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Chicago has long been a city of cloud busting skyscrapers, but its latest push toward the sky is enough to make jaws drop, eyes pop and start alarm bells ringing.

Every week, it seems, a rendering of a new tower is splashed across the front page or the business page in the hopes of generating positive "buzz" and attracting potential buyers and investors.

Some of this may be pure hucksterism. Nothing like a sexy architect's rendering to drum up a prospective tenant or two. Still, every proposal bears watching. It's the ugly one we ignore that -- surprise! -- will get built.

The trend goes beyond the biggest headline grabbers, the 2,000-footers that have spawned nicknames such as "the Drill Bit" and "the Tweezer Tower." Not since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Sears Tower, the Standard Oil Building (now the Aon Center) and the John Hancock Center redefined the Chicago skyline, have there been such spectacular possibilities for aesthetic payoffs and pratfalls. At stake in this profusion of residential towers and one proposed broadcast tower is the character of North Michigan Avenue, the lakefront, the riverfront and the walls of buildings flanking Grant Park. The skyline is sure to assume a new center of gravity along a new Gold Coast -- the once-foul Chicago River, where Donald Trump's much-hyped, 1,361-foot hotel and condo tower soon will rise out of a construction pit, and more giants may follow.

None of this is accidental. With little public discussion, Mayor Daley's administration has made a dramatic policy reversal, encouraging great height rather than forcing developers to make their towers shorter. At the House of Daley, where the city's architectural cloth gets cut, tall and thin is in. Short and squat is out. It is, on the whole, a change for the better.

City planners envision a skyline comprising pencil thin "point" towers that leave space around them for light and air. When it works, it should be dazzling, offering the best of both worlds -- great height without overwhelming congestion.

Yet all architecture, like all politics, is local. Tall towers do not belong everywhere. Some stand to do as much harm as good, canyonizing streets, dwarfing waterfronts or marring the skyline with bizarre Buck Rogers silhouettes. The emphasis on bigness still has to come to terms with smallness -- the shops, restaurants and other human-scaled features that give cities their accidental, quirky appeal.

Almost no one suggests that Chicago adopt a highly prescriptive set of design rules that would mandate the shape of towers. That could well kill off a building boom that is the envy of other cities and staunch the city's celebrated tradition of innovation.

But there is a need for the city to develop a planning framework that offers specific guidelines about where tall towers should go, how they can be placed so they block as few views as possible, and how they should behave at ground level to avoid the sort of city-deadening blank walls that now blight River North.

Such guidelines offer the prospect of carefully managed growth instead of unchecked, Dodge City growth, a specter that became very real last month when developers J. Paul Beitler and LR Development Co. unveiled plans for a 2,000-foot broadcast tower along the lakefront.

The plan, it turns out, was a slick switcheroo.

For months, the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents (SOAR), a respected neighborhood group, negotiated with LR over a condominium tower of about 60 stories that was to rise on the west side of Lake Shore Drive just across from Lake Point Tower. Chicago architect Ralph Johnson of Perkins & Will, who has produced some of the city's finest residential towers, designed the structure, whose details haven't been made public. SOAR members were happy with the broad strokes of Johnson's design and with details such as a dog run.

Then they woke up on Oct. 25 and read the front-page story about the broadcast tower, designed by New Haven, Conn., architect Cesar Pelli.

"Basically, it's a giant utility pole," said Brian Hopkins, a SOAR board member.

Following the route usually taken by developers, Beitler and LR only pictured their plan when they announced the tweezer-shaped tower, conveniently ignoring another planned 2,000-foot skyscraper just a few blocks to the south, Santiago Calatrava's Fordham Spire, which would be shaped like a giant drill bit.

Calatrava's design, which still must be financed and receive city approval, appears astonishingly graceful when it stands alone, an extraordinary piece of architectural sculpture that marks a special place in the city, the meeting of the lakefront and the river.

But with the broadcast tower alongside it, as pictured in a composite photo prepared for this story, it looks like one-half of the world's largest set of football goal posts.

This is but one example of the costs of unchecked growth.

Chicago's explosion of tall towers is at once a real estate phenomenon and an urban planning phenomenon, illustrating how quickly ideas from one city can migrate to another in the global age.

One reason for the tall towers, real estate experts say, is that developers have moved from secondary sites, such as the West Loop and the western flanks of River North, to marquee locations, such as North Michigan Avenue. There, land is more expensive and the developers need to build taller so they can make a profit.

Then there is the Trump factor. The developer and reality TV star has pushed Chicago's luxury condominium market to new physical and financial heights, blazing a trail that competitors lust to follow. Trump reportedly is getting stratospheric prices at his Trump International Hotel & Tower -- about $1,000 a square foot, up from roughly $675 a foot when he started selling condos there a few years ago.

"Other developers are looking at his numbers and drooling," says Gail Lissner, vice president of Chicago-based Appraisal Research Counselors.

Last but hardly least is City Hall's changing attitude toward tall buildings, a shift that reflects the growing influence of Vancouver in urban planning circles.

Why Vancouver? Because it offers an eminently livable model of tall, thin high-rise towers set on townhouse podiums.

That prototype clearly is familiar to key city planners, including Lori Healey, the city's new commissioner of Planning and Development, and Sam Assefa a former San Francisco planner who is Daley's deputy chief of staff for economic and physical development.

Assefa helped encourage Chicago architects David Haymes and George Pappageorge to stretch their planned One Museum Park condo tower at the southern end of Grant Park to 720 feet from an initial proposed height of 450 feet. That move shocked the architects, who recognized that the site demanded a commanding presence, but were used to the city's old ways of knocking down height to make towers palatable to neighbors.

"They said: `Can't you make it taller?' We were taken aback by that," Haymes said.

