City of broad shoulders adding height to skyline

CHICAGO – In this city where the skyscraper was born, it is thriving like never before.

Luxury condominium towers and office buildings that climb 600 feet and more are sprouting up all over downtown. Along the Chicago River, the Trump International Hotel and Tower is inching its way up to a planned 92 stories.

Plans are in the works for a nearby 124-story skyscraper, the Fordham Spire, that would knock the Sears Tower from its perch as the tallest building in the United States.

Since 2000, no fewer than 40 buildings at least 50 stories high have been built, are under construction or are being planned. It’s a surge in high-rise construction that 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 elsewhere 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.”

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?’ “

One factor that has fed the construction frenzy is the attitude at City Hall. Chris Carley, developer of the Fordham Spire, remembers the time several years ago when proposals for high-rises would prompt city officials to ask about knocking off 10 or more floors.

Today, the official attitude has reversed.

“I remember at least two (planning and development) staff members saying ‘Can’t you make it taller? We really would like it taller,’ ” Chicago architect David Haymes says about discussions with the city for a planned condominium tower.

The change makes sense, says planning commissioner Lori Healey. In exchange for allowing developers to go higher – where they get eye-popping views that allow them to attach huge price tags – the city gets buildings that are a lot smaller at their bases, allowing more open space and light than in cities crammed with shorter, wider buildings.

That’s not to say there aren’t concerns, particularly since these projects will cast long shadows.

“The jury’s out on whether (the building) will overwhelm landmarks like the Wrigley Building and overwhelm the river,” Kamin said. “People are concerned.”

Still, more than a century after the world’s first skyscraper – the nine-story Home Insurance Building – went up in 1885, 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, an international nonprofit organization based in Chicago.

Another reason for the surge in construction is that cities are becoming increasingly popular places to live among people with a lot of money – the same population that fled to the suburbs decades ago.

Geography also plays a role. Unlike some other cities, Chicago has huge chunks of land, much of it near Lake Michigan, the Chicago River or parks.

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

And some residents, such as Fenters, say the view is getting even better. From his window, he can see the Millennium Park band shell designed by architect Frank Gehry, the spot where Renzo Piano’s new wing at the Art Institute of Chicago is being built and the planned site of 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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