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Frisco, Texas, has a plan

After engineering its own growth, can the Dallas suburb stay on top?

An aerial view of the roadways and homes in a suburban neighborhood. The homes are all the same and arranged very neatly. The roads form the outline of the state of Texas. Illustration.

It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. It was named the best place to live in America by Money magazine in 2018. It’s the headquarters of the Dallas Cowboys and soon the Professional Golfers’ Association. Its “$5 billion mile,” a stretch of commercial development along the Dallas North Tollway, may end up with more corporate office space than downtown Dallas.

The city in question is Frisco, Texas, a suburb 30 miles north of Dallas. Just 30 years ago it was a sleepy farm town of 6,000 people. But as the Dallas-Fort Worth area has attracted more and more corporate relocations, Frisco has absorbed more than its fair share of the growth and wealth that’s come with them.

Now home to around 190,000 people, Frisco can hardly be considered a suburb at all, as residents can live, work, and play within its 62 square miles. The city’s expansion has been deliberate, and carefully engineered. But a number of nearby suburbs have seen similar growth only to fall out of favor later, suggesting potential pitfalls for Frisco. City leaders are now tasked with saving Frisco from that fate.

“What we’re trying to avoid is being that bright star that starts fading out, but [instead] actually maintains its appeal as it ages, and maybe even has some more appeal,” says George Purefoy, Frisco’s city manager since 1987. “That’s what we’re hopeful will happen, but the story won’t be told for a few more decades.”

Frisco’s location north of Dallas made its growth almost inevitable.

The Dallas area’s explosive growth has tended to concentrate north of the city, as the residents of the historically segregated black neighborhoods in south Dallas have migrated to the suburbs in the south, like Cedar Hill, Duncanville, and Lancaster, which steadily grew between the 1970s and 1990s, while wealthier white residents moved north.

The first ring of Dallas’s north suburbs—Carrollton, Garland, Mesquite, and Richardson—were built out in the decades after World War II. Plano, Frisco’s neighbor to the south, saw similar growth in the 1980s and 1990s. Plano’s location along both the existing portion of the Dallas North Tollway (DNT) and Highway 75, two major transportation thoroughfares that dump Plano commuters into the heart of downtown Dallas in a matter of minutes, made it ripe for growth.

With a nudge from the city of Frisco, which saw the tollroad as instrumental to future growth, the DNT was expanded north through the middle of Frisco in the mid-1990s. With Highway 121 running along Frisco’s southern border, the connection between the two highways gave Frisco a major transportation corridor. One could go south on the DNT and be in downtown Dallas in 20 minutes. Going west on Highway 121 could take you to DFW Airport in the same amount of time.

This set the stage for Frisco’s boom.

“City leaders knew growth was coming,” says John Lettelleir, Frisco’s development services director. “It just came a lot quicker than they thought. The city council decided we want to get in front of this. We don’t want to just be another ‘disposable suburb.’”

The city’s plan to become a destination suburb required good schools, in-city entertainment, and high design and aesthetic standards for both commercial and residential developers.

Frisco Independent School District went from one high school in 1993 to a whopping 10 high schools today. While the district suffered growing pains along the way, Frisco ISD ranks sixth on Niche’s best school districts in Texas list with an overall grade of A-plus. This made Frisco an ideal town for families with young children.

Frisco lured a minor league baseball team, the RoughRiders, to town in 2003; the practice facility and headquarters for the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars the same year; and Major League Soccer’s FC Dallas in 2005. The PGA is in the process of moving its headquarters to Frisco, and two new golf courses will host major PGA tour events.

But the crown jewel of Frisco’s professional sports acquisitions is the Star, the headquarters and practice facility for the Dallas Cowboys, which doubles as a mixed-use development complete with high-end retail, commercial office space, and restaurants and bars.

Opening in 2016, the Star is part of Frisco’s $5 Billion Mile—which the city now calls the Frisco North Platinum Corridor—and it further spurred commercial development at the key corridor where the DNT and Highway 121 meet. The city and the school district pitched in $90 million of the $261.60 million in construction costs for the Ford Center at the Star, the mini-stadium in the development where the Cowboys practice.

“I think there’s no doubt that part of the reasoning the new council has for bringing in some of the sports franchises was to hopefully bring some energy to Frisco,” Purefoy says. “The development especially around the Star and Frisco Station now—and hopefully around the PGA headquarters—we’re hopeful that will encourage redevelopment into Frisco as it continues to age.”

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott runs across the goal line during the Dallas Cowboys OTA on May 30, 2018 at The Star in Frisco, TX.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Luring sports franchises and entertainment complexes to town is hardly a unique strategy for growing suburbs. Nearby Arlington, Texas, is home to the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Cowboys’ mythic AT&T Stadium, in addition to a Six Flags amusement park and water park. Arlington planted these attractions at a comparable transportation corridor where Interstate 30 and Highway 360 meet.

But Frisco has better integrated these sports facilities into the community. Frisco’s high schools often play their home football games at the Star, and some of its high school baseball games are played at Dr Pepper Ballpark, where the RoughRiders play. City officials say they brought smaller sports complexes to Frisco—as opposed to Arlington’s behemoths—because they thought the games and the lower-key crowds they draw would be more family-friendly.

But what has ultimately set Frisco apart from other fast-growing suburbs are the strict design and construction standards the city put in place prior to its boom. Residential and commercial developers say building in Frisco isn’t easy because of thorough inspections of newly constructed houses and open-space requirements the city put in its comprehensive plans.