Healey said: "There has been a growing movement in the design community to educate the development world that tall, slender buildings are not bad things . . . [They allow] developers and their architects to be innovative."

Of that, there is little doubt. Look at the contrast between the tall and thin Park Tower, which soars 844 feet above the sidewalk at 800 N. Michigan, and the short and squat Peninsula Hotel building, which sits just to its south at 730-750 N. Michigan, and you see the basic wisdom in the city's shift.

Yes, the mansard-roofed Park Tower, which was designed by Lucien Lagrange Architects, looks like a big yellow rocket ship and could have been more architecturally daring. But it's still a good piece of urban design, with elegant proportions and a silhouette that doesn't overwhelm the neighboring park around the old Chicago Water Tower.

By contrast, the 20-story Peninsula building is a stump, a five-star hotel with a one-star public face.

More skinny towers are on the way, and with Daley warming to adventurous design in the wake of Millennium Park's success, they promise to be fresh and modern rather than tried-and-true traditional.

One intriguing example, now under construction at 340 E. Randolph Drive and designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz, will soar 672 feet and will include a 25th-floor winter garden with exterior glass walls that open in warm weather, allowing residents to proceed onto a terrace and gaze over Millennium Park.

But top-of-the-line amenities for affluent buyers by no means guarantee the quality of the public realm we all inhabit.

As towers rise, so do concerns about snarled traffic, blocked views and pedestrians being blown off their feet by downdrafts that woosh off the sides of skyscrapers. Density is good because it means people can walk or take public transit to their jobs instead of driving. But when it takes 10 minutes to drive a few blocks in Streeterville at rush hour, are we starting to reach the limits of density?

Streeterville is especially vulnerable to congestion at street level, for unlike the Illinois Center mega-development south of the Chicago River, it has no three-tiered subterranean circulation system. Thank goodness for that. But this means Streeterville's narrow, at-grade street grid must carry the load -- delivery vans, garbage trucks, taxis, even the pizza guy.

Such quality-of-life concerns transcend architecture, suggesting that there is far more to the debate over the city's growth than the graceful presence of towers on the skyline. Indeed, while the design standards of the new towers are head and shoulders above the concrete hulks of River North, good architecture in some cases may not be enough.

A fresh example is the newly announced proposal that would replace the banal north tower of the InterContinental Chicago hotel on North Michigan Avenue with an 850-foot hotel and condominium skyscraper while leaving intact the hotel's 42-story Art Deco south tower. The plan, designed by Lucien Lagrange Architects, calls for a glass-sheathed tower that would rise straight up from the North Michigan Avenue sidewalk.

And that has the potential to cause great trouble.

Even though the architectural quality of buildings along North Michigan Avenue has declined precipitously in recent years, it remains a delightful place to walk -- not a darkened canyon, like LaSalle Street, but a boulevard with abundant sunlight and patches of blue sky. The chief reason for this blessing is that nearly all the very tall buildings along North Michigan, from the John Hancock Center to Lagrange's own Park Tower, have towers that are set back from the street, either behind plazas, parks or retail podiums.

The InterContinental proposal offers something very different. While it would have notches in its upper reaches, there would be no setbacks. The architecture is appealing enough, at first glance, and could, with considerable tweaking, form an elegant backdrop for the Art Deco tower to its south.

But if the building rises without a significant setback, it might open the door to other, very tall towers along North Michigan. And that would risk turning the street into a darkened canyon.

Trump's tower offers a taller, bulkier variation on this theme.

No one doubts the ability of its architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago, to superbly detail the giant. What remains very much in question, however, is whether Trump's mega-tower will overwhelm the riverfront with the substantial girth of its clifflike southern wall. The squat Chicago Sun-Times building that used to occupy the site looked, at best, like a marooned river barge. But at least its seven stories didn't hog the sky.

All this demands a question: Can the city do a better job guiding where tall towers go?

Healey, the planning commissioner, expressed satisfaction with the way things work. When it comes to the placement of skyscrapers, "we respond to the private sector," she said.

Asked if that means the Department of Planning and Development is essentially passive, more like the Department of Reacting and Development, she responded that Chicago does guide growth by regulating density. Many of the new tall buildings, she added, are actually less dense than zoning laws allow.

It's true that Chicago's Planning Unit Development zoning category has been an effective, if secretive, arm-twisting device for winning public amenities. But typically, as the pitiful public art and other decorations tacked onto the bases of the monstrous high-rises of River North reveal, these efforts amount to little more than damage control -- the regulatory equivalent of perfuming the pig.

Why not develop flexible planning guidelines that direct growth in advance rather than forcing planners to engage in futile rear-guard actions?

Architect Johnson, whose credits include the acclaimed Skybridge and Contemporaine high-rises, offers some answers: He suggests that the city spell out where conventional wall-like buildings should go (along Grant Park and the lakefront) and where tall "point" towers would be appropriate (behind the clifflike lakefront wall). City planners, he adds, also could encourage developers to provide lively streetscapes instead of brute walls, lining parking podiums with townhouses, plus the shops and restaurants that provide essential neighborhood gathering places.

"A framework like this might make sense out of what we are doing," Johnson wrote in a series of sketches laying out his ideas. "It's at least better than nothing."

He's right. Without more fine-grained tools to guide growth, Chicago risks becoming a city of mega-projects where the small gets lost in the big and the big is placed indiscriminately amid the cityscape with devastating consequences.

There is a difference between a vital city and a healthy city. In a healthy city, traffic is not perpetually snarled, tall towers inspire awe rather than fear, and there is not a Darwinian struggle for access to light and views. Chicago's reach for the sky is heading in the right direction, but it must be refined if the cityscape is to reach its highest, humanistic potential -- truly healthy rather than merely vital.

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bkamin@tribune.com

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