December 18, 2005
Far and Away
In Exurbs, Life Framed by Hours Spent in the Car
By RICK LYMAN

FRISCO, Tex. - When Max Bledsoe was growing up on a farm here a
quarter-century ago, this was a tiny railroad town of 2,000 souls, far
removed from the bustle of cosmopolitan Dallas, 30 miles to the south across
the flat North Texas plains.

Now, as a health teacher and softball coach at Frisco High School, Mr.
Bledsoe works for a school district with more employees than the town once
had residents. It serves an exploding exurb of 82,000, where the rush of new
roads and shops has almost, but not quite, caught up to the booming
population.

"Used to be, a drive into Dallas was a 30- to 40-minute event, something you
could do on a whim," Mr. Bledsoe said. "But now, it takes 20 minutes just to
get out of town."

Frisco is an exurb caught in an adolescent age of gawkiness, where every
major artery is under construction, or soon will be, and a drive across town
can be a maddening crawl between orange cones and roaring bulldozers.

America is growing at its fastest in places like this, at the margins of
some of its biggest cities, in the domain of the automobile and the
master-plan subdivision, far from the urban centers that spawned them.

They begin as embryonic subdivisions of a few hundred homes at the far edge
of beyond, surrounded by scrub. Then, they grow - first gradually, but soon
with explosive force - attracting stores, creating jobs and struggling to
keep pace with the need for more schools, more roads, more everything.

And eventually, when no more land is available and home prices have
skyrocketed, the whole cycle starts again, another 15 minutes down the
turnpike.

But in the meantime, life here is framed by hours spent in the car.

It is a defining force, a frustrating, physical manifestation of the
community's stage of development, shaping how people structure their days,
engage in civic activities, interact with their families and inhabit their
neighborhoods.

Ask residents why they moved here, and they tend to give the same answers:
more house for the money, better schools, a lifestyle relentlessly focused
on the family.

Ask them what the trade-off is, and most often they mention the traffic.

Chris Gray, 34, moved to Frisco with her husband eight years ago, eager for
a bigger house in an affordable, family-oriented community. Ms. Gray quit
her job as a financial consultant for Electronic Data Systems in Plano, the
previous exurban boomtown just to Frisco's south, and decided to become a
stay-at-home mother for her two daughters. But her husband, who works near
downtown Dallas, has paid the price.

"I can't count on him being home before 7 o'clock," she said. "Even if he
leaves the office at 5:30, he's not here until 7. This morning, he left at
5:30 and it took him 35 minutes. But if it's raining outside, he can count
on a two-hour drive."

Ms. Gray has been able to volunteer for her neighborhood association and
local PTA, and to become a cheerleading coach at school. But her husband's
uncertain schedule keeps him from volunteering in community activities.

"I love Frisco to death," she said, "but it's having growing pains."

And no wonder.

Between 1990 and 2000, the Dallas North Tollway was extended to these parts,
and Frisco's population grew nearly 450 percent, to 33,714. It has been
growing about 20 percent a year ever since.

And still, less than half of the 71-square-mile city is developed, leading
urban planners to predict that if current growth continues, the population
will reach 200,000 to 250,000 in 2020.

A decade ago, there was one elementary school here. Today, there are 18, and
four more are due to open next fall. A second high school opened last year,
and two more are due in 2006. A seventh middle school will open in 2007. And
three times as many schools will be needed by 2020.

The inevitable result, longtime residents fear, will be a breakdown in the
small-town atmosphere.

"For a long time, the homecoming parade was a big deal here," Mr. Bledsoe
said. "But now, we have two high schools. And before we're finished, there
will be seven or eight. So things are going to change. It's inevitable."

Already, the North Texas Tollway Authority is at work on another extension,
this one through the center of Frisco to the town's northern edge. Plans
call for taking the road north, where developers are carving up the land
around Prosper, the next community in the path of exurban growth.

Christine Obenberger was living in Menomonee Falls, Wis., a suburb of
Milwaukee, when her husband said he wanted to move on with his career in
high-tech security systems, to greater opportunities someplace else.

Almost immediately, he got a job offer with a sizable raise in Phoenix. "So
I jumped on the Internet and was trying to research the area," Ms.
Obenberger said, "when suddenly, this box popped up asking me to take a
survey on the best place for us to live. It took me about 20 minutes and
gave me a list of 20 potential cities. To my surprise, three-fourths of them
were in Texas."

Austin she rejected as being too liberal. Houston seemed too hot. So she
started looking at the Dallas area, going for the best combination of highly
rated schools and lower-than-average house prices. "And I kept coming back
to Frisco, which I'd never heard of before," she said.

