A tall building takes a sizeable square of land and transforms it into multiple cubes of habitable space — story after story rising — converting once-empty sky into a series of interior chambers and environments. Picture it this way: on the island of Manhattan, with thousands of high-rise buildings, there's actually more indoors than outdoors.
The purpose of the original tall building, if you believe that old biblical babble, was to reach heaven. Nowadays, our ambitious edifices maximize commerce and loom as symbols of pride and power.
The high-rise is, as you might guess, an American invention. Which means that Americans brought together into one form the crucial developments that made it possible: steel frames, reinforced concrete, glass, water pumps, the elevator, modernist patriotic hubris.
But in a classic case of technological appropriation, it's estimated that by 2015 the five tallest buildings in the world will all rise above east Asia. Realms like Taiwan possess the know-how and the industry, they need the space, and they're emerging onto the global stage at a perfect moment for making undeniable assertions of nationalistic vanity. If nothing else, really high high-rises herald the global presence of a country.
The skyline of Manhattan is punctuated by over 228 buildings that are taller than the tallest building in San Diego. Even Los Angeles has 23 buildings that rise into more troposphere than any of ours, with one, the U.S. Bank Tower, that's more than twice as high as anything downtown.
The reason for the local height limit isn't because of our sandstone soil, nor because of the seismic fault that runs under downtown. Rather, it's because of a local ordinance that says no taller buildings may escalate near airport flight paths. Phoenix and Tampa have similar regulations in effect.
Some lament the fact that San Diego's skyline isn't distinctive enough or tall enough. Kurt Hunker, award-winning architect and graduate chair of the NewSchool of Architecture, told me, "Some cities seem to have more distinctive high-rise skylines than others. And we don't. San Diego doesn't. We really don't have anything terribly distinctive."
But if the choice lies between (1) a massive, recognizable, famous cityscape with an airport out on some brown faraway mesa and (2) our tidy downtown high-rise clusters with an easy commute to and from all flights, then I'd vote for number two any day. We take to the sky instead of scraping it. Commendably, San Diego, in this way at least, is more "functional" than "status symbol."
According to Emporis Buildings, the largest building database in the world, 118 high-rises currently loom over America's Finest City, 17 more are under construction, 15 others have been approved to begin construction soon, and 29 beyond that have been officially "proposed," which means that they're as good as built.
Think about that. By 2010, our downtown will have undergone a space odyssey indeed. One hundred eighteen high-rises will become at least 179 of them, and likely more. Nine of these new additions will be among the top 20 tallest in town. In just a few years, we stand to enjoy (or lament) a dramatically different skyline.
San Diego's high-rise history began in 1909 with the 155-foot Broadway Lofts building on Fifth and Broadway. The El Cortez Hotel, in 1927, was the first local building to top 300 feet. The El Cortez was the highest in town for over 30 years and was in the top 5 until the high-rise boom finally developed here in the 1980s. Now 21 downtown buildings are officially higher than the El, with dozens more soon to follow.
San Diego's current reigning building and, at 500 feet exactly from grade, the tallest building possible unless the airport moves and/or the laws change is One America Plaza, located at 600 West Broadway.
One America Plaza is nothing if not distinctive. The structure tapers slightly, all the way up (four inches per floor), which means that One America Plaza is an obelisk. A 500-foot-tall glass-and-steel obelisk. But it's the top of the thing that makes it stand out -- say, the last 70 feet or so before the structure gives way to sky. This increment of One America Plaza is a complex, pointy geometry of tilting, angular folds that looks like either the world's tallest shrug or one of Queen Amidala's most outrageous hairdos in Star Wars.
But tilting pointy geometries on the tops of glass-and-steel obelisks garner architectural awards. Since it was completed in 1991, One America Plaza has won San Diego Building of the Year eight times and Pacific Southwest Region Office Building of the Year seven times. And if you take a moment to look at the place, or step inside and swing your eyes around the atrium, then you'll probably understand why.
The architect for One America Plaza was Helmut Jahn. Forty or so years ago, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Jahn studied under the renowned Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886- 1969), an architect so famous that he has his own kind of building geometry, "Miesian," named after him. (As an aside, Mies van der Rohe is also the answer to the trivia question, "Who said, 'God is in the details'?")
