Skyscraping and Staying Down-to-Earth

Skyscraping and Staying Down-to-Earth

NBBJ’s proposed nuCLEus tower in Cleveland.

After years of chilly development prospects, downtowns across the Midwest are sizing up a skyscraper boom of sorts.

Local developers are playing high-stakes Jenga in downtown Cleveland, proposing to stack horizontal forms between high-rises that reach 54 stories at their tallest point. NBBJ’s design for nuCLEus, as it’s called, is bold. If approved by the city and realized according to plans, it would be the city’s fourth tallest building, and certainly among the skyline’s most eye-catching.

In Minneapolis, a call for proposals to redevelop downtown’s defunct Nicollet Hotel block received several submissions, including one for a new tower that would be substantially taller than Philip Johnson’s IDS Tower, the tallest building in the state. Duval Development tapped Perkins+Will to outline plans for a skyscraper 80 stories high, stirring debate about the Twin Cities’ urban character and the local real estate market. That buzz was ultimately for naught, however, as city planners rejected the plan one month later.

Shortly before Christmas Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel presided over a press conference confirming plans first made public five months earlier for a new supertall building in the Lakeshore East neighborhood—a proposal financed by Beijing-based Dalian Wanda Group. The 1,150-foot-tall, 88-story structure would be the first skyscraper over 300 meters since Trump Tower was completed in 2009; other than that, the city practically synonymous with tall building design and engineering hasn’t reached such heights in 25 years.

So what should midwesterners make of all this? While the interest in tall towers speak to development trends—real estate markets seem confident the Rust Belt rebound is here to stay, and it’s becoming a safer bet for large projects—they belie a larger question about design and urbanism in the region.

In the belt-tightening of various economic cycles over recent decades, cities in the Midwest and beyond have done best by returning to basic principles. In the years since the recession, we’ve seen good design even on meager budgets, and it often focuses on human-scale connections, inspired landscape design, street life—urban vibrancy in the least wonky sense. Think of the rise of landscape architecture as a discipline, the celebration of tactical urbanism and other grassroots initiatives, the general demographic shift back toward inner cities.

Minneapolis’ public process ended with doubt about their would-be skyscraper’s grasp of the local real estate market, even if the public (and at least one city councilman) seemed eager to set a new state record. That council member, Jacob Frey, said he hopes Duval Development takes up the plan elsewhere in the city. In December Alex Duval told AN, “No other site in Minneapolis satisfies the criteria that would sustain” such a building—we’ll see if he reconsiders. At any rate the City of Minneapolis has decided the tower was out of scale with its plans for remaking downtown.

The other two projects (and perhaps more coming soon) are still up for debate. I hope this round of skyscrapers builds on ground-level progress throughout the Midwest. Tall buildings, after all, afford more open space for their density—both nuCLEus and Wanda’s supertall allude to open space and urban context in their initial plans, but details are scant at this point. Cleveland and Chicago planners (and grassroots groups, if the city won’t take up the charge) need to demand greenery, human-scale considerations, and other contributions to public space.

Without overplaying the importance of any given project, how our new skyscrapers embrace the city at a human scale will answer a critical question for midwest downtowns on the rebound: Are today’s tall buildings a return to poor form, presaging a homogeneity of skylines with mere monuments to wealth? Or can we go tall again without losing that accessibility, modesty, and uncomplicated elegance that has always made the region a bastion for good design?