Approaching the apex? Skyscraper trend stokes debate as developers, activists dispute benefits

It's hard not to get caught up in the excitement around the construction of shiny new skyscrapers that can climb taller than ever before. The innovative design combined with the sheer height of these architectural works of art is difficult to ignore. With exotic names like the Bride of the Gulf, it's clear these towers represent much more than a strategically placed pile of glass and steel.

2016 promises to produce a significant number of these monuments, like the 1,959-foot Goldin Finance 117 in Tianjin, China, complete with its diamond-like topper, and the 1,437-foot Wuhan Center Tower in Wuhan, China, whose design is reminiscent of a ship's sails.

In fact, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has declared 2016 the beginning of the era of the "megatall" buildings  those measuring over 1,968 feet high  and predicted their numbers will double over the next five years. Granted, there are only three megatall skyscrapers in the world right now, but the amount of work, planning and resources that go into these behemoths makes building three to four in the relatively short time span of five years a major feat.

The 2,700-foot-tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai was the first megatall skyscraper and is still the world’s tallest building, followed by the Shanghai Tower (2,073 feet) in Shanghai, China, and the Makkah Royal Clock Tower (1,972 feet) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Burj Khalifa in Dubai — the world's tallest building
 

While not in the megatall class, U.S. cities, particularly New York, have seen their fair share of skyscraper development as well. However, the race to build to new heights has been met with pushback from activists and anti-development groups who are concerned with the effects of such a structure — leaving some to question whether the skyscraper trend is destined to stall in the coming years.

Benefits of skyscraper development

Albert Goldson, executive director of advisory firm Indo-Brazilian Associates LLC in New York and a community development activist, said that tall buildings often get the go-ahead in cities like New York for their iconic value or "ego factor."

"This attention provides long-term public relations in visually placing them on the map and attracts future business," he told Construction Dive.

One of the other driving forces behind development, according to Michael Gadaleta  founder of MG New York Architects  is a city's desire to "clean up" a particular neighborhood. He said cities like New York "routinely target neighborhoods to spur development, remove objectionable uses and stay ahead of the real estate trends."

"Take a look at the development of the meatpacking district," he told Construction Dive. "The city took an underutilized area like that and 'up-zoned' it into a new neighborhood."

Thomas Leslie, professor of architecture at Iowa State University and author of "Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934," said a positive result of skyscraper development is the diversity of residents who move into one of these towers. Skyscrapers can create a unique living space  a self-contained one at that  with shopping and dining and a host of other services conveniently closeby, if not in the actual building itself, he said.

"In general, I think the best projects come from a careful balance between the interests of the developers and those of the city," Leslie told Construction Dive.

Pushback against the growing trend

So where does the controversy come into play?

One of the most common arguments against skyscrapers is that they change the character of an established neighborhood and drive up prices of surrounding real estate.

"They're really de facto gated communities," Goldson said. He added that he lives in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, a hub of new development, and believes skyscrapers don't do much to serve those people who are drawn by the personality of tree-lined streets and brownstones.

He said, "These vertical suburbs have all of the amenities, so tenants never have to leave the building." Goldson said that while living in an "artsy" neighborhood is a bragging point for some of the area's newer residents, "they don't like to physically rub shoulders" with the sometimes quirky denizens who actually created the neighborhood's hip reputation.

Leslie said there is often economic pushback against these towers because "the big rents end up pushing people out of the neighborhood," including the mom-and-pop stores that can't afford the price tag of their newly popular, trendy neighborhood. He also said that a common complaint, along the lines of aesthetics, is that a skyscraper is out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood.

And, according to Goldson, the job creation that developers tout is often an illusion, or short-lived at best.

"This job creation is in the construction and support areas," he said. "Commercially, firms moving into the skyscrapers have simply decamped from another venue with the same employees."

Goldson added, "Depressingly, in order to attract businesses, municipalities offer more than generous tax incentives, particularly to large corporations, which negates any addition to the municipality's coffers."

Is a peak on the horizon?

But don't expect developers to fall to the pressure and run when faced with protestors who would rather not have their sunny, morning walk enveloped by the shadow of a tall building. Leslie said protestors "rarely win." 

He also pointed out that developers are increasingly creative in finding places to build, and those based in New York City are taking advantage of "air rights" over even the smallest parcels of land and going vertical with tall, "skinny" skyscrapers. 

Rendering of the "super-skinny" Nordstrom Tower in NYC
 

However, Gadaleta said, "Never underestimate the power and momentum that a grass roots neighborhood group can achieve." He noted that past opposition has been successful in stopping towers from being built, particularly if a developer wants to knock down something that has been designated an historic landmark.

Otherwise, he said, "The movement can only be successful if (protestors) can get the attention of elected officials to pressure the current administration… to rein in both the developers and the planning officials that grant variances."

So what, if anything, will stop the race for new heights? The CTBUH predicted a coming surge in megatall buildings, but it also said 2020 will mark another significant milestone in the skyscraper narrative  the waning in popularity of the megatall skyscraper.

"Someone has been proclaiming it's the end of skyscraper development for the past 25 to 30 years," Leslie said, who disagrees with the CTBUH's assertion.

In fact, all three experts agreed that economics is the only real factor in whether or not these developments will continue. As long as units sell and developers have the money to build, it doesn't look like the trend to reach new heights will wane anytime soon. Gadaleta added that with these factors still in play, "Why would it?"