Wichita downtown boom could be over before it starts

As Wichita moves towards the release of the plan for the revitalization of its downtown, urban planners — both local and out-of-town — tell us that there’s a big demand for downtown living. People are tired of suburban living, they say. The recent draft presentation by the city’s planning firm Goody Clancy contained bullet points like “who favor living and working in vibrant downtowns” and “and they are part of broad demographic trends that are much more ‘downtown friendly’ …e.g., almost two-thirds of Wichita’s households include just one or two people.”

Or, as “uber-geographer” Joel Kotkin wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week: “Pundits, planners and urban visionaries — citing everything from changing demographics, soaring energy prices, the rise of the so-called ‘creative class,’ and the need to battle global warming — have been predicting for years that America’s love affair with the suburbs will soon be over.”

But as Kotkin later writes: “But the great migration back to the city hasn’t occurred.”

Kotkin cites some figures showing the decline in the market for downtown condos in a few cities, and concludes “Behind the condo bust is a simple error: people’s stated preferences.” He shows some figures that support his contention that “Demographic trends, including an oft-predicted tsunami of Baby Boom ’empty nesters’ to urban cores, have been misread.”

These demographic trends are behind the analysis that Goody Clancy uses to promote its vision for downtown Wichita. Kotkin’s research ought to give us concern that downtown visionaries are leading Wichita down a path that really isn’t there.

Kotkin issues a note of caution for urban planners: “The condo bust should provide a cautionary tale for developers, planners and the urban political class, particularly those political ‘progressives’ who favor using regulatory and fiscal tools to promote urban densification. It is simply delusional to try forcing a market beyond proven demand.”

What does this mean for Wichita? Wichita’s planners and leaders are promoting a light-handed approach to downtown development, saying, for example, that public financing will be only for public purposes. But Wichita has a history of heavy-handed interventionism in markets, using economic development tools of all types. And as the mayor recently said at a council meeting, he’s recently learned of new types of incentive programs that other cities are using.

So I think Wichita’s leaders definitely will use the “regulatory and fiscal tools” that Kotkin warns of. It’s only without government intervention that we’ll know whether Wichitans really prefer suburban, downtown, or other forms of living. Urban planners and city hall bureaucrats can’t tell us that.

The Myth of the Back-to-the-City Migration

The condo bust should lay to rest the notion that the American love affair with suburbia is over.

Pundits, planners and urban visionaries—citing everything from changing demographics, soaring energy prices, the rise of the so-called “creative class,” and the need to battle global warming—have been predicting for years that America’s love affair with the suburbs will soon be over. Their voices have grown louder since the onset of the housing crisis. Suburban neighborhoods, as the Atlantic magazine put it in March 2008, would morph into “the new slums” as people trek back to dense urban spaces.

But the great migration back to the city hasn’t occurred. Over the past decade the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased. Meanwhile, demographer Wendell Cox’s analysis of census figures show that a much-celebrated rise in the percentage of multifamily housing peaked at 40% of all new housing permits in 2008, and it has since fallen to below 20% of the total, slightly lower than in 2000.

Continue reading at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) or at Kotkin’s website.

11 Comments

  • Typical Bob Weeks column. Of course, I don’t think he’ll be writing a check to pay back the subsidies for his own suburban home.

  • Hey Chuck,

    “Typical Bob Weeks column. ” Well, yes it is, he’s a Libertarian, this appears to be his website. Imagine that, he writes things that back up his opinions.

    “Of course, I don’t think he’ll be writing a check to pay back the subsidies for his own suburban home.” No, he doesn’t need to write a check, they take it out of his paycheck, and he pays it with his mortgage, they’re called TAXES.

    I was in StL earlier in the week and there are a LOT of lofts for sale. Imagine three time the old crappy high rise buildings that downtown Wichita has, all lofts, and all of them about 20% occupancy. Bet someone’s glad they made that investment.

    later

    Mike

  • I can’t understand why “progressives” feel the need to try to manage where others live! Good grief – stop stealing my money at the point of a gun (taxes) to subsidize things that few folks really want. If congested urban living makes sense economically because it is a popular choice, then developers will facilitate that. It is what they do.

    COW just fears it will end up like the school district – all the producing people will have fled for the burbs, leaving them with the non-paying dregs. COW needs to relax a little because unlike USD 259, most of the middle class burbs are within the COW boundaries so the residents there still pay COW taxes. The school district boundaries were drawn so far in the past that most of the middle class burbs are in the suburban school districts and 259 is out in the cold.

  • Why are liberals always angry??? Comments similar to: “Typical Bob Weeks”, “Incomplete analysis”, and “Ideological Libertarian” serves no purpose except to indicate that the reader is upset and can not offer an alternative opinion that is. logical and well researched.

  • Well, most of the readers aren’t running around pretending to be “journalists” either.

  • “Well, most of the readers aren’t running around pretending to be “journalists” either”

    That doesn’t address the point – why are liberals so angry all the time? Have you paid much attention to the demeanor of the liberals on TV? They are sour and dour – nothing is ever good enough. They have nothing to celebrate, ever!

    Get over it already – we live in the greatest country on Earth for people of any race or creed. Relish that and be happy about it instead of always trying to tear it down because it isn’t “perfect.” Nothing is, nor will it be. Love the country you have and stop yearning for a mythical land that isn’t practical or possible.

  • So what makes anyone think that it’s “liberals” who take issue with Bob’s posts? Because someone doesn’t agree with Bob, they are a liberal? Conservatives are just as angry. If they weren’t, the tea party wouldn’t have become what it is today.

  • Well, Conservatives don’t take (much) issue with Bob’s posts, and we’re angry (but not with Bob). We’d like to return Obama and get our money back. That would make us happy.

    Thanks

    Mike

  • Actually, I am a conservative and I do take issue with Bob’s posts regularly. However, I am a Republican and not a Libertarian. I believe that both R and D have failed the American public and would agree that I’d like to see Obama be a one-term president.

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