Are Tall Buildings Bad For Downtown?

Michael Lewyn's picture

In the ongoing debate over height limits (especially in Washington, D.C., where even a 20-story office building is too tall to be allowed) one of the many sub-arguments is over whether height limits are good or bad for downtown.

Supporters of height limits argue that if tall buildings are allowed, commercial activity will be concentrated in a small "skyscraper zone" and low-height blocks will become dead zones.  By contrast, they claim that if buildings are limited to 10 or 15 stories, businesses will keep looking for downtown office space, and the mid-rise downtown will keep expanding as businesses priced out of one downtown district move a few blocks away.   Height limit supporters note that Washington's low-rise downtown is fairly prosperous, while some Sun Belt cities have taller buildings and dead downtowns.

By contrast, skyscraper supporters argue that a business that cannot get what it wants in a tall downtown building is just as likely to move to suburbia as to move a few blocks away.   They point out that Washington's low-rise downtown is by no means the only prosperous downtown in the United States, and that Washington has until recently been far less successful in competing with its suburbs than some high-rise cities.  For example, New York has been gaining population since the 1980s, while Washington steadily lost population until the 2000s.

In an ideal world, one could run a controlled experiment between Washington with height limits and Washington without height limits.  Obviously, this is not possible.

However, one can examine the cities with the tallest buildings in the United States.  Do they tend to have healthy downtowns or weak downtowns?  I begin by proposing a measure of downtown health: how many people walk to work?  In 10 of the nation's 50 largest cities, over 5 percent of city residents walk to work (Boston, Washington, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Honolulu, Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago and Baltimore).  This group includes cities with lots of tall buildings (New York, Chicago), low-rise Washington, and numerous cities in between those extremes.

Of the 50 tallest buildings in the United States, 29 are in either New York or Chicago.   8 more are scattered with cities with strong downtowns (four in Philadelphia, one each in Minneapolis, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle).  13 are in cities with not-so-strong downtowns (3 in Atlanta, one or two each in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Charlotte, Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis).  So it appears that there is a modest but positive correlation between a vibrant downtown and tall buildings.

To be fair, my strong-downtown cities tend to be bigger than the weak-downtown cities; thus, it could be argued that their larger number of skyscrapers reflects their larger size.  But if you compare the number of skyscrapers with the amount of office space, some of the strong-downtown cities still have more skyscrapers.  In particular, Chicago has about one skyscraper per 15 million feet of office space (15 buildings in the top 50, 235 million feet of office space)*  New York has one per 30 million (14 buildings, almost 430 million SF).   Philadelphia has one per 34 million (4 buildings, 137 million SF).

Of the weak-downtown cities with more than one "top 50 building", only Atlanta comes close to Philadelphia (with 3 buildings and 140 million SF, for a ratio of one skyscraper per 46 million SF).  Los Angeles has two skyscrapers and over 180 million SF, for a ratio of one per 90 million SF.  Dallas and Houston have a similarly low skyscraper/office space ratio.  On the other hand, so do walkable Boston and San Francisco.  To put it another way: cities with lots of skyscrapers tend to have strong downtowns, but not all cities with strong downtowns have lots of skyscrapers.

Thus, skyscrapers are not absolutely necessary for a downtown with lots of people walking to work.  But given that the most height-oriented downtowns are pretty healthy, it at least seems clear that tall buildings do not prevent such a result. 

*Office space statistics are here.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Atlanta skycrapers

Does the research and evaluation of Atlanta consider that the region has multiple CBD districts with very dense urban development? Midtown is one of the most active urban centers anywhere and that does not include Atlantic Station. Yes downtown is still struggling, but improving

I like your metric, hadn't

I like your metric, hadn't thought of it, and find it potentially useful.

If I might restate your preconclusion sentence, to put it another way, "cities with lots of skyscrapers tend to have strong downtowns, not all cities with strong downtowns have lots of skyscrapers, but skyscrapers can be bad in cities that don't have strong downtowns." The majority of cities don't have strong downtowns with lots of skyscape, of course, and so this comes close to answering your original question.

My reason for saying this is that height-oriented development charges and carries a premium in price. This premium also trickles down, to an extent, to the land market, so that any landowner finds it worthwhile to hold out for the windfall from a big developer even forty or fifty years out. The downtown would be stronger, and all these lots develop sooner, if all of them were built out with healthy low-road infill to create a neighborhood and /then/ rebuilt with high-stakes chunks of density; but it's a tragedy of the commons.

In the examples you've given attention, overall density is not sacrificed to the process of trophy development; yet in the average urban environment, it will be.

Another metric might quantify

Another metric might quantify what is a strong enough downtown. I know firsthand that Sunbelt downtowns tend to be the part of the entire metro that develops in the slowest, tallest chunks, with overall space getting crowdsourced to the areas of town where a huge pre-lease does not have to be signed to make each project solvent.

what makes a strong downtown

You mentioned Philadelphia as a "strong downtown city" (and I would agree) but the office market in Philly isn't all that strong and the number or size of skyscrapers has nothing to do with it.

Center City Philadelphia is strong because; it has a huge, well-educated residential population, a strong domestic and growing international tourism industry, and it's the center of arts & culture for a large metro that's fed by a large regional rail network. Whether or not the office buildings are tall or short has very little to do with its overall health. Center City as a concept also goes beyond just the "downtown" (or CBD if you prefer) along Market St. & JFK Blvd. to include several large, residential neighborhoods, Independence Park and the historic district as well as the Parkway/Museums District.

The office market is weak in Center City because of much more favorable tax/political regimes in the suburbs . . . although this is starting to turn around slowly.

Tall Buildings for Downtown

There is no reason to put a tall building "downtown". Ask a Houstonian were downtown is and he will probably as were you are going, Galleria? Westheimer, etc. No zoing has allowed "tall buildings" to be built were the ROI is the greatest. Lokk at the Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles more economically driven and vehicle centric than "walk to work" centric.
And who walks to work in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, unless you consider walking from the "T", the Subway, Philadelphia Suburban Line or the Metro walking to work. The notion of downtown probably has gone the way of Pacman.

Building Heights

Perhaps you should look beyond America, for vibrant walkable cities.... European Cities accomplish this with larger population densities, and lower building height limits. Look at Paris, and Copenhagen, both have achieved the desired goals of dense, vibrant, strong and walkable downtowns...without resorting to skyscrapers...

Michael Lewyn's picture

responding to readers

1. Re Muncipal Diva's comments: it is simply not true that Paris avoids tall buildings. Paris has buildings with over 50 stories- just perhaps not in touristy areas. (See ) (Copenhagen is a much smaller city and not so much of a business center, but even it has buildings in the 20-30 story range).

2. Re I45TEX- I wasn't asserting that "skyscrapers can be bad in cities that don't have strong downtowns" but rather trying to test the hypothesis. I don't think I either proved or disproved it; all I can say for sure is that strong downtowns are more likely to have tall buildings, though I am not sure which causes which. At the very least, tall buildings don't get in the way of a strong downtown. I'd actually like to be able to use commercial development as a metric, but I haven't found the kind of statistics I'm looking for.

3. Re Johnglagola's comment: in Boston and Washington, 10-13% of people walk to work. I think that is pretty impressive. Philadelphia is close on its heels. So the notion that there isn't a significant number of walk-to-work downtowners in transit-oriented cities is simply not connected to reality.

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