In Philadelphia, they called it ``a gentlemen's agreement.'' By common consent, all buildings would defer to the statue of the founder of the City of Brotherly Love -- no structure would rise higher than the hat worn by the William Penn figure atop City Hall. That hat stood high enough to suit the builders of an earlier day. At 491 feet -- about 40 stories -- it is no mean elevation, and even through the early boom in high-rises the ceiling on the Philadelphia skyline held firm.
Real estate development, however, can wreak havoc with tradition. And informal rules are really no rules. So a few years ago, Philadelphia, like other American cities, adopted the attitude that the sky's the limit. Developers of Liberty Place, a proposed housing, office, and commercial complex that rises 65 stories off the drawing board, boast it will become ``the first notable landmark of a new district.'' And, as if that Rouse Company project weren't enough to make the Quaker Penn fume, a second struc ture, a criminal justice building that is bulkier than Liberty Place, has been proposed by the city itself.
Activists and preservationists see that proposal as a call to arms. Stricter new zoning proposals have begun to work their way through the system, and even usually conciliatory architects have organized to fight the justice building. ``It's a sore point,'' American Institute of Architects (AIA) president Robert Cassway says of the height-breaking plan. ``The architecture and planning community is literally trying to fight City Hall.''
Philadelphia is not alone in this kind of tussle. The battle of the bulk has begun in many American cities and towns. Coast to coast, skyscraper design seems to have lost some of its dazzle. Once the pinnacle of an architect's performance, the skyscraper has earned opprobrium for generating wind, blocking sunlight, ravaging older low-scale neighborhoods, and breeding urban traffic congestion and service problems. The problems have begun to arouse grumbling and to catch the interests of activists capable
of turning their sentiments into ordinances.
The battle began in San Francisco two years ago and has slowly spread. Major moves toward lowering the limit on the skylines of several cities have occurred this fall. San Francisco codified its zoning in October to impose new limits. Boston, under the leadership of first-term Mayor Raymond Flynn and new planning director Stephen Coyle, has announced growth policies that call for putting the lid on height. Other moves -- a building moratorium in San Diego, zoning in Seattle to limit heights, and a
design review process in downtown Portland, Ore. -- also suggest the impulse, and protests are mounting.
San Francisco has set height limits of 700 feet (roughly 70 stories) downtown, 550 feet (50 stories) outside the city center, and 50 feet (5 stories) in historically significant or scenic neighborhoods. It also required tall buildings to be tapered, and confined total development downtown to 950,000 square feet (roughly the equivalent of one mammoth high-rise) a year. The city also required developers to pay ``linkage'' fees to help the city coffers and possibly mollify tower foes.
``Aesthetics, winds, density -- it's all of that,'' says George Williams, the city's assistant planning director, about the origin of the concern. ``Some object because it means more cars on the road -- the wait-at-the-stoplight mentality. Some come from a different environment -- a prairie mentality,'' he goes on. ``Mostly it's what the scale of the high-rise building does downtown.'' Issues of shadow and wind currents, ambience at the street level, and open-space requirements all figure in the new rul es, he notes.
The AIA's Foundation for Architecture devoted its November newsletter, The Forum, to the growing resistance to high-rises. Mary Wells Vickery, the foundation's director, said in an interview that concern over the issue ``isn't new. When they were building the Eiffel Tower they had the same thing. Since [Washington] D.C. has a height limit, we're well aware of it.''
In fact, one effect of Washington's 13-story ceiling has been to produce a rush to build towers in nearby Virginia. The USA Today building in Arlington, for instance, has prompted airline pilots to register concern. Others have voiced aesthetic worries.
Similar qualms prodded Bostonians to act. Dotted with new megaliths, the city has begun to address such issues as a ``briefing document'' that would restrict building heights downtown to under 155 feet (roughly 15 stories). The document is generating much commentary, including some criticism that it doesn't go far enough.
Even New York City, parent of the skyscraper, has responded negatively to a glut of high-rises that took veteran street watchers by surprise.
``All of a sudden people saw three skyscrapers on the corner of 57th Street,'' says George Lewis, head of the New York AIA chapter. So what if they boasted famous architects -- Philip Johnson for the the Chippendale AT&T Building or Edward Larrabee Barnes for the green granite IBM? The crowds, the wind, and the loss of sunlight at 56th and 57th and Madison raised such an outcry that the Special Midtown District was established to provide some controls.
Recently, too, AIA chapter members testified against the building of a penthouse tower nearby. The Municipal Art Society protested Philip Johnson's proposed clutch of towers for Times Square. The city's Board of Estimates ruled out midblock blockbusters on the Upper East Side. And West Side activists said they will oppose Donald J. Trump's new plan to build a 150-story building, the world's tallest, in a new complex located at the old Penn Central railway yards.
``This was the first city with zoning laws,'' Mr. Lewis says, adding that they survived from 1916 until two decades or so ago. The famous setback stipulations that produced the elegant lines of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings mitigated the dark canyons until 1961, when the city instituted a bonus system that allowed developers to build higher than before, provided they would include a plaza below. Based on Le Corbusier's concept of the tower in the park, the zoning rule was benign in origi n but deadly in impact, say critics.
An attempt to tame the tower in historic cities has produced something called ``transfer of development rights,'' which permits the height allowed on one site to be exchanged for another site.
Still more recently, some churches with valuable real estate, such as St. Bartholomew's in New York, have proposed generating income to support their work by building high-rises on their sites. So far, however, St. Bartholomew's various skyscraper designs have been rejected. Elsewhere, though, similar plans have taken hold. In Denver, for instance, the Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Church made a trade-off with British developers by permitting their $1.6 million, 555-foot tower to be built in return for a re furbishing of the church by the developers. ``A touch of class,'' said a local report. Those who advocate scaling down buildings couldn't disagree more.
Finally, the anti-high-rise sentiment may even have helped produce the latest stylistic device, the post-modern mode of tapering the tops of buildings. But so far the Chrysler Building prototype of daylight-saving excellence has found few peers among skyscrapers of the mid-'80s.
Some see efforts to put a lid on the high-rise as merely the latest manifestation of an anti-growth mentality in cities. They say it doesn't really solve the problem but sends the offending architecture to the hapless suburbs. Others insist that ceilings are mere palliatives, which aren't really effective in stopping long-planned-for towers. Nonetheless, most admit that cities assaulted by development can only maintain their history, identity, and livability by controlling such invasion.
``Certainly the issues exist everywhere,'' says Mr. Williams of San Francisco's planning commission. ``Certainly there is a need to be addressed, whatever the means.''
William Penn would tip his hat to that.
Jane Holtz Kay, a free-lance architecture critic, is author of ``Lost Boston.'' Her new book, ``Preserving New England,'' will be published next April.