Frisco can get away with asking more of its developers because the demand for both commercial and residential space is so high. And many developers say they don’t see these requirements as a negative. The requirements have forced developers to raise their standards to meet Frisco’s, and the result is a suburb less cookie-cutter than others built up in the same amount of time.

With the “high standards that Frisco has, the communities there definitely look nice,” says Sean Ricks, president of the Dallas-Fort Worth division of Trendmaker Homes, a homebuilder with experience in Frisco. “You see some stuff there you don’t see in other places. You’re not just seeing these small postage-stamp amenities. Developers will put in high-quality amenities. They’re thoughtful in their design.”

Frisco isn’t the only suburb of Dallas to reach such heights, and the problems that plague its predecessors serve as a cautionary tale. Young couples and wealth tend to gravitate to new neighborhoods and towns, and the homes and storefronts left behind can be a blight on the city and a drag on the city’s coffers.

Michael Hendrix, director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute, argues that funding for the maintenance of infrastructure that makes suburban sprawl possible depends on the continued growth of the suburb.

And when that growth inevitably slows and stops, that infrastructure falls into a state of disrepair, businesses and residents leave for a shiny new neighborhood, and property values stagnate or drop, leading to lower property tax revenue. It’s a vicious cycle that can send a once-proud neighborhood or town into decline, with cracked streets and empty storefronts.

“Once a neighborhood is in their mind as a neighborhood that’s going down, we’re already behind the eight ball,” Lettelleir says. “It’s hard to change people’s perception of a neighborhood. That’s why we try to get out in front.”

Is this Frisco’s fate? While the city won’t be able to control how it’s perceived, Frisco can help by limiting storefront vacancies and keeping the city’s coffers full in order to maintain infrastructure. In some suburbs, this maintenance will only be assured if the city continues to grow.

There are signs some residents have seen enough growth. Frisco’s most recent comprehensive plan allows for a maximum density of close to 375,000 residents. Frisco mayor Jeff Cheney was quoted by the Dallas Morning News in March saying he’d like to see a much lower number—around 275,000—and that “Density has become the new four-letter word.”

If the growth stops, the city has to find other ways to generate enough property tax value per acre to cover infrastructure maintenance for that acre, or risk residents fleeing to the new hot city.

Attendees review course plans during a media event unveiling the PGA of America’s new golf courses in Frisco, TX.
Getty Images

If growth stalls, the only way to increase property tax revenue is to raise taxes, increase the value of the property on that acre, or increase the amount of property on the acre. Otherwise, the city would have to turn to the federal government for funding, something antithetical to the state’s conservative orthodoxy.

Frisco is predominantly zoned for single-family housing, as are all Dallas suburbs, so increasing the amount of property on these acres would be thorny. When single-family neighborhoods become entrenched in a city, they inevitably form a homeowners association that fights any increase in housing density around the neighborhood.

This fight is already happening in Frisco. A homeowners association serving wealthy gated Stonebriar Legacy residential areas near the intersection of 121 and the DNT has been vocal about its opposition to mixed-use developments along this critical commercial and transportation corridor, citing increased congestion and general opposition to density.

“It’s fantastic that Frisco has the ‘best place to live in the U.S.’ title,” the HOA’s president, Charles Bundren, told the Dallas Morning News in March. “If we become an urban city, we won’t be No. 1.”

Without more density, bringing in more revenue requires increasing property values or raising taxes. When asked about keeping Frisco on top, Lettelleir says the city wants to encourage people to reinvest in their homes instead of moving on to the next neighborhood or town. Reinvestment in the home, by adding a swimming pool or doing other general renovations, would raise the value of the property and thus the property tax revenue the city brings in. Raising taxes is always an option but could be problematic politically.

And both of these approaches raise housing costs at a time when Frisco is already wrestling with the idea of affordable housing. According to Zillow, the median price of a home in Frisco is currently $399,300, which is high for the Dallas area. In the aftermath of the housing bust in 2009, it was $261,000. Continued growth in property values will make it harder for modest-income residents, including those who work for the city and the school district, to live in the city.

That leaves Frisco with a decision to make about which type of city it wants to become as it ages: one with residents from a diverse pool of backgrounds and incomes, or one that caters exclusively to the wealthy.

“If people in Frisco and future residents of Frisco desire a duplex where it’s not currently allowed, I think that we should not have regulations in place that deny them that choice,” Hendrix says. ”Over the long term, that is precisely what will help Frisco maintain its health as a city—financially, socially, culturally. It allows that kind of choice and freedom that is not currently in place in Frisco.”

Lettelleir says the city is cognizant of growing housing-affordability challenges but believes there’s no easy fix. While there are Frisco residents who oppose density, corporate relocations have brought people from the coasts to Frisco who prefer a more dense and walkable urban landscape, potentially enough people to offset the opposition.

While this debate won’t be settled any time soon, Frisco continues to grow; Purefoy believes the city still has a third of its land area left to develop. And new attractions continue to arrive. Uber announced in September that Frisco Station, a luxury mixed-use urban development next to the Star, will be the first test site for its flying taxis.

And while debates about the future play out among the residents, city leaders believe they can mediate disputes along the way, just as they have during the city’s boom.

“There’s always gonna be a case where people are in disagreement, but for the most part we’ve been successful in bringing groups together,” Lettelleir says.