow light

About a half-hour due north of Dallas sits Frisco, Texas, named in the past five years by both CNN and Forbes as one of the country’s best cities in which to live. Many people — 136,000, at last count — agree, pushing the city’s growth rate from 2012-2013 to 6.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Before then — from 2000-2010 — Frisco’s growth was a whopping 247 percent, taking the city from 33,714 residents to 116,989.

Maher Maso, the city’s mayor, says it’s all been part of a plan. “When I moved here in 1992, we had 6,000 people and one blinking yellow light — and not much else,” he remembers. “Our growth hasn’t been an overnight thing. We’ve planned for it.”

Tony Felker agrees. “We’re aware and proud of the growth, but there’s a concerted effort to ensure the growth by itself isn’t the thing we’re most focused on,” explains the president/CEO of the Frisco Chamber of Commerce. “We want to make sure it’s smart, sustainable, and quality growth, and growth in the right areas so it’s not something that gets away from us, becomes something we can’t manage, and eventually leads to issues.”

For about 20 years, the city has guided growth through a master plan leaders tweak every five years or so. They’re doing that now, says Felker, in particular evaluating whether to develop a majority of the city with residential housing. They’re also deciding what they want Frisco to look like at buildout. “Our timeframe is variable depending on annual growth,” says Maso. “Our estimation is that we’ll have close to 350,000 in population, and that’ll be in 15 to 25 years.”

Maso says Frisco has also grown because it’s focused on education. “One-third of our growth has been below the age of 17, and about 10 percent has been below the age of five,” he says. “We have, on average, been adding three schools a year, and for this school year, we opened five. One was a new high school, but we’ll also open a new high school every year for the next three years.”

The area also benefits from being in a natural corridor of expansion for Dallas. That may be what has helped it attract many professional sports teams, who aren’t just building office and sports facilities in Frisco. The city often creates partnerships that allow local school kids to also play in those facilities. In August 2013, the Dallas Cowboys announced they’d build their corporate headquarters and training facility in Frisco, and the Frisco school district will be able to use the center for some sports events.

Finally, a critical component of the city’s success is keeping its small-town values, says Felker. It created Heritage Village, where key older structures from “old Frisco,” such as a church and log cabins, have been moved to create a walkable community. A big draw is Babe’s Chicken House, which serves family-style dinners in an up-to-code structure that developers designed to look many years ago,” says Felker.

New development, however, inevitably pushes up against tradition. Frisco’s leaders have worked to marry the two. “We used to have just one high school, and we’ve always had a homecoming parade down Main Street,” explains Felker. “People made floats, and everybody has come out.”

As new high schools have opened, people began asking whether there’d be a parade for each school, or would the city have to end its homecoming parade tradition? “There was talk that the parade was nice, but that we couldn’t have it anymore,” says Felker. “But several entities said no to that, and we’ve now converted it to a community parade. We’ll use it to tie the historic part of Frisco to the new part of downtown. We’re growing and changing, but we still try to keep a sense of history and those things that make it feel like a small town.”

A night on the town

Just north of Indianapolis is Carmel, Ind., which boasts more than 86,000 people and an 8.5 percent growth rate from 2010-2013, reports the Census.

The city, which houses more than 50 corporate headquarters, has long had a master plan. But when Jim Brainard was knocking on doors in his run for mayor in 1995, he heard a common complaint from residents, says Nancy Heck, director of community relations and economic development. They wanted places downtown where they could go to dinner and a show.

When Brainard took office, he began creating that downtown. “Just north of our civic square, where things like city hall and the fire department are located, was basically a farm field,” says Heck.

With that as a foundation, Brainard began planning for what’s now City Center, a mixed-use development that opened with residential and commercial uses in 2010 and restaurants and retail in 2011. Heck says eight more buildings are still slated to open in the development. The city also had a low-traffic area called Old Town. “The mayor had heard about a lot of places making arts and design districts and thought that would be a good use for the Old Town area,” says Heck. “The vision for those two areas came simultaneously, and now in the arts and design district, we have 10 galleries all within a few blocks of each other.”

