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Torsten Kjellstrand—www.travelportland.com

The 6 Best Big Cities

Sep 17, 2016

Sure, small cities have their charm, and the ones on our Best Places ranking have it in spades. But some of us don’t feel as if we’re really living unless we’re doing it in the middle of a bustling metropolis. Our Best Big Cities list identifies the metro area (300,000-plus population) in each region of the country that offers all the benefits of big-city living plus strong job growth, affordable housing, good schools, low crime, and great quality-of-life factors such as ample transportation options and access to green space. These six places emerged from our pool of 63 contenders as the hottest spots for urban dwellers now.—Sarah Max

Best in the Northeast: Boston

Boston's GreenwayBoston’s Greenway Boston’s Greenway 
AT A GLANCE
Population657,828
Median Home Price$545,000
Average Property Tax$5,292
Unemployment Rate4.2%

If there's one thing Boston is known for, it’s the Big Dig—the 15-year, $15 billion effort to bury the city’s major traffic artery in tunnels underground. Much derided while it was going on, the project did more than just relieve gridlock on I-93; it also helped spark what the New York Times called “one of the most successful urban renaissance stories in modern American history.”

Gone is the multitiered highway that once bifurcated downtown and the North End. In its place: the 15-acre Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a 1.5-mile string of five distinct parks that has become a favorite local spot for food-truck dining, browsing outdoor art installations, and taking a spin on the carousel.

“If you look back 25 or 30 years, Boston looked like a declining port city,” says Graham Wilson, director of the Boston University Initiative on Cities. The completion of the Greenway and ongoing development of the South Boston Waterfront tell a different story. Wilson cites GE’s relocation to Beantown as emblematic of the change.

Boston: An Urban Gem Gains Polish

Courtesy of the Boston Symphony OrchestraThe Boston Symphony Orchestra. Courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra 

Steve Ball moved to the area two years ago from Syracuse with his wife, Laura Ecker, and their two children. An engineer, Ball came for a dream job with a fuel-cell company, part of a local employment boom that has boosted the city’s population by 8% since 2010, more than twice the national average. But it’s the educational opportunities and kid-friendly cultural attractions—like the Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary and the New England Aquarium—that sustain the young family. There’s plenty of culture for adults too: Boston boasts the highest per capita arts funding of any city on this list.

The strong local economy has sparked an unprecedented rise in construction, with new buildings currently going up in 19 of the city’s 23 neighborhoods. Many of them, like the luxury towers rising in historically blue-collar “Southie,” are targeting young professionals, to the dismay of some longtime residents. At $477,000, the median condo price is roughly twice the national apartment median.

HOT HOOD: Development is heating up in the waterfront neighborhood of Dorchester, an ethnically diverse enclave that’s home to the JFK Presidential Library and the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

Best in the Southeast: Raleigh

K. Malinofski/Courtesy NCMAVisitors enjoying a Frank Stella at the North Carolina Museum of Art K. Malinofski/Courtesy NCMA 
AT A GLANCE
Population432,657
Median Home Price$208,250
Average Property Tax$2,495
Unemployment Rate4.3%

After the financial crisis, New Yorker Mike Eklund decided it was time to change careers, from banking to financial planning, and hometowns. He and his wife, Kerri, scoped out midsize cities around the country for their growing family. Their search ended in Raleigh, North Carolina’s state capital and a top-ranked town for everything from launching a career to enjoying one’s golden years.

“It has everything we wanted: good schools, a reasonable cost of living, and it’s a great place to raise a family,” says Eklund, who has four daughters ages 2 to 10. Indeed, Raleigh has become a magnet for young families: The number of children between the ages of 5 and 14 grew more than 55% from 2000 to 2013, roughly 10 times the national average.

Meanwhile, the local economy is booming. Between 2010 and 2015, job growth in Wake County was a whopping 20%. Raleigh has a strong employment base of its own, anchored by government jobs, and many residents commute to nearby Research Triangle Park, home to more than 200 companies, including Cisco, IBM, and Fidelity.

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Raleigh: A Magnet for Young Families

Philip Scalia—Alamy Oakwood Neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. Philip Scalia—Alamy  

“We set ourselves a goal to be in the top five hotspots for innovation and entrepreneurship in the nation,” says DeLisa Alexander, executive vice president and chief people officer for software company Red Hat. Alexander is a board member of Innovate Raleigh, a group of local business and community leaders. When it comes to ideas for developing Raleigh’s business climate, “People don’t say no,” she says. “They say yes—and how can we help.”

The area benefits from the presence of three top educational institutions: Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And there’s no shortage of culture, with more than 80 live-music venues and two fine-arts museums.

These big-city amenities come with easy access to the outdoors. The region has hundreds of miles of trails, and the Capital Area Greenway is a superhighway for bike commuting, running, and exploring. Getting out of town is also a breeze. “The beach is two hours away,” says Eklund, “and the mountains are less than three hours the other way.”

