Earlier this month in his post on NuLu, Insider Louisville staffer Doug Stern mentioned a Brookings Institute report titled, “Demographic Reversal: Cities Thrive, Suburbs Sputter.”
The report’s opening graph: “Last year, for the first time in more than nine decades, the major cities of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas grew faster than their combined suburbs.”
Is Louisville part of this trend?
Is the inner core throbbing with new residents while the outer ring of suburbs loses its allure?
There are three answers: Yes. No. And Maybe.
I know, not exactly the kind of hard-hitting, take-a-position advocacy journalism you expect from this site. But let’s look at why all three answers might apply.
According to Michael Price, state demographer at the Kentucky State Data Center, the population of Jefferson County grew by 0.78 percent between April 2010 and July 2011. If that seems like infinitesimal growth not worth mentioning, consider that in the same 15 months, Oldham County’s population grew by just 0.54 percent.
And that’s significant.
“Oldham County was the poster child in the last decade for suburban expansion,” says Price. “Big homes, more land, better schools. So what appears to be its growth slowdown is noteworthy.”
Why? Lots of speculation.
“People don’t want those 5,000-to-6,000-square-foot homes anymore,” says realtor Jay Gulick, director of operations and marketing for Kentucky Select Properties. “They’re costly to maintain, and people are trading all that space for a simpler life in town.”
“Gas prices are scaring people,” says Jefferson County Property Value Administrator Tony Lindauer. “They want their homes to be closer to their magic triangle of work, school and church.”
“If people haven’t lost their jobs, they’re feeling insecure about it,” adds Gulick, “and that’s driving their financial decisions. They don’t want so much of their money tied up in a 30-year mortgage.”
He says they can get better deals closer into town these days.
“The cheap suburban land, which allowed for lots of square footage, drove explosive growth over the last 20 years,” says Gulick. “But in today’s market, people looking to invest in real estate can spend the same $400,000 in a smaller, renovated, energy-efficient house in the Cherokee Triangle or Crescent Hill.
“And, because there’s a limited supply of that kind of house – there’s practically no available undeveloped land so there won’t be any new construction – the house will increase in value, making it a good long-term investment.”
So it sounds like the Brookings findings do apply to Louisville, yes?
In fact, says state demographer Price, our more outlying counties – Shelby, Bullitt, Henry, Nelson and Spencer – grew by 0.85 percent in the measurable 15 months, more than either Jefferson or Oldham.
Shelby County grew by 2.5 percent, Bullitt by 1.06 percent and Spencer County saw 1.85 percent growth. “It has Taylorsville Lake, which is attracting a lot of retirement settlement,” Price says.
Also, Price is not convinced the growth in Jefferson County is the result of people moving back in from the suburbs. “We’re seeing a lot of migration to Louisville from elsewhere in the commonwealth, especially Hispanics and African-Americans, coming here for jobs,” he says. “And we’re seeing a lot of international immigration.”
While there’s little net growth in the local job market, there’s growth in certain sectors, such as service and health care. “Nursing and hospital work draws people and so do the equine industries,” Price says. “Plus, our medical education facilities continue to be big draws for foreigners. We’re seeing an influx of immigrants from Somalia, Kenya, India and China.”
Then the Brookings study doesn’t apply to Louisville?
“I know that it’s happening here, I just can’t prove it,” says Lindauer, who would seem to have the research to prove pretty much anything about local real estate.
Louisville is a difficult metro area to assess because so much of Jefferson County has a suburban feel to it. According to Stern’s post, the study suggested “younger adults are opting for urban life. That’s shifting the attention of retailers, employers, schools and others inward.”
Is that really happening in Louisville?
“If you assess the Louisville urban area as anything inside the Watterson (Expressway), you’re looking at a fairly large area with lots of different types of neighborhoods,” says realtor Gulick. Hard to suggest that’s all about younger adults and “urban life.”
So even if people are buying homes and moving back to Indian Hills, St. Matthews and Cherokee Gardens, they’re not exactly clamoring for urban lifestyles. In fact, says Lindauer, some feel they’re finding that lifestyle in the outlying faux urban Norton Commons community.
Even if you apply Lindauer’s “magic triangle of life” formula to the subject, the fact is people are working in a lot of other parts of Jefferson County than simply downtown.
In fact, office construction and job growth are just as fast in the Hurstbourne area, the southeast part of the county, Old Brownsboro Crossings or almost anywhere along the Gene Snyder Freeway. And that doesn’t count people who, increasingly, work at home.
Besides, notes Gulick, “one of the things that attracts people to Louisville is the simplicity of life and ease of access. You can get just about anywhere from anywhere in 20 minutes.”
How many people do you know who have moved to closer neighborhoods to minimize the commute of driving their children to St. Xavier High School, Assumption or Manual?
And, notes nearly everybody, if people wanted great real estate bargains closer to the city, why isn’t Old Louisville thriving?