By Theodore Kim | Staff Writer
The Dallas Morning News
At current growth rates, the North Texas suburbs will reach the Red River someday.
Cheap land, good schools and other strengths have fueled an era of suburban development in North Texas, spurring unprecedented job growth, prosperity and a high quality of life.
But the potent mix of developer-friendly policies good highways and open terrain has made North Texas - and Collin County, in particular - a supercharged showcase for sprawl.
The pro-growth culture is so strong that planners foresee a day when development reaches out 100 miles from Dallas. Yet given the long-term costs behind such a layout, some community leaders believe that unchecked growth is unsustainable.
Commute times are rising. Air quality has declined. Water supplies are strained. And as subdivisions continue to sprout up on the Texas prairie, older communities closer to downtown Dallas have struggled to turn around aging neighborhoods and declining school enrollments and replace outmoded infrastructure.
Some in North Texas have already begun to approach growth more thoughtfully. Of course, no community has all the answers. And curbing this regions's relentless outward push could prove particularly hard, since Texas - its laws, culture and residents - all point the same way: outward.
"Dallas Ft-Worth is rapidly maturing. Its costs are growing," said Bill Sproull, president and chief executive officer of the Richardson Economic Development Partnership. "These are the natural consequences of suburban growth. I don't think it's sustainable if all we have is just unbridled sprawl."
Beginnings of boom
Suburban growth took off after World War II as young families, aided by passage of the GI Bill and construction of the interstate highway system, pursued homeownership.
The suburbs stretching from Interstate 635 provide a window into North Texas' six decades. The turbines that once powered Richardson's rise have since moved northward to Plano, Allen, Frisco, McKinney, and, more recently, Prosper, Celina, and the Grayson County line.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area has more people, about 6.5 million, than all of Texas did during World War II. More than half of that total now live beyond the city limits of Dallas and Ft. Worth.
And the region is slated to almost double in population between 2000 and 2030, according to the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Most of that growth has been on the edges. The region now measures roughly three times the size of Rhode Island.
Collin County, the nation's fastest-growing from 2000 to 2007, is the epicenter. The county's population has tripled in size since 1990 and is now comparable to that of San Francisco or Detroit. Frisco's population, which was a mere 6,000 in 1990, stands at about 120,000.
The search for good schools, cheaper housing, more space and easy road access has driven the migration. The consolidation of smaller suburban school districts after World War II helped propel the surge.
Sherie Hammett, a mother of three who lives in a large Plano home, is one of many north Texans attracted to cozy suburban for those reasons.
She said she sometimes drives up to 100 miles a day running errands. She keeps clean clothes and small refrigerator stocked with water in the back of her Chevy Suburban.
"It's the quality of life," Hammet said. "It's the safety of knowing your kids can be out front. You get a little bit of everything up here: The schools are good, you can get the space and still have money for other things."
Yet perhaps more than any other factor, the rise of big job centers amplified the pace and scale of development here.
One might say Collin County's current spurt began with a phone call back in 1981.
That's when Ross Perot, founder of data systems giant EDS, called Robbie Robinson to design a 2,700-acre minicity on the region's northern outskirts.
Looking to relocate his growing Dallas company, Perot surveyed his employees and found that many of them lived north of Interstate 635, attracted by open space and good schools.
So be began planning a mega-campus in rural Plano called Legacy Business Park that would include space for a new EDS headquarters and other corporations, as well as places to live and shop.
Robinson, then a naval engineer who helped build military bases, recalls sizing up his new boss carefully.
"He had the resources to do whatever it was he wanted to do," said Robinson, who is now 72 and lives in Plano. "To build a city from scratch was just an incredible opportunity. It was just cow fields at the time."
Little did Robinson and his boss think Legacy might jump-start an entirely new ring of suburbs. Combined, Legacy and Richardson's nearby telecommunications corridor have almost as much office space as nine Empire State Buildings and are home to about 100,000 workers.
Those corridors have made it possible for residents to live far beyond urban Dallas, without long commutes to downtown. And they have spurred new clusters of employment even farther out, such as Frisco's 162-acre Hall Financial Park, which opened in 1998 north of Legacy.
A commute from a subdivision in Prosper to downtown Dallas takes about 45 minutes without traffic. The drive from Prosper to Frisco is about 10 minutes.
"These things have built upon themselves," said Sproull, the economic development chief. "Allen and McKinney could not have had the tech presence without Richardson. Frisco would not be where it is without Plano."
Yet even meticulously planned centers such as Legacy - in which engineers discussed the angle at which Legacy Drive approaches Perot's company - spring up organically and somewhat haphazardly. The resulting growth - subdivisions, retail centers and roads - does the same.
Richardson reached new heights after telecom firm MCI moved there in the late 1970s to be closer to supplier Rockwell Collins. Perot also hatched his plan primarily out of self-interest: Suburban land was cheap and plentiful, while his employees would have short commutes.
Those and other employment milestones, including the creation of another massive suburban job center at Las Colinas in Irving, pointed Dallas- Fort Worth's explosion to the north.