In 1967, Jahn joined an architectural firm in Chicago, which, within 14 years, had added his name to the firm's. At Murphy/Jahn, Helmut Jahn designed, among many other projects, Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, and the United Airlines terminal at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. According to a website called greatbuildings.com, Jahn's ability to combine modernist architectural doctrine with a more intuitive "creative rationalism" has led to "a symbolic code which could be appreciated by both professional architects and the general public."
Anyway, back in the atrium of Jahn's creation on 600 West Broadway, it's all black, white, and gray marble, sleek lines, and pointed angles. A smooth waterfall cascades gently downward, 40 feet, over six tiers of black granite. The lobby shares an information desk, a "Galleria," two halls leading to rows of elevators, and a U.S. Bank. Many of the passersby on a given day are smartly attired -- suited and blazered -- although it's obvious from the other outfits -- shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops -- that this building isn't all business.
The Galleria leads past a half-dozen contemporary paintings to what has to be the world's most futuristic and ostentatious trolley station, a covered, wraparound structure that vaults out of the rear of One America Plaza. Back inside, on the white marble information desk, is a list of the building's 50-odd tenants: mostly law offices, financial services groups, architectural firms, communications and computer companies, and a radio station. Incidentally, and as the fellow with the walkie-talkie and the earpiece at the information desk will inform you, there is no public restroom.
My chaperone up into One America Plaza was a security guard, who explained that to go all the way to the top, into the "crow's nest," we'd be taking the elevator to the 31st floor, then a second, special elevator to the 34th floor, and then we'd have to walk up steps, outdoors, the last four flights.
The express elevators in One America are silent, beautiful, and very fast. Built by Mitsubishi, they're designed to travel 1200 feet a minute (the fastest in San Diego), and their interiors are paneled in exotic karelian burl wood inlaid with stainless-steel trim. I was most impressed by the smooth ride punctuated only by prim little beeps. That, and the fact that we were at the 31st floor in about 20 seconds, by which time I felt like a sealed water bottle on an airplane, with all the air sucked out of me and my ears about to explode.
The last door in the building, out to the crow's nest, opened onto the whirring, humming, buzzing, ear-filling sounds of multiple huge turbines. I was standing inside a slanting, pointed mesh enclosure, basically a very big tent, with a jumble of metal ducts and fans and tanks all around. In the center of this industrialization, rising the last 40 feet through the iron mesh, was a gray, metal spiral staircase, 50 steps, the most dizzying 50 steps I'd ever endeavored. After winding around and around and around, the stairs ended on a star-shaped platform, outdoors in the wind, with five steel girders meeting in a point above my head. I was now officially drawing the highest breaths in all of downtown San Diego.
To the south, on a clear day, you see Tijuana; to the north is University Towne Centre. Mountains perforate the east, and wide water spreads west. In between, dozens of high-rises are gradually eating the view. If not for a few tall structures in the south center of downtown, you'd be able to watch baseball games at Petco Park, over half a mile away. And even more of the view was about to go: right across the street, kitty-corner to the southwest, the Electra, the "tallest residential building in San Diego," was currently being built.
After I descended, back down on ground level, I crossed the street to check out the progress of the Electra, and I wandered into a place where I shouldn't have been. "Hard hat area!" a worker yelled at me. "Boots. No shorts." Well, I answered, with my bare head, sandals, and cutoffs, I'm almost in compliance. But the guy didn't like the joke. Cement mixers mixed, lattices of steel uprose, enormous stanchions propped, huge holes gaped, and over it all, two giant cranes swung massive blocks and girders -- so I could tell the rules were for my safety.
Turns out the Electra is going up in the midst of the shell of the old (1911) San Diego Gas and Electric Building. At the time I stood there, last October, the 50-foot-high, 94-year-old shell was being held up by dozens of mammoth braces, inside and out, while hundreds of workers crawled all over the skeletal beginnings and foundation materials for what will one day be a very tall building.
In fact, at 475 feet, the Electra will be the tallest residential building in San Diego in 2007. But the tallest residential building in 2005 (at 450 feet) was the Pinnacle Museum Tower on Front Street. Tenants began moving into the Pinnacle in October 2005. I called the concierge to ask what special information and provisions were provided for tenants living over 400 feet in the air.