Currently in the works is another mixed-use development to fill in the space, called Midtown, between those two hubs. “It takes about 15 minutes to walk from city hall to the arts district,” says Heck. “This will be a way to have infill development and make the whole area walkable without any industrial section in between.”

New music and theater venues have also “really enhanced the quality of life” for residents, says Heck. There once was no dedicated concert hall in Carmel. Today, there’s The Palladium, which Heck says has among the best acoustics in the world. Across the green is another building with a 500-seat and a 200-seat theater. “We now have nine resident companies for music, dance and theater that most weeks are performing several shows a week,” she says. “That really added a much-needed component to the community.”

But the story of Carmel wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the roughly 80 roadway roundabouts the city added to replace stop signs and stop lights during all the redevelopment. Residents were at first flummoxed, but the city did a major education campaign to ease concerns. Now its statistics match national statistics showing a 78 to 80 percent reduction in accidents with injuries where roundabouts have been installed, says Heck. There’s also been a 40 percent reduction in overall accidents.

“The mayor has a degree in, and is a real student of, history,” adds Heck. “He’s learned a lot about building for quality of life, and he believes you lose vibrancy when everybody works in your city and then goes home to someplace else. But when you have regular exchanges with others because you see them more frequently, you enjoy life more and feel more connected to your community.”

A perfect storm — in a good way

Exactly when the population of South Jordan, Utah, began to explode is hard to pin down. Forty-year-old Dave Robison, broker at goBE Realty and the 2014 president-elect of the Salt Lake Board of REALTORS®, has lived in the Salt Lake City suburb since he was four. He says it’s steadily shifted from not having a gas station when he was a kid to growing at a faster clip in the past 10 years.

A “huge contributing factor,” says Robison, has been Daybreak, a master-planned community the National Association of Home Builders has twice rated the nation’s number-one housing community.

Brian Preece, director of commerce for South Jordan, agrees Daybreak has been a factor, but says people often overestimate its importance in South Jordan’s growth. “I think people give Daybreak more credit than they should,” he says. “We’ve been growing like crazy since the 1990 Census, and during the last 10 years, Daybreak has been only about half of our growth.”

South Jordan went from a population of 12,220 to 29,461 from 1990-2000, says Preece. That number spiked to 50,418 in 2010. “Now our guesstimate is that it’s about 61,000,” he says. “I think it’s been because of good planning by the city. South Jordan has been growing because, even before I came here just shy of 10 years ago, the city required high-quality developments, both commercial and residential, and it became the zip code of choice where people want to live.”

Robison says many factors have collided to bring growth. “You could say it’s been a perfect storm,” he says. “Our population is increasing at a really high rate because of the amount of kids all the families have. The second factor is Daybreak, which has a lake and a lot of amenities. More than 3,000 homes have been built there in the last 10 years; they’ve got condos selling as low as $150,000 and luxury homes priced at $1 million.”

Robison expects Daybreak to have 10,000 homes within 10 years. But the development isn’t for everybody. “People either love Daybreak or don’t like it at all,” says Preece. “If they don’t like it, it’s because it’s designed to be a walkable community, but even in Daybreak, you pretty much need a car. It’s also higher density, and some people want a one-third or half-acre lot and don’t want to be that close to their neighbors.”

Lucky for them there’s other housing in South Jordan, even some that’s affordable. “The next contributing factor to South Jordan’s growth is that our past mayor, who specialized and worked his whole life in development, did some really good things to make sure the city had affordable housing,” says Robison. “Right now, about 43 percent of all homes sold are on one-third an acre or less. Ten years back, that number was less than 25 percent.”

Growth has triggered challenges. The biggest, says Robison, is schools. “Our schools are overcrowded,” he says. “They have a lot of pods, which are portable rooms that sit outside the school, for students. To fund the school system, we need different types of development — including multi-housing and commercial — which would increase our tax base. If people don’t allow those types of developments, their property taxes will have to increase.”

Like Frisco, the city’s leaders have a master plan they review every few years. Leaders are currently addressing how to do infill development wisely, says Preece, in addition to transportation issues. “We have a high-speed train [the TRAX light rail system to Salt Lake City] that runs through the east side of our city, but you have to get in the car to get to the train station,” he says. “We have buses, but they’re not convenient. Planners are really focusing on getting people that last mile without getting in your car.”

