America’s Opportunity City

America’s Opportunity City

Posted in the Chicago Forum

City Journal

Tampa, FL

#1 Jul 24, 2014
Joel Kotkin and Tory Gattis

America’s Opportunity City

Lots of new jobs and a low cost of living make Houston a middle-class magnet.

Summer 2014

David Wolff and David Hightower are driving down the partially completed Grand Parkway around Houston. The vast road, when completed, will add a third freeway loop around this booming, 600-square-mile Texas metropolis. Urban aesthetes on the ocean coasts tend to have a low opinion of the flat Texas landscape—and of Houston, in particular, which they see as a little slice of Hades: a hot, humid, and featureless expanse of flood-prone grassland, punctuated only by drab office towers and suburban tract houses. But Wolff and Hightower, major land developers on Houston’s outskirts for four decades, have a different outlook.“We may not have all the scenery of a place like California,” notes the 73-year-old Wolff, who is also part owner of the San Francisco Giants.“But growth makes up for a lot of imperfections.”

A host of newcomers—immigrants and transplants from around the United States—agree with that assessment. Its low cost of living and high rate of job growth have made Houston and its surrounding metro region attractive to young families. According to Pitney Bowes, Houston will enjoy the highest growth in new households of any major city between 2014 and 2017. A recent U.S. Council of Mayors study predicted that the American urban order will become increasingly Texan, with Houston and Dallas–Fort Worth both growing larger than Chicago by 2050.

The Grand Parkway, Wolff points out, continues Houston’s pattern of outward development. The vast ExxonMobil campus being built in the far northern suburbs—and surrounded by its own master-planned community, Springwoods Village—will eventually be the nation’s second-largest office development, after Manhattan’s Freedom Tower. Houston is already home to numerous planned communities with bucolic-sounding names: Cinco Ranch, Bridgeland, Sienna Plantation, the Woodlands, and Sugar Land.“Open space is the most precious amenity,” says Wolff, a primary developer of the Energy Corridor, a Houston neighborhood boasting 22 million square feet of office space and housing the headquarters of such key energy firms as BP America, ConocoPhillips, and CITGO.“What we are creating here is a place where business can grow and people can afford to live. This is the key to Houston.” Indeed, the Houston model of development might be described as “opportunity urbanism.”

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