Kotkin on the Burbs…Data Shows Continued Strength

The first paragraph of Joel Kotkin’s piece appearing in Money Magazine’s "Best Places To Live" edition paints an incredibly accurate picture of the erudite downtownistas:

An increasingly trendy theory holds that the ticket
to attracting and retaining the educated and upwardly mobile is a big
dose of urban cool: Think open-air caf├ęs where well-heeled retired
boomers and twentysomething professionals gather after the theater to
sip Pinot Grigio while looking out at a skyline defined by the latest
creation of a world-renowned starchitect.

Excellent description.  In the case of the Des Moines metro, I’d slide in a reference to, "…and eating some kind of exclusive private label pork product." 

With the umpteen "Flats, Brownstones, and Loft" projects underway in downtown Des Moines, one would think that a massive trend is underway to move into the heart of the city where apparently no one actually makes coffee at home or buys wine by the bottle at Costco (Costco is located in the suburb of West Des Moines and is the only Costco in the state of Iowa).  However as Kotkin and the Praxis Strategy Group research points out, the data simply does not support the validity of this trend.

Suburbs and areas outside of the "Hip urban core" as Kotkin describes it, consistently demonstrate higher growth numbers and are delivering on the promise of a homey feeling more so than their "industrial downtown domiciles".  Kotkin cites a Temple University study that indicates, "Nearby suburbanites were
considerably more likely than city dwellers to see their neighborhood
as "home."

I don’t believe that the downtown loft craze is a bad one.  Des Moines struggles with its identity.  It wants to be hip and cool so that its recent college grads from many fine Iowa institutions stay here instead of bailing out for the coasts, Chicago, Minneapolis, etc.  This urbanite form of living may help bridge that gap for the 22-28 post college demographic.  However, when those men and women begin to settle down and have a few babies, they’ll begin to sprint for the suburbs where we watch our children ride bikes and electronic John Deere tractors while mom and dad chat with neighbors and sip inexpensive Shiraz.  The data as well as my gut both bear this out.  The Des Moines register often profiles people that have made the downtown leap…and they’re always either retired (or close to it) or attractive twenty-somethings.  When I read about a family of 5 doing this, I’ll modify this post.

So if I was a betting man, I’d go long on the positive mojo provided by the glut of urban development in Des Moines.  The recent Fast Company article that touted Des Moines as a "City on the Verge" of becoming a tech boomtown, also indicates that the metro may be on the verge of retaining the younger set as employees of hip tech companies.  (My comments on that article will appear in the magazine next month I believe)

But what happens if the tech companies plant their offices in the burbs because of tax breaks and other back office niceties? (Very likely and far more practical) Will the youth choose a 15-20 minute commute (about the longest commute possibly in God’s gift to mankind, Des Moines) from their downtown  "above the coffee shop" loft?  Or will they buy a nice 3 bed room home with a mortgage payment that’s less than rent…and use their savings for a Costco membership?  Come on in folks…the burbs and the inexpensive wine are just fine! 

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