Annexation spurs growth

Another city on the fast track is Sugar Land, Texas, about 20 miles southwest of Houston. It had a 6.5 percent growth rate from 2010-2013 and now has more than 80,000 people, reports the Census.

“In 1960, our population was just over 2,800,” says Jennifer May, the city’s director of economic development. “Really we’ve been growing for decades.”

A good chunk of that growth has come through annexation of master-planned communities, she says. In 2006, Sugar Land annexed the Avalon community. It followed that several years later by annexing the River Park planned development.

Since then, however, all of Sugar Land’s growth has been organic. May says city estimates from 2004-2014 show that about 60 percent of its population increase came from growth, while 40 percent came from annexation.

“The biggest reason is our quality of life,” says May. “We have really good schools; a very, very low crime rate; great public spaces like an in-town square; and we’re actively developing entertainment venues. We’re now finalizing the design on a 6,500-seat performing arts center. People can literally live, work, shop and play here.”

Growth has also come in part because of Telfair, an in-city master-planned community. “It’s one of the more successful communities in the Houston area,” says May. “There’s a lake, and there are trails throughout it. They also have an incredible pool, a community center and a fitness center. There’s a bridge within the development, and it isn’t just a bridge. It’s a piece of art.”

The development is on former state prison property, and it still includes one of the old prison buildings. The developer donated that building to the city, which then spent about $6 million, says May, to create the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land.

As the city has grown, it’s become more diverse. “We’ve seen a huge, huge increase in the diversity, with the majority split between Asian Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Pakistani populations,” says May. “That required a lot of learning on the city’s part to understand the different cultures. We did a session for city staff to understand things like the holidays our residents celebrate and how police officers are perceived in various communities. But it’s also giving us an opportunity to explain to residents, ‘When you call 911, this is what you can expect,’ and ‘Here’s what to expect when you want a building permit.’”

The city’s now working on updating its land-use plan to evaluate challenges arising from expansion. Infrastructure, transportation and mobility are issues. “As we have more people and development, sometimes that can outpace infrastructure updates,” says Lisa Kocich-Meyer, director of planning. “We don’t have any public transit, but in some limited cases, we have pedestrian connectivity. Getting people in and around the area has been a challenge. A couple of years ago, we did a pilot program for a local shuttle circulator during the holiday season. But it wasn’t well used because we have an abundance of parking, and it’s free. We’re still trying to figure that issue out. Here in Texas, people are still tied to their cars.”

Preserving history is a big draw

About a half-hour south of Nashville lands you in Franklin, Tenn., a city that’s worked diligently to preserve its historic center while attracting corporations like Nissan and Healthways. That may be why from 2000-2010, Franklin grew 49 percent, bringing its population to 66,000. It also grew at a 10-percent pace from 20102013, when the Census counted nearly 70,000 residents.

Much of the growth can be attributed to the work of the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County, a historic preservation group that has focused on renewing the use for many of the downtown’s historic buildings. It raised $8 million to create a 300-seat, multi-use venue in the historic Franklin Theater, which opened in 2011 and features live music, theater productions and movies.

The entire downtown encompasses a 16-block National Register district, and its Main Street claims more than 150 buildings on the National Register. The district is filled with a mix of businesses ranging from restaurants and antique shops to artists’ studios.

“The preservation community worked with the business folks to redevelop the entire downtown Main Street area,” says Mayor Ken Moore, “which involved undergrounding utilities, upgrading infrastructure, and for many of them upgrading the facades on their businesses. Now it’s a place that people love to walk, have a cup of coffee, have lunch, and also we’d like them to go

in and spend a little money.” Next up for the foundation: The Old Old Jail. In 2013, the foundation purchased the historic art-deco building from the city for $25,000 — an amount donated by FirstBank. Renovations are underway to transform it into office space that will serve as the foundation’s headquarters.

G.M. Filisko is an attorney and freelance writer who writes frequently on real estate, business and legal issues. Ms. Filisko served as an editor at NAR’s REALTOR© Magazine for 10 years. 

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