• U.S.

Environment: Downtown Is Looking Up

13 minute read

In the boom years of the 1960s, every American city resounded to the din of construction. No project seemed too ambitious; builders confidently razed vast downtown areas, and their architects just as confidently designed huge structures to fill the voids. The trouble was that instead of creating new life and vigor downtown, the projects were all too often sterile and uninviting—reason enough, though there were others as well, for businesses and middle-class city dwellers to opt for the suburbs. In 1966 Edward J. Logue, then the highly respected chief of Boston’s redevelopment program, succinctly defined the times. “We have raised the right to be ugly to the level of the Bill of Rights,” he told a congressional subcommittee. “By the millions, American tourists have gone to Europe to walk the streets of ancient cities, to linger by a glorious fountain, to rest on a piazza bench and watch the world go by.”

Somehow, that is one message that got through. As Americans visit their own major cities in this Bicentennial season, they are being surprised, delighted, heartened and even awed by what they see. There is hardly a downtown that is not offering a glittering new face, a startling new profile. In Atlanta, a round 723-ft. tower soars like a silver silo above the Georgia heartland. In Los Angeles, the flat megalopolis that was supposed to spread ever outward, new towers sprout like asparagus. Windswept Oklahoma City, a dramatic vertical statement in the horizontal world of the Western plains, strikes the eye like a mini-Manhattan. Denver’s Skyline project, one of the best urban renewal efforts in America, is alive and well named: since 1970, six new towers have poked high against the backdrop of the Rockies, and more are planned. In Kansas City, where once “they went and built a skyscraper seven stories high/ About as high as a building oughta go,”* they’ve went and built a new one 30 stories high that dominates the whole city.

Other cities—notably Cleveland, St. Louis, Omaha and Louisville—have looked to their rivers for inspiration. Each began as a port town, then grew away from the water, allowing the original settlements to decay. Old wharves and warehouses are making room for bold new projects that mix parks with high-rise buildings. Conclusion: the American city, far from being down and out, is clearly growing up (and up).

Symbolic of the times is the change in the skyscraper itself. During the 1960s, the standard tower looked like a shoebox set on end. Now this sleek but rarely stimulating slab is out of style. Replacing it is a completely new series of high-rise shapes and configurations: ribbed, faceted, angled, notched and cylindrical. Like them or not, they create a skyline full of visual excitement.

Pinwheeling Setbacks. Every big city is getting its share of the new towers. Chicago, the birthplace of the skyscraper, has set the pace. It has tapering buildings, round ones and free forms; dozens have been completed in the ’70s. Over them all broods the 110-story Sears Tower, with its pinwheeling arrangement of setbacks. In San Francisco, the 48-story Transamerica building looks like a cross between an oil derrick and the Pyramid of Cheops. The latest statement—if not the last word—is New York’s: its shimmering 34-story One United Nations Plaza, designed by Architects Roche/Dinkeloo and opened last month, has taken a form as abstract as a minimal sculpture.

Down on the streets, there is another kind of new look. Central cities are now paying increasing attention to the pedestrian and his comforts. Spokane, continuing a development started for its Expo ’74, is building a system of second-story walkways so that people can stroll among six city blocks without ever going outside; Minneapolis already has a similar skywalk. New York is chipping at its concrete canyons with vest-pocket parks, small oases of greenery and water amid the granite, glass and asphalt. Most U.S. cities have become aware of the humanizing influence of gardens, fountains, plazas and intimate shopping arcades—all a recovered legacy from Europe.

Vital Signs. What has caused these welcome changes? Mainly necessity. For 30 years America’s downtowns have been at war with their own suburbs, fighting continuously to keep those two vital signs of life—middle-class residents and businesses. Now, for the first time, there are indications that the suburbs are on the defensive. They have attracted so many companies, so many people, that they are beginning to suffer the indignities of traffic jams, smog, escalating taxes and land costs. The crowning insult, and the most discomfiting of all developments: the suburbs now have suburbs of their own. Even so, to compete at all, the old downtowns had to shape up, and they have.