Richard Amberry, concierge at the Pinnacle, immediately answered, "Of course we furnish our tenants with foldout ladders and plastic ropes for scaling down the sides of the building in case of an emergency." Then he laughed. "No. No. I'm kidding. Imagine your grandmother having to do that." Amberry then began to paint the real modern picture of high-rise safety.
"We have the cutting edge in technology for fire alarms and sprinkler systems," Amberry said. "We have a committee put together to train our residents what to do in the event of an evacuation. And the building itself has all the latest technology to make it safer in the event of an earthquake or fire or what have you."
Amberry told me that he's worked in high-rises for many years, and the effects of an earthquake can be unnerving. "Sometimes a building will take 20 minutes to quit swaying," he said. "I personally always joke that if I had a 1200-square-foot high-rise, I'd only ever use 800 square feet of it because I'd never go near the windows. I hate heights. But, of course, the glass in this building is nonbreakable and tempered and really thick and all that good stuff, so the windows are just as safe as the walls." Luckily for Amberry, the concierge does almost all of his work on the ground floor.
A straight shot another quarter mile down Kettner Boulevard from the Electra, the Manchester Grand Hyatt, at 497 feet, the tallest waterfront building on the West Coast, rises in two conical towers from a wide driveway. After entering and walking through the football-field-sized lobby, I found, tucked onto a section of wall near the concierge's desk, six plaques dedicated to the people who built the Hyatt. Etched in the plaques were hundreds of names, too many to count, and over 60 companies specializing in everything from fire sprinkler systems to doors, steel, glass, marble, engineering, waterproofing, and elevators. Scanning these plaques, I gained a heightened appreciation for the level of coordinated activity that is required to put up a high-rise.
Austin Swint, assistant beverage manager for the Hyatt, had worked on the 40th floor for over two years. I asked Swint what it was like to work so high. Had he ever felt unsafe?
"The only time I ever felt unsafe was during an earthquake," Swint said. "I've worked here during two quakes. For one, I was on the fourth floor, and for the other, I was on the top floor, and the one on the top floor scared the living daylights out of everyone. Our building is set up on rollers, and it's designed to sway about four feet in any direction. So I know it's safer than if it stayed still, but it's a whole lot scarier."
Had he ever been evacuated? Were there special instructions for evacuation situations? "We had a light evacuation once during a fire alarm," Swint answered. "The hotel wasn't very busy, so the stairwells weren't all that crowded. There was no fire, but an electrical short on the 30th floor caused a lot of smoke, and we lost power from about the 10th floor up. But I was actually really impressed with how well the security and the hotel employees worked. It was kind of all hands on deck. And it went just fine."
I wondered what Swint's biggest concern was, going to work over 450 feet in the air every day. "You know, it's funny," he said without hesitation, "and you didn't mention anything about this, but my biggest concern comes from riding in the elevator quite a bit. I mean, every single time I go up and down, up and down, and my ears pop. I always kind of wonder if I'm going to suffer long-term effects from all the ear popping."
I should digress a moment to address another fear associated with any building over, say, 130 feet or so in height. Triskaidekaphobia, it's called. Fear of the number 13. Of the six tallest buildings in San Diego, three have 13th floors, and three do not. The presence or absence of this locale seems to hinge on the nationality of the developers. The series of eight rather beautiful, commercial, graduated hexagons that is Emerald Plaza (450 feet) was built by the Japanese, and the Pinnacle and Electra are Canadian projects, and so, for these three tall buildings, the 13 stayed in. In the good old-fashioned spirit of American denial, and despite the fact that there is definitely a floor 13 stories above the ground in One America Plaza, Symphony Towers (499 feet), and the Grand Hyatt, the floor numbers skip from 12 to 14. But it's like what the comedian Mitch Hedberg said, "If you jump out of the window on the 14th floor, you will die earlier!"
Batophobia is the fear of tall buildings, as distinguished from acrophobia, the fear of heights. Acrophobia may be suffered from in a tall building, but the fear of tall buildings is different. One may be afraid of a tall building even while standing beneath it, on otherwise safe ground.
