New Rush of Buildings Reaching for the Clouds

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Between Godzilla tromping around Gotham and giant space rocks hurling toward Earth, American cities are taking a beating this summer - at least on the silver screen. In one disaster movie, the elegant spire of New York's Chrysler Building appears to have been reduced to the function of a giant lawn dart.

In reality, city skylines are not only holding their own this summer, they're inching ever higher amid an emerging boom in urban construction.

"The downtowns are coming back," says George von Klan of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in Bethlehem, Pa.

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Steel cranes will soon tower over major projects in San Francisco. Times Square in New York City is home to a new 50-story skyscraper. And a Chicago developer is even talking about returning the world's-tallest-building title to the Windy City by constructing a 1,500- to 2,000-foot office-and-apartment tower. If completed, the project would cast a shadow from Illinois to Malaysia by edging out the current world record holder, the 1,483-foot Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

Fueled by a roaring US economy and plunging office vacancy rates in major cities, some developers are looking to the sky to construct the next generation of city homes and offices. But analysts warn that this is far from the start of another golden age of the skyscraper in America.

Going up - and out

With a few exceptions, most construction activity is not likely to radically alter city skylines. Instead, a majority of the new skyscrapers are expected to be relatively modest buildings ranging from 20 to 40 stories tall, or no more than 500 feet high. And a large number are much smaller than that.

"We are back in a building boom, but it is a different kind of building boom," says Mike Jordan-Reiley, spokesman for the Otis Elevator Company. If anyone knows skyscraper development nationwide it's the folks who sell elevators. No tall building can function without them. "We're finding that people are going out instead of up," Mr. Jordan-Reiley says. Rather than 80 stories, projects are being built to seven or eight, or as Mr. Jordan-Reiley puts it "more like 70 feet rather than 700 feet."

For many developers, it is a matter of efficiency. "It is more economical to build a building lower and wider as opposed to taller and thinner. And if the economics dictate, that is what will happen," says T.J. Gottesdiemer, a New York-based architect with the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Some projects are entirely residential. Others are aimed at the office market. But a growing number are multiple use, with retail stores and restaurants at street level, office space in the midsection, and condos and rentals on upper floors. They form a complete, vertical neighborhood.

Such projects are not only helping ensure that corporations remain downtown, but they are transforming business districts into vibrant, 24-hour communities.

"The continued reinvestment in urban cores is something we've seen in the last couple years. It is something that bodes well for the life of cities as we enter the next century," says R.K. Stewart, an architect and vice president at the San Francisco-based Gensler architecture firm.

Within the past month in San Francisco, he says, ground was broken for the first two high-rise projects launched in the city in more than eight years. Two other projects are close to breaking ground. And six to eight more are in planning stages.

There are similar levels of activity in New York and Chicago. Major projects are also planned or under way in Boston, Tampa, Fla., Houston, Los Angeles, Denver, and other cities, industry analysts say.

Not everyone works at home

The recent development runs counter to predictions made a few years ago that there was no longer a market for skyscrapers in the US. The idea was that the growth of the Internet and other telecommunications revolutions would eliminate the need for corporate workers to toil in the same building. Many could work at home.

But some developers now say such predictions did not appreciate the importance of face-to-face contact, both with clients and co-workers. And some corporations are deciding they would rather locate in a city center with access to mass transport and other support services than start anew in a suburban or rural setting.

Unlike earlier building booms, today only a few developers - among them Scott Toberman in Chicago and Donald Trump in New York and Los Angeles - are entertaining notions of scratching the stratosphere with proposals that might compete as the world's tallest.

There was a time when all of the world's tallest buildings were in the US. Today only 10 of the 20 tallest are in America. And of the 10 tallest now under construction, all are going up overseas.

Some analysts see the general shift by American developers away from the quest to build the tallest as a triumph of practicality over pride and ego.

Others say it is only a matter of time. "As long as human beings have an ego, the drive will still be there to build taller than your neighbor," says Joseph Colaco of CBM Engineers in Houston.

Some architects say the height of a building is only one factor that can contribute to its appeal. "I don't think it is how many floors you have. I think it is attitude," says Mr. Gottesdiemer. "What is a skyscraper? It is anything that makes you stop, stand, crane your neck back, and look up."

'Cathedrals to commerce'

Historically, it wasn't always the best business decision to strive to construct the world's tallest building. But going tall had its advantages.

"At the turn of the century, corporations began to realize that [building a tall building] was an excellent means of advertising," says Judith Dupre, a cultural historian and author of "Skyscrapers," a 1996 book that traces the history and significance of tall buildings.

"Realistically speaking, if old man Woolworth wanted to hold on to his nickels and dimes he would have built in New Jersey," she says. Instead, he ordered construction of what Ms. Dupre calls "a cathedral to commerce" in New York City. When it was finished in 1913, the 792-foot Woolworth Building was the world's tallest and everyone knew it.

Such towers speak volumes about American culture. "They are indicators of where the power and money reside at any given time," Dupre says.

It's not insignificant that the tallest and most exciting skyscraper construction is under way overseas in places like Pusan, South Korea; Shanghai, China; Jakarta, Indonesia; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Hong Kong. Until the current economic downturn, Asia was booming. Ironically, today many of these projects are in jeopardy as a result of the ongoing regional financial crisis.

Some analysts say it goes with the turf: If you build big buildings you have to be willing to take big risks.

The same was true in the US during the golden age of American skyscrapers. In 1930, the Chrysler Building became the first office tower in the world to push past the 1,000-foot mark.

Within a year, even that accomplishment paled compared with the Empire State Building, a 1,250-foot office tower in Manhattan that reigned as the world's tallest for more than 40 years. What many forget is that both these sacred temples of US urban architecture opened their doors in the early years of the Great Depression.

Today, they are not just successful real estate ventures, but important symbols of American innovation and economic dominance. After all, when King Kong found himself in New York City, where did he go?

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