Expenses of time, gas money cut appeal of living in bedroom community

If Lawrence really is growing slower than it once did, Tom Bracciano thinks he knows why: Commuting isn’t as cool as it used to be.

“After a while people realize that they can move to Olathe,” said Bracciano, who as director of facilities for the Lawrence school district keeps an eye on the city’s population trends. “They realize they can buy a cheaper house and not have to commute. That is probably becoming a more popular thought all the time with gas prices.

“I just think some of our bedroom community appeal has worn off.”

Some professional planners are thinking along the same lines. Dean Palos, director of planning for Johnson County and a Lawrence resident, said he’d observed how Lawrence had become much more a part of the Kansas City metropolitan area.

At first glance, that would seem like a change that would fuel population growth, not slow it. But Palos said it might mean that potential Lawrence residents now are more likely to compare Lawrence with other K.C. metro area cities before they make a decision about where to live.

“You have to focus on your demographics,” Palos said. “You have to look at what the average cost of a home is and what the travel times are to major employers.

“There is no question that someone could choose to live in Tonganoxie or Basehor and their housing costs are going to be lower and their travel time to a job in Kansas City is going to be less.”

That’s why Palos said Lawrence leaders should take a careful look at not only how much the community is growing but also who is causing the growth.

Identify what’s important

It may be that the city would find that lower- to moderate-income residents are finding other area communities to live in. Then the city would have to determine whether that is a good or bad trend.

On one hand, if the city becomes skewed more toward a middle- to upper-class income range, that could lead to new types of retail and residential development with a heavy emphasis on quality of life factors. But on the other hand, people fear that if low- to moderate-income residents do begin leaving the city, the community will lose much of its prized diversity.

Figuring out which direction the community wants to go will be one of the key questions asked during a visioning process that city commissioners tentatively have planned for this fall.

“One of the more important things about a visioning process is that you identify what is really important to you,” said Larissa Brown, chief planner for Goody Clancy, a Boston-based consulting firm. “Those things can be places, but they also can be ideas.”

And planners said the community shouldn’t go into the process necessarily thinking that a slowdown in growth is a sign that the community had done something wrong.

“Most communities have heydays, and then they kind of pass,” said Francis Parker, a professor of urban planning at Ball State University.

Census data

Explore population trends in census data for Lawrence and other Kansas cities from 1900 to 2006. Go »

Parker said it was important for Lawrence to realize that its long-term trend was still on the positive side of the growth ledger and determine how to maintain and manage that growth.

“As long as the community recognizes that it will have a different set of issues, life can still be good,” Parker said.

Time to get aggressive?

But for some the numbers create a sense of unease. Bracciano, who in addition to working for the school district also made an unsuccessful run for the City Commission in 2005, said the community had to get more aggressive in attracting jobs.

“If you are seeing growth slow down, that is a real warning sign,” Bracciano said. “You have to have something to bring the young families in. That is what keeps the community growing and alive. They pay the taxes. They do the work.”

Bracciano said he sensed the community had become too complacent and was beginning to put too much stock in the thought that “growth is inevitable” for Lawrence because of its location and attributes.

“I know what we’ve recognized at the school district is that we’re competing for kids with these other communities,” Bracciano said. “It’s time for the city to get in the competitive mode too. They have to get off their butt and make things happen.”

But Palos said he hoped the community wouldn’t enter its upcoming visioning process in too negative of a mood. He said the community still had the “wonderful” statistic that 47 percent of all residents 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree, a downtown that is the envy of many and universities that add uniqueness.

“I think Lawrence needs to remember what it can do extremely well, and that is provide a high quality of life,” Palos said. “When you mention Lawrence to other people, their eyes still roll back in their head and they say how nice a community it is.”