Personally, I engage tall buildings on an aesthetic level. I find it easy to appreciate the visual rhythm of high buildings, punctuating the landscape like high notes in sheet music, like loud sounds on an equalizer's LED display, like prosperity depicted on a bar graph, or the graduated bars of an improving signal on a cell phone. Abrupt, obdurate, undeniable, tall buildings charge the negative spaces between them.
On the telephone one afternoon, I asked Michael Stepner some questions about downtown San Diego's high-rise past and future. Stepner has been the official city architect and the dean of the New-School of Architecture and is currently an urban planner.
What about some philosophical perspective. Why do we build tall buildings in the first place?
"Well, for a number of reasons," Stepner said. "One is because land is valuable, and you want to maximize the return on it. Two, we have uses that require a lot of space in a concentrated area so that people can interact with each other. And thirdly, I think people build high-rises as a symbol of ego; that is, cities and companies will build tall buildings for prestige. There's been talk, too, about tall buildings being a phallic symbol for some people's minds. I'm not sure I'd go along with that, but folks are entitled to their opinions."
What about plans for San Diego's high-rise future?
"We're working to make a successful downtown," Stepner began. "We're adding toward a critical mass of buildings that are residential and office and commercial, to bring people downtown and strengthen the whole area. The real concern is how all those buildings will relate to each other. You don't want buildings that are separated by parking lots; you don't want buildings that don't relate well to the street; you don't want buildings that have garages where people drive in and then drive out at night and never go downstairs to experience downtown. So you've really got to treat high-rises differently in a downtown area than perhaps you'd have to do in a suburban area."
But to say how a building relates to the street, isn't that a question of beauty being in the eye of the beholder?
"No. It's more than that," Stepner demurred. "It is an aesthetic question, but it's also a practical one. If the building doesn't relate well to the street, then the building doesn't encourage people to walk on that street, then you have a dead spot. And if you have a dead spot downtown, then the surrounding properties might not be as productive as they could be, because then you don't have a lot of foot traffic. You need attractive and functional entrances and ground-floor activity."
I asked Stepner about the life expectancy of a tall building. Are they built to last?
He said, "These buildings are studiously maintained, of course, although there have been cases where they've discovered structural problems and so on. But one of the things that's happened over the years that's fascinating is land measures pass in a lot of downtowns, and then a 20-story building might get taken down for a 50-story one. And then later, the 50-story building gets taken down for one that's 75 stories. We've seen situations like this in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. And some of the buildings that were built in the '20s and '30s probably would have lasted for hundreds of years. If we'd have let them. If the economics didn't get in the way. Other buildings might not last that long, because as we strive for lighter and lighter structural systems, these newer buildings might not be as long lasting."
And who's building these newer buildings? I wanted to interview some big-time architect who had designed local buildings, but I wondered who Stepner thought I should talk to.
"Helmut Jahn is considered by many to be among the outstanding high-rise architects," he answered. "Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill too. Also, Austin Veum Robbins Partners. Everybody has their favorites. And it's interesting in architecture, it's a lot like the movies or television, where the star system kind of takes over and you have someone who's really popular one day and then not so much the next."
I can vouch for the celebrity of architects, at least as it relates to trying to get in touch with one of them. I placed dozens of calls to Jahn and a few other big-name architects who'd had their hands in various San Diego projects, but it took weeks of trying before I could finally get an appointment to speak with one of them. Finally, I was given a half-hour time slot to talk with Doug Austin, chairman and CEO of Austin Veum Robbins Partners.
For Austin, I had prepared precisely one question. I wanted to pretend that I owned a city block downtown, a good spot to develop a new high-rise. Now, could Doug Austin take me step by step through the planning and building stages for putting up a high-rise?
"Generally what would happen," Austin began, "if you were looking at a piece of property, you would initially do some feasibility studies on that project, to find out what you can and can't build. In the downtown area, which is covered by the master environmental impact report, there are several planned district ordinances that apply to different areas at different times. Right now, under the current PDO, or planned district ordinance, generally speaking, there is still incentive there to build housing. In other words, you can get more FAR, or floor area ratio, if you build at least 80 percent housing."
Could Austin linger for a moment on the concept of floor area ratio?
"Let's say you had a block which is 60,000 square feet," he began, "and that's a full block downtown, 200 by 300. If you multiply that times the FAR, you have how many square feet you can build above grade. You can build below grade as much as you want and it doesn't count against your floor area ratio, because, basically, FAR is there as control for bulk and scale above grade."
