Once flat and wide on the frontier, Western cityscapes are now rising tall and sleek

The development that will take place during the next few years is likely to change the character of these cities

Published Wed, Feb 6, 2019 · 09:50 PM
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Denver, Colorado

THE Western skyline is rising.

From the Rockies to the Pacific, cities are seeking to accommodate increasing populations amid housing shortages by growing up instead of out. A number of them, including this mile-high city hard against the Front Range, are considering projects that would construct some of the tallest buildings in the West.

The towers are the showpieces, but across these urban centers, which have sprawled into suburbs for years, new housing and office projects also are being built taller than ever before. The construction is focused around public transportation centres, and, in some cases, cities are allowing heights to rise beyond original zoning rules as a reward for builders who contribute more to affordable housing.

The development that will take place across the West during the next few years will change the character of these cities, once as flat and wide as the original frontier. Structures, some of which will reach above 70 storeys, will threaten mountain and ocean views, and historic neighbourhoods are being squeezed by projects designed to attract new business and wealthier residents.

In Denver's greater downtown, more than a dozen hotel, office and residential buildings are under construction, a boom the scale of which many say is unprecedented. There are also designs on the drawing board that would alter the top of the Denver skyline.

Plans for a 1,000-foot skyscraper at 17th and California streets, which would dwarf the next-tallest building, were presented last year. But there has been a delay involving the purchase of the property. For now the project, a mix of luxury condominiums, a hotel, restaurants and shops, is on hold.

There is mounting concern that height might soon come at the expense of its high-mountain character and neighbourhood culture. Antique pockets of the changing downtown, such as Five Points, once called the "Harlem of the West" for its historic African-American population, is increasingly falling into the shade of the skyline around it.

"People in Denver are happily spoiled by the fact that we can look left and right and see the mountains," said Teague Bohlen, a Five Points resident and professor of creative writing at the University of Colorado at Denver. "That is certainly being threatened, and it will likely get worse."

But even sceptics of the push for height are largely convinced that, given the inexorable growth, it is the right course to better protect the environment, increase apartment stock and add to affordable housing funds.

Cranes loom over construction sites. Scaffolding around new-building skeletons has become an architectural signature of the city, if only a temporary one. Yet it is still possible to see the distant snow caps through the corridors of the rising urban canyons.

"There are very few cities that have faced the growth we've seen in recent years," said Mayor Michael Hancock. The city has grown by 110,000 people, or 18 per cent, since then, and it is now roughly 40,000 houses and apartments short of meeting demand. "So we've been in the laboratory. And there is no doubt that it's more economically and environmentally efficient to go higher," he added.

He has established programmes that encourage developers to build up - higher than previously permitted, in some cases - in exchange for larger contributions to the city's affordable housing fund. It is an incentive that is lifting Denver's skyline.

Thriving economy

Across the West, a thriving economy has attracted businesses and workers, drawn in part to the region's natural beauty and outdoor ethic. The growth has driven up housing prices at a time when states, led by California, are seeking to slow suburban development to meet environmental goals undermined by long commutes and thick traffic.

The changing Western cityscape will bring some of its urban areas closer in appearance to those along the Eastern Seaboard, where height has long been a priority - "as much for ego as for functionality", said Nicholas de Monchaux, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California. He said the skyscraper, far from conflicting with the frontier design here, is "a quintessentially Western artefact".

The iconic building set within the dramatic natural settings of the West, he said, is consistent with the same design priorities behind the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam, two of the nation's great engineering feats.

"These buildings are also a quintessential vote of confidence in the city, which the West has often struggled with," Mr de Monchaux said. "The hazard is that we only create these skyscrapers as places to drive to rather than places to also live in."

But building inside crowded cities raises its own challenges and has prompted some radical proposals amid a deepening housing shortage. A bill in California last year would have allowed the state to overrule local government decisions on housing projects built near transportation hubs, the ideal "infill" developments that residents nonetheless often oppose. The measure failed.

Its author, State Senator Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat whose city has become the emblem of high housing costs and economic inequality, has reintroduced the legislation after talking with local leaders in neighbourhoods that could be affected, especially those with black and Latino majorities.

"This is an incredibly hard bill," Mr Wiener said. "But this extreme local control with no balance is not working anymore."

He said ideally the measure would allow more "three-, four-, five-, six-storey buildings that fit nicely into middle-class neighbourhoods", many of them now consisting of the city's trademark two-story Victorians and apartments. He said the intent is to increase "the diversity of housing" available in California cities, many of which are confronting widespread homelessness and accompanying public safety consequences.

"This applies across the West," Mr Wiener said. "We hear the same things from Denver, Seattle, Portland and others. If California can be seen as the historic example of how to meet growth and housing needs as badly as possible, then this discussion is going to be productive everywhere."

Seattle and San Diego are considering projects - mixes of housing and office space - that would rival the cities' tallest buildings. David Boynton, a Seattle architect and photographer, began tracking the roughly 300 new building projects in his city with a visual computer program. He is modelling the city's changing appearance and looking for how it translates into daily life.

"The character of a city to me is less about its skyline than it is about its street life," said Mr Boynton, who occasionally presents his computer visualisations to the City Council. "This is what big Western cities are trying to achieve - urbanity. And it comes with density."

Los Angeles is considering a 77-storey tower in the Bunker Hill neighbourhood, a project that would be the city's highest. To the south in Long Beach, developers are preparing to begin construction on a 40-storey tower along the waterfront. The Westside Gateway project also includes a 22-storey tower and several "mid-rise" buildings.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg says his city is in the midst of a real transformation. "There is an intangible specialness about this place. But we're changing as a necessity because a government base is no longer enough to provide opportunity for all our people."

Sacramento has a homeless problem - tents and sleeping bags circle the courtyard at the entrance to city hall - and Mr Steinberg said the development must be in service to the larger goals of increasing housing stock and preventing the kind of neighborhood displacement happening in many other California cities. WP

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