Real estate, too, remains within reach. Raleigh ranks in the top 25 of major metro areas on housing affordability, a measure of home prices relative to household income.

HOT HOOD: Raleigh’s oldest neighborhood, Mordecai (pronounced “MOR-duh-kay”), is attracting new residents, drawn by its close proximity to downtown, highly rated elementary charter school, lower- than-average crime rates, and mix of new and historic homes.

Best in the Midwest: Columbus

Clarence Holmes—Alamy
AT A GLANCE
Population822,548
Median Home Price$131,500
Average Property Tax$2,571
Unemployment Rate4.1%

When brothers Andy and Phil George decided to find a permanent home for their then-fledgling company in 2012, Columbus was a no-brainer. It wasn’t just the low cost of living vs. Los Angeles, where they launched the business, or the dozen-plus Fortune 1,000 firms in town, or the resources of Ohio State University. It was the promise of a city on the rise. “We felt there was a lot of positive momentum,” says Andy George, cofounder of startup MentorcliQ, which helps launch and manage employee mentoring programs.

You sure could say that. In the past five years more than 150 companies have moved to the area, drawn by a highly educated workforce—the region has more than 60 college and university campuses—and a solid business base that includes major retailers L Brands and Abercrombie & Fitch. In 2015 the city saw the highest wage growth in the country, with average hourly wages shooting up 6.2%, far exceeding the national rate of around 2% and surpassing even such go-go burgs as San Fran-cisco (6%).

The latest coup: Columbus recently beat out 78 cities in the U.S. Department of Transporta tion’s Smart City Challenge to win $50 million in grants to supplement the $90 million the city has raised to modernize transportation; plans include corridors for self-driving vehicles and a fleet of electric city cars.

Columbus: Making the Midwest Cool

Bill Bachmann—Alamy The historic Ohio Theatre in Columbus. Bill Bachmann—Alamy  

“There has been a real desire to see the city grow and reach its potential,” says Kenny McDonald, president and chief economic officer of Columbus 2020, the economic development organization for the 11-county Columbus region.

Higher home prices have come on the heels of the city’s growing popularity—the median price of $131,500 is up $19,000 since the end of 2014—but for newcomers coming from other cities this size, that seems a bargain. Single--family homes and luxury condos in the city’s hopping Short North neighborhood, so named for its location just north of downtown, start at about $300,000. Move away from the city center and prices plunge below $200,000. Even the “far” neighborhoods aren’t much of a haul, says George, who lives in Short North with his wife and two daughters. “There is no part of the city you can’t get to in less than 30 minutes.”

HOT HOOD: About a mile from downtown, Olde Towne East is newly cool, on the strength of its great location, uptick in commercial activity, and historic-housing stock. How’s this for reverse sticker shock: A 1920 five--bedroom, seven-bathroom brick beauty with an asking price of $375,000.

Best in the South: Arlington, Texas

Kauwuane Burton—Courtesy of Viridian
AT A GLANCE
Population381,537
Median Home Price$168,688
Average Property Tax$3,929
Unemployment Rate4.1%

Tucked between Dallas and Fort Worth, Arlington is known as the Entertainment Capital of Texas, and for good reason. It’s home to four professional sports teams—Dallas Cowboys football, Texas Rangers baseball, Dallas Wings basketball, and Dallas Charge softball—theme parks, music venues, comedy clubs, and, not least, the International Bowling Hall of Fame.

Still, there’s more to this city than fun and games.

“Professionally there are a lot of options,” says local Redfin agent Tara Anthony. While Arlington itself has many large employers, including a major General Motors assembly plant and hospital system Texas Health Resources, “there are job opportunities in either direction,” she says. AT&T and Bank of America are top employers in Dallas, 20 miles to the east, while American Airlines parent AMR and Lockheed Martin are 15 miles west, in Fort Worth.

Arlington is also a sweet spot for parents looking for affordable homes and top-ranked schools, including standout public charter school Uplift Summit International Preparatory, named one of the top 20 most challenging high schools in the U.S. by the Washington Post.

Arlington: "Boomburg" Comes of Age

Kevin BrownRangers Stadium in Arlington, Texas Kevin Brown 

The median home price in Arlington is just shy of $169,000, vs. around $240,000 for the national metro-area median, and its home price appreciation—up 10% in the past year—is among the strongest in the country.

As Arlington’s population has more than doubled since 1980, the city has made an effort to contain sprawl, investing in transportation alternatives like bike lanes and exploring a high-speed rail line linking Arlington to Dallas and Fort Worth. The downtown has also been getting a makeover: Here residents can enjoy some of the old, such as the circa-1949 Arlington Music Hall, alongside the new, like the Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts, an outdoor venue that plays host to more than 50 free outdoor concerts a year.

