My recent trip and reaction to Austin’s urban core reminded me of a conversation last fall while in Denver for ULI’s annual meeting.  As a number of us stood at a reception located at the edge of the downtown core, we marveled at how rich and interesting the edges had become – a series of mid rise buildings set within a connected grid of street fronting buildings, and how stuck in time the core seemed to be.  There we saw singular high rise towers, set back from ‘public plazas’ which were really neither, and surrounded by empty parking lots.  It struck me how stark the two eras of urban design and planning were, and how both were faring in the new economy.

As we stood around in our highly public and active public space at the street, we looked across to the rather boxy towers and posited that the deep core of some mid 80’s cities – and their tall tower building forms – may be moving toward obsolete assets.  Today the activity, employers and residents all want to live and work in lower scaled, but more compact, neighborhoods that are close to transit.  And while many 1980-1990 downtown centers are adding transit, the real growth and transformation appears to be occurring at the edge. The majority of users and residents appear to be seeking denser, mid-rise properties in walkable neighborhoods, as opposed to the tall ‘towers-in-a-plaza’ that characterized urban design two decades ago (just look at rental rates for office space in San Francisco’s SOMA vs. Financial District).  So what will become of these buildings?  For some out of the box thinking, check out this very fun and provocative video for ‘the Hackable Building’ (with thanks to Mike Powe for sharing).

It seems that whomever can conceive of clever ways to re-position, re-use and recycle high rise towers may have a bright future.  While in the core cities there are likely to always be law firms and white shoe financial services firms looking for space in a tower, a lot of today’s rapidly growing and collaborative firms seem to find both the small floor plates, isolating elevator-access-only floors too much of an impediment for the way they work.  However, it must be noted that Salesforce’s recent blockbuster lease of 700,000 square feet of San Francisco’s  emerging Transbay Tower may be the exception to an emerging trend (probably driven as much by a huge appetite for space and prestige).

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