On July 1, she, her husband and their two children moved into their new
house in the Lone Star Ranch development on Frisco's west side. "I got twice
the house for the same price, half the property taxes and better schools,"
she said. "And politically, I feel a lot more at home here."

In 2004, Republican strategists concentrated much of their efforts on
counties that they classified as exurban, and President Bush received some
of his largest vote margins there.

Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's senior adviser, described an exurb as being "like a
new suburb" that had sprung up "past the old, established suburbs." And
Kenneth B. Mehlman, the president's campaign manager, attributed much of the
party's success to its showing in such places.

In more recent elections, like the Virginia governor's race in November,
Democrats have fared better in the exurbs. But Frisco seems secure territory
for Republicans.

Collin County, where most of Frisco is located (portions bleed into Denton
County), went for Mr. Bush over Senator John Kerry in 2004 by 71 percent to
28 percent, a far different result from the vote in Dallas County, where Mr.
Bush drew 50 percent to Mr. Kerry's 49 percent.

Mayor Mike Simpson said it was not uncommon for residents to ask him, even
in the town's nonpartisan local elections, whether he was a steadfast
Republican.

"I think you'd have to say that this is a pretty conservative area," Mayor
Simpson said, "and that people here feel pretty strongly about most of the
social conservative issues."

A generation ago, the suburban phenomenon was latchkey children, fending for
themselves after school in houses left empty by two working parents.

But one of the forces driving people into the exurbs is the ability, with
cheaper housing - in Frisco, the median home price is $228,827, city
officials say - to cut back to one income and allow a parent to stay home
and get more deeply involved in school and family activities.

Technology has accelerated this trend, allowing some people to work from
home and try for the best of both worlds.

That is what Ms. Gray does. Since her youngest daughter began attending
preschool, she has returned to her old job part time, working three days a
week from home. Ms. Obenberger works from home, too, as a marketing
consultant.

And Richard E. Kinnunen, a stay-at-home father, sells insurance from an
office in his house and spends large chunks of every day volunteering at
school.

"It's my wife who does the commuting," Mr. Kinnunen said, giving him time to
be president of the Council of PTA's for Frisco schools.

The result is that the modern exurb has more daytime residents than the
suburbs did a generation ago, urban experts say. More people frequent a
different mix of shops, restaurants and recreational facilities. And that
has created more traffic throughout the day, the morning rush hours giving
way to gridlock caused by shoppers, school drop-offs and lunch throngs.

As a resident since November 1993, Mr. Kinnunen qualifies as an old-timer in
Frisco. And although most newer residents say they have found it easy to
make friends, older residents note a subtle change in the pattern of life as
subdivisions spread and people spend more time in the car.

"We don't really see our neighbors so much anymore," Mr. Kinnunen said. "We
all drive into our back alleys and into our garage, and that's that."

The added commuting time has made it difficult to find volunteers for things
like school committees and coaching soccer.

"We have now a generation of people who would rather say, I'll give you some
money instead of volunteering," Mr. Kinnunen said. "It's harder to get the
year-round commitment, the joining and the being part of something. People
are too jealous of their time, because they have to be."

Jay Crutcher, a lawyer who commutes to an office in downtown Dallas from
Frisco's west side, said any trip of under an hour constituted a good day.

"We moved here, mainly, for the schools, which are great," Mr. Crutcher
said. "And we're people who want to be as close as we can to the fields and
the cows and the coyote."

Still, he yearns for the tollway extension to be completed, so that the
first 20 minutes of his commute will not be on local roads choked with
school traffic.

At a town hall meeting at Benton A. Staley Middle School one evening last
month, Mayor Simpson presided over a program extolling the city's
achievements and plans.

The minor league baseball park, home to the Frisco RoughRiders, part of the
Texas Rangers organization, had been a roaring success, he said, as had the
new home for the DFW Tornados, part of the North American Hockey League. And
in mid-November, a new soccer complex, soon to be home to Dallas's
professional soccer team, was the site of the M.L.S. Cup, the national
championship of professional soccer.

A recreational center for Frisco residents, including 21,000 feet of workout
space, was scheduled to open in late 2006. And construction proceeded apace
on the huge new city hall and its adjacent library, the centerpiece of a new
downtown area rising to the west of the old one.

But by far the loudest applause came during the city engineer's presentation
as she outlined, project by project, exactly when new roads would open to
traffic over the next few years.

"If you're like me," joked Jeffrey Witt, the administrator overseeing the
creation of a comprehensive plan for the town, "at least you want to be
stuck in traffic behind a car with a lot of bumper stickers, so you've got
something to read and at least you're entertained."



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