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Old Posted Jun 25, 2006, 3:59 PM
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June 23, 2006

Chicago developers reach for the sky
Construction boom adds 40 buildings of 50 stories or more since 2000

(AP) - In this city where the skyscraper was born, it is being reborn.

Luxury condominium towers and office buildings that climb 600 feet or more - some way more - into the sky are sprouting up all over downtown. Along the Chicago River, the Trump International Hotel and Tower is inching its way up to what will be its full 92-story height. Nearby, plans are in the works for a 124-story skyscraper called the Fordham Spire that would knock the Sears Tower from its perch as the tallest building in the United States and take its place among the tallest buildings on the planet.

In all, no fewer than 40 buildings at least 50 stories high have been built since 2000, are under construction or are planned. Together, they add up to a surge in high-rise construction in the city that, if not unprecedented, hasn't been seen here since the 1960s and 1970s when the Sears Tower, John Hancock Center and other buildings helped give the city one of the most distinctive skylines in the world.

And while there is a flurry of high-rise construction in the United States, particularly in New York, Miami and Las Vegas, the tallest of the tall are going up in Chicago. Of the three tallest buildings under construction, two are here, according to Emporis, an independent research group that catalogues high rise construction around the world.

"Out my window there are two, three, four, five new high-rises under construction or just completed in the last year and a half, and they've just announced another 80-story building," said Jim Fenters, who has lived on the 51st floor of a 54-story building overlooking Grant Park since 1979. "It's just remarkable what's happened here."

So widespread is high-rise construction that projects that would be headline news in other cities go all but unnoticed.

"The Waterview Tower, that project is 1,047 feet, taller than the Chrysler Building," Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic said of one building under construction. "In any other city there would be endless conversations, (but) here a 1,000-foot tower is, 'Ho-hum, how are the Cubs doing?"'

A mix of several factors have triggered this construction frenzy.

Start at City Hall. Chris Carley, the developer of the Fordham Spire, remembers the days not so long ago, maybe seven years, when city officials would greet proposals for high-rises with talk about knocking off 10 or more floors.

"The comment from the planning department was, 'Well, we don't want to have these huge, tall buildings like New York,"' he said.

Contrast that with the more recent experience of Chicago architect David Haymes, during discussions with the city about a planned condominium tower.

"I remember at least two (planning and development) staff members saying, 'Can't you make it taller? We really would like it taller.' We were taken aback."

Other developers report similar experiences.

"If you give them something that's architecturally significant ... they'll let you build what you need to build," said Donald Trump Jr., who is overseeing construction of his father's skyscraper.

Carley and Kamin say Chicago's change in attitude might have something to do with Sam Assefa, a former San Francisco planner who came to the planning department a few years ago espousing the virtues of tall, thin towers like those popping up in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Neither the mayor nor Assefa would comment for this article, but Carley said Mayor Richard M. Daley clearly took Assefa's message to heart.

"He's definitely encouraging and espousing taller buildings," said Carley, whose Fordham Spire would rise 2,000 feet, or more than a third of a mile, into the air.

Known nationally for beautification efforts like planting flowers, shuttering a small downtown airport to open a park, encouraging rooftop gardens and building "green" schools, the mayor might seem an unlikely champion of high-rises.

But Daley's planning commissioner, Lori Healey, says it all makes sense. In exchange for allowing developers to go higher where eyepopping views - and huge price tags - are, the city gets buildings that are a lot smaller at their base than the ones developers would have to build if they weren't allowed to push high into the sky.

"You have less space taken up at the ground levels (and) there is a lot more green space," Healey said.

The city also gets something in short supply in downtowns with shorter, wider buildings: light.

"The shadow cast by the profile of a tall, thin building is much less than a short, fat one," Healey said.

That's not to say there aren't concerns - particularly since some of these new buildings will figuratively and literally cast their shadows on some of the city's most recognizable landmarks.

"There is a concern (that) while on balance this is a good trend, very tall buildings don't belong everywhere," said Kamin, offering Trump's skyscraper as an example.

"The jury's out on whether (the building) will overwhelm landmarks like the Wrigley Building and overwhelm the river," he said. "People are concerned."

But nobody would be talking about the pros and cons of skyscrapers if there weren't a market. In Chicago there is.

It seems that more than a century after the world's first skyscraper, or "cloudbuster" as they were called in 1885 when the nine-story Home Insurance Building went up, Chicagoans remain enamored with tall buildings.

"Chicagoans live and breathe high-rises both within the profession and within the city," said David Scott, chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which, not surprisingly, is based in Chicago.

One reason for the latest surge in construction is that Chicago, like many major cities, is becoming an increasingly popular place to live among people with a lot of money - precisely the population that fled cities for suburbs decades ago.

Downtown, tall condominium towers - some with units selling for millions of dollars - are popping up at a pace that those who track development have never seen before.

"Nearly 6,000 (rental and condominium units ) are going to be delivered this year," said Gail Lissner, vice president at Appraisal Research Counselors, a Chicago real estate consulting firm. "It's bigger than anything I can remember, and I've been in business since 1975."

The city's geography also plays a role. Unlike some other cities that don't have much space to build, Chicago has huge chunks of land. Perhaps more importantly, the land sits near Lake Michigan, the Chicago River or parks - all places where future developers can't build view-blocking skyscrapers of their own.

"We offer unobstructed views, basically forever, of the park and the lake," said Bob O'Neill, president of the Grant Park Conservancy.

Not only that, but thanks to the internationally acclaimed Millennium Park and other projects, longtime residents like Fenders say the view is getting even better.

From his window, Fenders can see Millennium Park's bandshell designed by architect Frank Gehry. He can also see where Renzo Piano's new wing at the Art Institute of Chicago is being built and the spot where there are plans to build the Santiago Calatrava-designed Fordham Spire.

"These are three of the most famous architects in the world, and their (projects) are right here," he said.
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