A major question is how the new buildings should define the life of the city. Traditionally, that decision is left to individual developers. In Los Angeles, for example, Occidental Petroleum decided that the financial center would move south of the old downtown, and built its headquarters in the likeliest southern line of growth. But Atlantic Richfield and three banks bet the movement would be westward and built their towers accordingly. As things turned out, the west won, which leaves Occidental in solitary splendor, at least temporarily. Not that it matters: the building boom in Los Angeles is not only around the new towers, but also miles away in Century City and West wood. The theory, urbanologists joke, is that no one ever wanted to go to downtown L.A., so downtown came to them.

Boston evolved a better approach.

It practically reinvented urban renewal in the early 1960s by developing a sound plan to help its decrepit downtown. Then the city’s redevelopment agency, which had muscle and was willing to use it, saw that the plan was followed. By having veto power over design schemes, the agency made sure developers used major architects. As a result, planning became a Boston habit.

Even when the city’s private developers build, they follow the same thinking. Recent additions to the largely residential Back Bay section include two fine works by Architects I.M. Pei & Partners. One is the much maligned John Hancock tower, most famous for its history of falling windowpanes (which have now been completely replaced by stronger glass at a cost of $7 million). The other is the Christian Science Center, which consists of starkly sculptural buildings grouped around Mary Baker Eddy’s domed Beaux-Arts Mother Church. Both projects are especially noteworthy for their careful blending of the new into old surroundings.

In the past two years, Boston’s plans, like those of most cities, have been slowed by inflation, recession and the gradual drying up of federal urban renewal funds. Even so, two new projects are almost ready to go. On the southern edge of downtown, an old railroad terminal will be improved to serve as a transportation center that should anchor other developments in the area. In the very heart of the downtown retail area, demolition has begun on the site for a $220 million shopping project like no other in the U.S. Called Lafayette Place, it will include department stores, boutiques and European-style arcades, all arranged along internal streets and cul-de-sacs. The point: to compete directly with suburban shopping malls by creating a distinctive urban shopping environment. In many ways (see box), Boston is still pioneering.

Houston’s Gusher. Perhaps the most exciting city in the U.S. today—unplanned, individualistic, a roaring gusher of construction—is Houston. It is the energy capital of America, with more than 50 oil and natural-gas companies headquartered downtown. This clustering keeps the central city healthy, because service firms want to be near the energy giants. Since times are so good for the oil companies, everybody is prospering. Indeed, competition from the suburbs is welcomed. As Real Estate Executive Perry Waughtal puts it, “There’s enough business to go around.”

Houston has always had a go-go tradition. The city started as a real estate promotion in 1836 and, says Louie Welch, a five-term Houston mayor who now heads the local Chamber of Commerce, “it still is.” Since 1970, 14 major buildings have gone up downtown. What is surprising, though, is that these buildings display true design quality, while those in Dallas and Fort Worth by and large do not. The explanation is not wealth, but a lively competition between builders, plus the sophistication of Houston office-space renters.

The best new structure in Houston is also the least conventional. Pennzoil Place, with its trapezoidal, 38-story twin towers rising out of a huge glass-roofed court, is powerful architecture, the dynamic element in Houston’s silhouette. The looks also guarantee a good return on Developer Gerald Hines’ $45 million investment in the building. He asked Architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee for a striking design, confident that it would attract tenants who wanted to be associated with a noble building. Hines knew his market; Pennzoil Place is booked solid.

Jesus Chee-rist. Hines is only one of the new breed of developers who have found that good design pays—and pays. Another is John C. Portman Jr., who began his career as an architect, then branched out into development so he could be his own best client. His trademark is hotels—razzle-dazzle fantasy buildings full of gadgets (glass-enclosed elevators) and gimmicks (multistory lobbies garnished with trees, fountains and cafes). He has designed and helped finance completed hotels in Atlanta, San Francisco and Chicago, and has others under way in Los Angeles and Detroit. They are known in the trade as “Jesus Christ” hotels: when visitors walk in for the first time, their eyes bulge and they gasp, “Jesus Chee-rist.”