“We have put a lot of work into our downtown,” says Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams. “Eight or nine years ago we had one restaurant downtown. Now we have 20, including a brewery in what was
a car dealership.”

There’s also a lot happening on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington. The school plans to break ground this fall on a $125 million Science and Engineering Innovation complex, further bolstering its reputation as a major health-science research institution.

HOT HOOD: In Viridian, a master-planned community on the city’s north side, new single-family houses start at around $350,000. Residents have access to five lakes and miles of bike paths that connect with nearby River Legacy Parks, a 1,300-acre nature preserve.

Best in the Mountains: Colorado Springs, Colo.

Courtesy of visitCOS.comFirst Friday ArtWalks in Old Colorado City Courtesy of visitCOS.com 
AT A GLANCE
Population444,776
Median Home Price$227,500
Average Property Tax$1,100
Unemployment Rate4.7%

Sun-drenched Colo rado Springs may best be known for athletic and out door pursuits. In the shadow of 14,000-foot Pikes Peak, the area is home to the flagship U.S. Olympic Training Center and hundreds of miles of stunning hiking and biking trails along the Colorado Front Range.

But the high-altitude city (6,035 feet) is also enjoying a high-speed economy, with employment increasing at the fastest clip since 2000, outpacing the rate of growth in the rest of Colorado—and in the rest of the country. A lot of those jobs are in the field of aerospace; with the U.S. Air Force Academy and NORAD nearby, it’s no surprise that Fortune 500 names including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing have a significant presence here.

That has paved the way for growth in other high-tech areas. “We’re one of the top five markets in the country for cybersecurity,” says Al Wenstrand of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.

Colorado Springs: Easy Living—and Working

Gaylon Wampler/courtesy of visitCOS.comFly fishing at Angler’s Covey in Colorado Springs Gaylon Wampler/courtesy of visitCOS.com 

Another major employer is the small, private Colorado College, which has burnished its reputation as a top liberal arts institution. The campus’s new, award-winning $25.5 million Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center has helped address one need in the community—more access to cultural programming—with two theaters, exhibition space, a soundstage, and screening room.

Low crime, good schools, easy commutes, health care options, and increasing but still affordable home prices have earned Colorado Springs the top ease-of-living rank among our Best Cities.

HOT HOOD: The National Historic District of Old Colorado City is one of the most eclectic neighborhoods in town. It combines Old West charm with modern amenities like art galleries, shops, and cafés, and its homes—many with views of Pikes Peak—can be had for at or below the local median price.

Best in the West: Portland, Ore.

John VallsPortland’s Argentinian-inspired Ox restaurant. John Valls 
AT A GLANCE
Population622,004
Median Home Price$349,000
Average Property Tax$4,285
Unemployment Rate4.7%

Portland is the place where Portlandia seems more documentary than satire. Farm-to-table restaurants, stretched earlobe rings, craft-beer-swilling hipsters, and cries of “Bicycle right!” are common in this burgeoning Pacific Northwest city. But that quirky spirit, coupled with a vibrant tech culture, is precisely why people are moving here—or moving back.

“When I graduated from the University of Oregon in the ’80s, my college counselor told me to leave the state because there were no jobs,” says Leslie Carlson, a partner with Brink Communications, a small firm that combines social activism and marketing. That’s not a problem today. Portland’s unemployment rate stands at 4.7%, and its 3.3% job-growth rate puts it in the top 10 of large U.S. cities. The arrival of technology companies including wind-power giant Vestas, home-sharing site Airbnb, and venture-backed Puppet Labs has earned treelined Portland the nickname “Silicon Forest.”

Portland: Silicon Valley Meets Hipster Heaven

Torsten Kjellstrand—www.travelportland.comAll the Apparatus plays around Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon. Torsten Kjellstrand—www.travelportland.com 

Increasingly, leaders from that other tech hub, Silicon Valley, have relocated here for the lifestyle. With amenities like Forest Park, an eight-mile-long urban forest reserve designed by the Olmsted Brothers (sons of famed Central Park landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted); an extensive network of neighborhood greenways (a.k.a. “bicycle boulevards”); and a world-class food scene, Portland culture caters to the green life-work balance. “We can ride our bikes almost anywhere,” says Carlson, who lives in Southeast Portland.

Not surprisingly, the city has seen an attendant surge in home prices. The median price is up $30,000 year over year, to $349,000. Then again, that’s still less than half the median in San Francisco, where a lot of new residents hail from.

HOT HOOD: South of Portland’s -bustling Division Street near the banks of the Willamette River, Sellwood--Moreland is less hipster (and more expensive) than some other popular parts of town, but homes are selling fast to families looking for an old-fashioned neighborhood feeling, plus proximity to good schools and a short distance to the amenities of downtown.

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