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Towering Inferno: Do Skyscrapers Still Matter?

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In the late 1920s, New York builders engaged in a remarkable battle to create the world’s tallest building. This “race to the sky” culminated with the completion of the Empire State Building, which almost a century later remains not only one of the tallest buildings ever built, but also one of the most iconic. This frenzied contest included a high level of subterfuge and intrigue as builders added radio towers and even extra floors to increase the footage of their structures. By the time the race was over, the skyline of New York was forever altered, and within a few years major cities around the world were following the Big Apple’s lead.
The need for tall buildings is obvious in cities where land prices are at a premium. There’s no value in going vertical in the middle of a cornfield in rural Iowa, but in most major American downtown areas, it is the only legitimate option. In the last few decades, the construction of buildings more than 40 stories high (the official designation of a skyscraper) has become almost commonplace. Hong Kong leads the world with 355 of these buildings, but they exist in most North American cities including New York, Chicago, Toronto, and Miami. The more expensive the real estate, the more skyscrapers there are.

The Global Rise of Skyscrapers

Over the last decade, there has been a rapid acceleration in skyscraper construction all over the world. For many cities and countries, tall buildings are a symbol of national power, prestige, and pride. And in most major cities, you are likely to see dozens of cranes putting these structures up at a dizzying pace. At this point, it’s basically been accepted that skyscrapers are our future. But are they really?
For North America, the answer is probably “no.” Of the 60 “mega-skyscrapers” under, or approved for, construction, only four of them are in the United States – all of them in New York City. While skyscrapers may be the future in the Middle East and Asia, they don’t seem to have the same appeal here or in Western Europe. Of course, many of these planned buildings will end up never being built, as investors walk away or the economic realities of these kinds of structures become apparent. And that doesn’t even count the number of “vision” buildings that have been proposed but not yet approved.

Challenges Facing Skyscrapers

One of the major issues with skyscrapers is that at a certain point, there are often diminishing returns. For most of its history, the Empire State building has been significantly under-occupied. Even in the Middle East, where skyscrapers apparently thrive, the massive towers are having trouble attracting enough residential and commercial tenants. The towers that are currently under construction were also approved and started before the COVID pandemic hit. As the impacts of the pandemic become more clear by the day, there is a high likelihood that most companies are not going to fully reoccupy their downtown office spaces in 2020, and maybe even into next year. This means that there will be more commercial real estate spaces sitting empty.
But it’s not just a temporary blip. Many major companies have announced that they won’t be returning to their previous office-based work models, even when a vaccine is available. As a result, anchor tenants in many of the buildings under construction are pulling out entirely or reducing their square footage. That’s going to have a ripple effect that will negatively impact the entire real estate market, including skyscrapers. That’s a huge problem for companies that are spending billions of dollars to put up towers in densely populated urban areas.

Rethinking the Role

Vertical cities reflect our aspirations for—and sometimes fear of—our future. If you look at any sci-fi magazine or movie poster from the 1940s on, you will see plenty of pictures of cities dominated by massive towers. But unlike flying cars or teleportation, skyscrapers actually are real today. As the economic realities of the world change, and as COVID fundamentally re-shapes how we live, this may become a part of our future that does make it past the present day. If it does, the use of these buildings may need to be re-examined.
Instead of prioritizing workspaces in commercial office buildings, skyscrapers may need to look at alternate sources of income. Creating space for families in these buildings could attract younger buyers to the city. It could also help to reduce congestion in urban centers as people would not need to commute downtown for jobs or entertainment. Creating vertical parking towers could also help to bring in other sources of revenue, as parking spaces could be rented out. Removing existing buildings may be unrealistic, but updating these towers to meet changing needs could help them survive.

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