Austin went on. "Let's just say you had a 6 FAR in a 60,000-square-foot block. That would mean that, generally speaking, you could build 360,000 square feet of building above grade. Sometimes, you could get up to an 8 FAR because you were building housing. So you'd get a bonus. So then you're multiplying 8 times 60,000, which is 480,000 square feet. So it depends where you are downtown, and whether you're under the old ordinance or the existing ordinance or the new one. Now they're starting to encourage more employment-based building downtown, although they do still want to encourage housing, but there is a shift going on slowly right now toward more commercial building as well."
Next, Austin began visualizing the financial aspects for a specific project on my hypothetical plot of land.
"Let's say on your plot of land we can build 360,000 square feet, and you're still under the old ordinance, so you've decided to go with 80 percent housing. Now, for what it's worth, the average price of high-rise housing downtown is roughly $600 per square foot. So if you said you were going to build 1000 square feet as an average-size unit, then you could take the net square footage that was saleable -- and that's excluding the corridors, the stairways, the elevator shafts, and any mechanical rooms you'd need to have -- and if you're doing it well, you're probably not going to have more than 15 percent of your floor area that's devoted to those things I just mentioned. So you'd have 85 percent available, and you'd multiply that times your basic revenue."
Austin continued. "Let's say you're doing a high-rise and it's in a decent location," he said, "and you're going to average $650 a square foot, because it's in a good location. So you take your gross revenue, which is, you remember, 80 percent of your 360,000 square feet which is for housing, times 85 percent which is actual livable space, times $650. And then you have to figure out your retail space, the other 20 percent, which might come in about $350 a square foot. And then you have your basic gross revenue tag. Then, from that, you have to find your net revenue: you have to subtract out your sales, commissions, construction, financing, all the soft costs, which include the engineers, the insurances, the HOA dues, legal fees, accounting fees, and so on and so forth."
Then Austin laid out the bottom line. "With the cost of construction right now," he said, "in order to get something built, you've got to get to a point where you're getting at least a 20 percent return on that sales dollar. So if you think you can sell this thing for $150 million, then if you can't make $30 million of profit on the project, then it's probably not going to get built. And the reason for that is because there's so much risk involved in a high-rise, and with a project that big, you've got institutional partners, you've got a Goldman Sachs, you've got a J.P. Morgan, and they're looking for a certain internal rate of return for the money they're going to put up as equity. Generally, they're going to put up part of the equity, the developer's going to put up part, and then you're going to go to a lender who's going to put up the rest. The most you can get in a construction loan is 80 percent of cost, and the rest has to come from big institutional partners and out of your own pocket. Your money goes in first, generally, and you take the most risk. And the big institutional lenders are looking for certain internal rates of return to put up the rest."
So now we have all the numbers. We know what works and doesn't work. But now what? Now we go and look for an architect?
"No, no," Austin said. "You're doing this in conjunction with an architect. You need to be looking both physically and at the numbers simultaneously. You're going to be tweaking it both ways. You might have an architect who comes in with a project that's only 81 percent efficiency, and you have to say, 'Wait, this doesn't work.' "
Then the architect isn't necessarily the inventor of the deal?
"Not usually," Austin said. "Typically, the developer is the one that goes out there and has the chutzpah to tie up the land. He's the one with the vision and the money and the backing, and he goes and finds an architect who can help him realize the thing."
And then the developer comes to you?
"Generally, yes," Austin said. "The developer comes to us and says, 'Gee, what can we do here?' They'd also go to some sort of marketing consultant and ask them, you know, 'What do you think about this site?' But an architect doesn't have to wait for a developer. I'm just saying that's traditionally how it would happen. But sometimes an architect goes out and says, 'Look, I see this site, and I see what can be done with it. So I'm going to take a risk, and I'm going to dream up what I think needs to be done here, and then I'm going to go find a developer.' "
Then, for the first time, Austin referred to his own company specifically.
"And we do that," he said. "AVRP actually invents projects. Because we don't necessarily want to wait. Plus, high-rise projects are so dependent on architecture. Whereas, if you're out in the suburbs, all a developer has to do is have a set of plans he's used over and over and over again, and like cookie cutters he can just keep banging them out. But downtown, you can't do that."