Actually Portman’s hotels are just a microcosm of what he wants for central cities—a sense of vim and fun. Only downtown, he says, can Americans find “the activities that make life significant.” To carry out his own dictum, the architect-developer built Atlanta’s Peachtree Center—$250 million worth of five office buildings, two hotels, a theater, restaurants and shops. Carefully included were gardens, flags, sculptures and other urban come-ons. He also joined with the Prudential Insurance Co., Banker David Rockefeller and Developer Trammell Crow to repeat the formula in San Francisco’s $300 million Embarcadero Center. Both projects are financially viable.

The flamboyant Portman touch will next be seen in Detroit, a city that desperately needs help. It is beset by one of the modern U.S. city’s grim reapers: an eroding tax base caused by middle-class flight and an exodus of businesses. The city was approaching a crisis stage in 1971 when Henry Ford II, chairman of Ford Motor Co., rounded up the corporate leaders of General Motors, Chrysler, Burroughs and other major firms and formed an organization called Downtown Detroit Development Corp. His goal: a project big enough to have a catalytic effect on the whole urban area —a critical mass that would set other, complementary projects in motion. His architect: Portman.

The result is spectacular. Named Renaissance Center, the 33-acre project on the Detroit River consists of four octagonal, 39-story office towers around a 70-story cylindrical hotel. When the complex is completed next spring, it is expected that the total cost will have reached $500 million, much of which was raised within Detroit’s business community by Henry Ford. Wags have suggested that the symbol for Renaissance Center should be a twisted arm.

Will the project succeed? In a sense, it already has: plans are afoot for more developments along the riverfront, including a new park and an apartment complex. But Renaissance Center may also siphon tenants from existing downtown offices. “We have to take that chance,” says Robert McCabe, president of a civic group named Detroit Renaissance. “If we did not build Renaissance Center, there would be nothing to compete with the suburbs.”

There is, in Kansas City, a precedent of sorts for Detroit’s effort. Some 20 years ago, Joyce Hall, founder and chairman of Hallmark Cards Inc., decided to invest in what he called “the revitalization of the inner core” of his city. What he referred to was the 85 acres of used-car lots, warehouses and other derelict buildings that flanked his company’s headquarters. Slowly, he bought the land—the money came from Hallmark, which produces 9.5 million greeting cards a day—and in 1967 he and his son Donald hired Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes to replan the area.

Today Hall’s $350 million Crown Center is almost complete, in effect a small downtown in itself, with offices, shops and a strikingly handsome 20-story hotel (architect: Chicago’s Harry Weese). Financially, the shops have not yet drawn a crowd of customers, but aesthetically Crown Center is a smash hit. Its existence is one reason Kansas City was chosen as the site for next month’s Republican Convention.

Even with all the money and effort going into the rebuilding of downtowns across the U.S., a hard question remains: Can American cities regain their health? The answer depends in large part on how successful the cities are in stemming —or reversing—the outward flow of middle-class residents. New York, which badly overestimated the market during the office-building boom of the ’60s,* has boldly built its “new town” of Roosevelt Island to do just that.

Brave New Town. The enticements of Roosevelt Island—a 147-acre, 2 ½-mile sliver in the East River—start with well-designed urban housing. The buildings contain grade school classrooms and shops, though Manhattan is only 31/2 minutes away by aerial tramway (TIME, May 24). There is even a pneumatic garbage system that whisks household refuse to a central disposal plant. Perhaps most important, and maybe at some risk, Roosevelt Island mixes income groups—rich, middle class and poor. Opened late last year, the project has leased one-third of its 2,100 rental units and sold 27 of its luxury apartments—for $18,500, plus $658 a month maintenance. It is too early to tell if this brave new town will prosper. But the concept is vital, and Roosevelt Island is being closely watched by city planners.

It has often been said that a nation’s buildings express its aspirations and its character. If so, the downtown structures of the ’70s surely indicate a new attitude toward cities. By declaring a greater concern for amenity and beauty, the buildings point the way toward a renewed sense of community, of civic pride. The proud towers raise high a message of energy and innovation as the U.S. enters its third century.

*From the musical, Oklahoma, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. *In the past decade, more than 100 office towers were built in Manhattan. About one square mile of office space is vacant, including roughly 33% of the 110-story World Trade Center’s twin towers.

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