Searching for space, cities go vertical

The Lone Star State boasts the tallest cross in the Western Hemisphere. Its Capitol building towers over all others, even the dome in Washington, D.C. And Texans have been known to tell their share of tall tales.

So it comes as no surprise that this height-minded state is considering erecting the world's tallest building - which, at 1,659 feet, would be more than 115 stories.

A cow pasture in a Dallas suburb could play host to the $3 billion skyscraper, which would rise above the current world's tallest: the Petronas Towers in Malaysia.

In cities across America, skylines are starting to spike upward again. While few new skyscrapers will reach for the stars in quite the way they do in Dallas, the construction boom will change the face of urban America for decades to come - a granite-and-glass testament to the soaring turn-of-the-century economy.

The return of the skyscraper comes after a long construction hiatus in most downtowns. After sitting dormant for more than a decade, office buildings are now busting at the seams, prompting developers to hunt for any empty patch of land in the city core.

"We're seeing a change in skylines in almost every city because the market has finally absorbed all the vacant office space," says Alexander Garvin, professor of urban planning and management at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and a member of the New York City planning commission. "People are moving back into downtowns, and developers are responding to the change in the market."

Back in fashion

Indeed, everybody seems to want back in. Demand for center-city office space has finally outpaced the overbuilding of the late 1980s and early 1990s, say urban planners.

While the proposed world's tallest building is still in the planning stages, construction has already begun on Dallas's first skyscraper in almost 15 years.

The Victory Tower, part of a $550 million multi-use development, is being erected on a once-polluted plot of land bordering downtown.

On 65 acres, the Victory project is one of the largest and most ambitious in America right now. But plenty had to be done to the land before construction could begin.

The site once housed grain elevators, rail lines, and cooling lagoons for an old power plant. It took over a year to clean up the contaminated soil - all at a cost to the developers.

The project is bustling with activity as construction workers race to get the new American Airlines Center, the first phase of the development, ready for the 2001 pro hockey and basketball seasons.

It's a far cry from the activity of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which "there was zero activity downtown," says Ryan Evans, Dallas assistant city manager in charge of economic development.

"It appeared that the development community had turned its back on us, and the government hadn't yet found the tools to reverse that trend," he says. "Our buildings just got more and more empty."

Like other cities, businesses found it cheaper to locate further out, and never-ending freeways spawned never-ending malls and housing developments on the outskirts of town.

America's downtowns began to look like ghost towns as cities built out instead of up. But Professor Garvin, author of "The American City: What Works and What Doesn't," draws a distinction between dwindling downtowns.

Those in cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, and New Haven, have been on the decline for the past half century and still show little signs of improvement. But those in cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Seattle were simply going through a temporary downturn, he says.

While some city centers are booming as a result of the strong economy, others are thriving because of active government involvement, as is the case in San Diego and Dallas.

In the mid-1990s, desperate city officials in Dallas created public-improvement districts in and around downtown as a way to help reduce crime and beautify the area. At the same time, the city began offering tax abatements for homeowners willing to move downtown and low-interest, long-term financing to companies willing to refurbish old office buildings.

Mr. Evans says Dallas went from having a virtually empty downtown to a current community of 14,000 residents. And skyscrapers are starting to sprout again - not as tall as before, but they are being built, he says. "We've got a long way to go, but if you saw how vacant it was, you would be amazed at how far we've come."

Medium-size high-rises

Across the country, the story is the same: new high-rises not quite as tall as they once were. Many are reaching only 20 or 30 stories instead of the 50 or 60 stories in decades past, says Lynn Beedle, director emeritus of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

For the most part, new buildings with high-tech amenities are being constructed for the working world, while older buildings are being renovated and split into apartments and condos.

Denver and Chicago are also good examples of this kind of activity. Ten years ago, nobody lived in these downtowns. Now they are alive with energy.

"People are realizing that the city is not only a place for work," says Dr. Beedle. "It is a center of cultural activity, education, and entertainment."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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