Houston, we don’t have a problem


Houston, Texas, is the great American city to emulate, according to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Joel Kotkin and Tory Gattis.

The authors are enamored of Houston’s growth and the way it has fueled prosperity across the board for the city’s residents. 

“Houston now has among the highest, if not the highest, standard of living of any large city in the U.S. The average cost-of-living-adjusted salary in Houston is about $75,000, compared with around $50,000 in New York and $46,000 in Los Angeles,” they say.

Much of the growth comes from the area’s continuing oil boom, which protected the state from the depredations of the Great Recession. 

But the authors insist that, while petrochemicals are important, “Houston’s growth is more than oil-industry luck; it reflects a unique policy environment. The city and its unincorporated areas have no formal zoning, so land use is flexible and can readily meet demand. Getting building permits is simple and quick, with no arbitrary approval boards making development an interminable process.”

Mr. Kotkin and Mr. Gattis credit the city’s “flexible planning regime” with keeping housing prices relatively low and with helping to attract an influx of diverse new residents.

It sounds like a veritable paradise, unless you’ve been to Houston. 

It is a city of highways with just one light rail transit line a mere 12.8 miles long. There’s a small downtown, but with no zoning, developers have plunked large complexes willy-nilly in far corner which require residents and visitors to go to by car.

Shopping and dining choices are largely limited to big national chains and big box stores.

Is it any surprise that the obesity rate — according to livescience.com — is 21 percent higher than New York’s?

Here in Riverdale, we’re burdened by  those pesky “arbitrary approval boards,” with two landmark districts, a Special Natural Area District, a burdensome Uniform Land Use Review process, restrictive zoning and a draconian building department. 

You would think that it would be cheaper for us all to pick up and move to Houston — but it isn’t.

According to Trulia, the average home listing price in Houston last week was $405,638. Zillow tells us that in Riverdale the average home seller was asking $317,000.

Some of Mr. Kotkin and Mr. Gattis’s rosy statistics are misleading, too. They point to the explosive 13-year, 35-percent growth rate of Houston, for instance, but that adds up to about the same number of new residents absorbed by New York City with a much lower growth rate, since New York began with four times the population.

What would Riverdale be like if New York had pursued the same laissez-faire building policy as Houston during that time period?

Without zoning, developers would have been unchecked in their plans for high-rises along the parkway and along the riverfront. 

Developer Shmuel Jonas had hoped his Riverstone building on Netherland Avenue would rise as high as 37 stories. He and other ambitious builders had enough trouble marketing properties like the Latitude, Solaria and Fieldston Lofts  at their  current sizes when the economy tanked; imagine the impact on the local real estate market if they had risen to double or triple their current heights? Not to mention the effect on the environment.



o protections would stand in the way of a huge, mid-block hospital on Riverdale Avenue, if that were what Montefiore Medical Center chose to build, the Hebrew Home for the Aged could line the Hudson with apartment towers and Walmart could freely suck jobs and shoppers away from smaller local stores.

Mr. Kotkin and Mr. Gattis still insist “The growth-friendly attitude is what holds everything together in Houston, and it will be crucial whenever the next slowdown comes — when oil prices could drop, say, to below $100 a barrel. It remains to be seen whether a large influx of newcomers to Greater Houston from the ocean coasts will clamor, as they have elsewhere — notably, in Colorado — for a more controlled, high-regulation urban environment. For now, though, most Houstonians see the city as a place that works — for minorities and immigrants, for suburbanites and city dwellers — and few want to fix what isn’t broken.”

Here in highly regulated Riverdale, most of us are just as determined not to fix what isn’t broken, a zoning and landmark system that helps keep the community what we came here for in the first place.