And what about the actual physical project? What about the building of the structure itself?
"Once you understand the function of a building," Austin began, "that is, once you know whether it's going to be a hotel, housing, offices, then the design is going to be based on the needs of those users. So an architect's going to work very hard with a client to make something that's not only beautiful, hopefully, but that also works well. Then, there's a whole team of structural and mechanical engineers that have to get the guts of it working. Because basically it's a machine for living when you're all done."
Austin continued, "But now, when you start construction, because it takes so long to build a high-rise, most of the developers downtown want to fast-track the project. Which means they'll start digging the hole once they know enough about the project to define the parameters of the foundation of the structure. Before you even get a full architectural permit. You know you can get certain finishing touches right no matter what, so you can start a lot of the big stuff before you really know where it's going."
And they start with a hole?
"They start with a hole," Austin said, "and usually they go down about four stories. And downtown, usually what we have is a mat foundation. Which means they dig the hole, and then they pour a giant slab of concrete, five, six, seven feet thick, full of steel reinforcement, and that's going to resist the weight of the building, the force of wind, an earthquake, what have you. And you're getting certain basic mechanical structural things done in that hole when you're down there. You're putting in a parking garage, probably. And you come back up to grade. And then you create what's called a podium level, which generally is anywhere from 30 to 50 feet high, and that's what fills out the block. And somewhere within the podium there's going to be one or two towers that are going to keep going on up, as many stories as need be, depending on how big each floor is."
Then Austin digressed a moment to address one of his peeves concerning local high-rise architecture. "Once you get to 240 feet," he said, "you're required in San Diego to do what's called a redundant structure. You could do performance-based design, which I think is smarter, but San Diego's chosen not to do it yet. And so you have to go to a lot more expense in doing the structure as you get above 240 feet. There's a sort of magical line there. The theory behind redundant structuring is that more is better. You know, if I have a thick wall, then a thicker wall is stronger. Well, the reality is that's not completely true. You don't want your building to be too rigid. You want to have a certain amount of flexibility. Performance-based design, which is the way of the future, makes more efficient and smarter buildings. Redundant structures are safe, don't get me wrong. They're just inefficient as hell. The thing is, performance-based design is more sophisticated, and San Diego just hasn't gotten there yet." Then Austin laughed. "Now I'm going to get criticized by the building department, but...
"But anyway," Austin finished his description, "once you're really blowing and going, and you're in the tower itself, these guys are building the structure for these buildings in concrete anywhere between five and eight days per floor. If you're steel, it goes even faster than that, because it's like a big Erector set."
So now I wanted to encourage Austin to make a leap with me in his thinking. If his firm did, in fact, develop projects, then what was he dreaming up to make San Diego's skyline more distinctive? In what he could envision, would San Diego ever compete with New York and its Chrysler Building or St. Louis with its famous Gateway Arch?
"Part of the problem is the height limit," Austin said. "We really just need a little more room. I think if we could go to about 750 feet, we could do some amazing things. As an example, AVRP, our company, is located in One America Plaza, which, pound for pound, is a very high quality building, but if you hear any criticism of it, you hear people say it just doesn't look high enough. It's too short!"
But that's the challenge.
"Yes," Austin agreed. "That's the challenge."
So what's the future of our skyline?
"Well, what I really wish is that we could find some way to go to 750 feet tall. Because I think it would make it a much more exciting skyline. But aside from that, we're going to see a lot of development in the East Village. And the most exciting thing we're doing right now is one pencil-thin building right on Park Boulevard down there, where it turns to start going up toward the park. There's something there called Library Circle, and right there, we're going to build a sort of iconic building that's going to be only about 75 feet wide and about 480 feet tall. Which is pretty narrow, but appropriate, I think. Almost like if you were in Egypt or Rome or Paris, and they would mark these places with some sort of icon. But this building will be a living building; there'll be people living in it. And if the library gets built someday, because the library's supposed to be a large dome, and if you look at the classics of architecture, then you always have the campanile and the dome, and so this becomes kind of the same relationship. We're building the campanile for the library dome. Maybe in three or four years, those buildings will help distinguish San Diego's skyline. I don't know. We'll see!"
How tall is tall?