photo courtesy stock.adobe.com; Would more high-rises make this skyline iconic?

Kiss the Sky?

Written by Lauren Loftus Category: Valley News Issue: August 2018
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Phoenix has never been a high-rise haven, with only one true skyscraper. But with lots of projects on the horizon, is our skyline moving on up?

In 1920, Downtown Phoenix got its first skyscraper. Of course, at that time, “scraping the sky” meant the Heard Building need only be seven stories tall. Fifty-two years later, the city built its last true ’scraper Valley Center, now known as Chase Tower, which sold in a foreclosure deal for $79 million in May to Wentworth Properties.

Today, city officials say there’s never been more upward growth for Phoenix’s Downtown skyline, with 14 mid- to high-rise buildings starting construction by next summer. But none of the newbuilds will reach the height of Chase Tower, which is itself petite compared to other hulking skyscrapers – at 483 feet, you could stack five Chase Towers on top of each other and still not reach the top of the world’s tallest, Burj Khalifa in Dubai. So, though our skyline – an ill-planned, thin line of concrete buildings spread higgledy-piggledy along Central Avenue – will become fuller, it seems worth asking: Will it also become more iconic?

Some say it already is. Seattle, it could be argued, is only “iconic” because it has the Space Needle – a mod-futuristic oddity many Seattleites actually hate – as is Paris for the Eiffel Tower. We already have the haunted-looking Westward Ho and its classic radio tower; we have a lot of breathing room, the better to see surrounding mountains and our epochal sunsets. Do we really need the Q-tip-like Phoenix Tower, a 430-foot spiral observation deck proposed in 2013?

Christine Mackay, director of the City of Phoenix Community and Economic Development Department, says the Valley is nowhere near finished with its skyline infill. “We’re such a young city,” she says. To Mackay, Downtown Phoenix is entering the puberty phase of construction. “I’ve been here my whole life – in the ’70s a few [tall] buildings were built, in the ’80s there was a building or two… but never has there been a time when so many buildings are being built at once.”

Of the 14 cranes going up in Downtown proper, only the 30-story LINK PHX apartment tower being built by Urban Edge Builders (UEB) on Third and Pierce streets comes close to reaching skyscraper designation. (There is no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a skyscraper, though the international Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats sets the minimum height at 490 feet.)

UEB development principal Alvaro Sande says LINK and other in-the-works projects like the highly anticipated Block 23 high-rise housing Downtown’s first supermarket are the culmination of a growth spurt of urbanization. “The rooftops have followed that investment,” he says. “[Another] reason for more upward-bound projects is availability of land in desirable areas of Downtown… when you don’t have land, the only way is up.”

To Mackay, Phoenix has only just begun its upward-bounding. “Skyscrapers are something that Phoenix has to look forward to for many, many years,” she says. Part of the reason for its late start is “because of the [cheap] land cost in Arizona, it’s always been easier to go out than up… but the market today is demanding an urban experience and it makes more and more sense to build up.”

Jon Talton, former Arizona Republic reporter and chronicler of Phoenix history on his blog Rogue Columnist, agrees this is the city’s “biggest construction boom in decades” which he credits to the back-to-the-city movement “where most talented millennials, as well as [Gen] Xers and empty-nest boomers, want to live in real cities [and] companies have followed.” But, he says, when compared to peer cities like Seattle, Denver and Portland, Phoenix still lags.

A big reason for this? Intense decentralization in the 1950s and ’60s, when urban planners, companies and the local and state government spread out major buildings from the urban core. “The high-rise string [north of the I-10] was caused by zoning adjustments to favor powerful developers and a lack of consensus or vision on keeping a dense downtown,” Talton says.

Moreover, he says, Downtown’s proximity to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport means some city leaders have been reticent to challenge the Federal Aviation Administration on building heights, resulting in few truly tall buildings. As such, Phoenix lacks a defining high-rise landmark. “Valley Center (Chase Tower) came the closest, but it was too short and is now surrounded,” Talton says. Whether that changes now that Chase is undergoing a major makeover and more (semi) high-rises infill our skyline’s big gaps remains to be seen.

What is the most iconic part of Phoenix’s skyline?
(An informal Twitter poll)

@HenryQMendoza: “Hmm, I’d say Hyatt Regency”

@LindaVachata: “Westward Ho radio tower. It’s still there, isn’t it?”

@PeterCorbett1: “Luhrs Building & Luhrs Tower or Westward Ho or Chase Tower, Professional Building and Security Building.”

@stevenjtotten: “Obvs Westward Ho and Luhrs”

@brendantnorris: “South Mountain”