Commercial Interests

Tower Boom Fails To Materialize

Boston Doesn’t Need Soaring Skyscrapers To Define Its Legacy

The 690-foot Millennium Tower is the exception in Boston’s condo development boom.

The 690-foot Millennium Tower is the exception in Boston’s condo development boom.

Come to think of it, maybe Boston’s much-ballyhooed tower boom isn’t so towering after all.

Sure, a pair of nearly 700-foot condominium towers is fast taking shape on the city’s skyline, but the new Four Seasons and Millennium towers are the exception, not the rule, despite all the chatter about Boston’s tower boom.

In fact, the vast majority of new condo, apartment and office projects built since the turn of the century in the modest, 200- to 300-foot, midrise range, notes Boston-office-market research guru Brendan Carroll.

And look more closely and you will also see something else that may come as a surprise, but reflects a trend that has been underway for years. Almost all of Boston’s true office skyscrapers – 500 feet and up – were built in the 1980s and before. The Hancock and Prudential towers may be gems of the Boston skyline, but they are also the last of a dying breed and one we are unlikely to see again anytime soon.

Since 2000, Boston has seen 52 new office, condo and apartment buildings take shape. The vast majority of them – 36 – are between 200 and 300 feet. Not exactly Manhattan, folks, and good thing at that.


Scott Van Voorhis

Scott Van Voorhis

Soaring Confidence, Shorter Towers

Carroll, who recently launched Encompass Real Estate Strategy, shared with me a quick and dirty survey he put together of tower heights and development in Boston over the decades.

Carroll’s numbers tell quite a story – despite appearances, the current boom stands out more for the sheer volume of what’s getting built, while heights, with a few notable exceptions, heading lower as the decades have marched on.

Of the 17 towers in Boston that are 500 feet or higher, 13 were built in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and most were office towers.

The Federal Reserve tower, built in the 1970s, soared past the 600 foot mark. The ’80s saw office developers reach for the sky once again. Don Chiofaro’s One International Place hit the 600-foot mark, while One Financial Center, just across from South Station, topped off at a lofty 590 feet. Exchange Place, built in the middle of the decade, came in at a not-too-shabby 510 feet.

But since 1992, when the second International Place tower opened, Boston developers have gone on severe height diet, at least when it comes to new office buildings. Since then, we have seen just four towers cross the 500-foot mark, and two of them – the posh new Four Seasons and Millennium Tower – are currently under construction. The other two were office towers; One Lincoln Street, which opened in 2003 as State Street’s new headquarters, and Boston Properties’ 111 Huntington – better known as the “baby bottle building,” for its less-than-elegant cap.

It seems as if we already have enough truly towering office buildings – at the very least developers aren’t scrambling to add more. But clearly, other factors are also at work.


Changing Times

Most of the city’s big office towers were built at a time when Boston was trying to make a comeback from decades of increasing irrelevance, suburban flight and urban decay. They were often built with substantial tax breaks granted by city officials desperate to pump new life into what was a moribund downtown Boston.

But tower heights began to decline in the 1990s as the Boston’s reputation on the national stage began to take off. Developers, especially those building for the office market, have been sticking with more modestly sized buildings, leveling off at 200 to 300 feet. By stopping short, so to speak, developers are sparing themselves the very considerable expense of putting in a second elevator bank while also cutting back on the risk they will be stuck with lots of empty floors.

But companies are also less interested these days in making a statement by becoming the anchor tenant on a big tower. There’s more interest than ever before in having a downtown or urban location, especially as a way of attracting young Millennial talent.

That said, the blue chip firms simply aren’t turned on by height – and stunning views – the way they used to. That may have been impressive back in the go-go ’80s, but bragging about your conference room views seems a little dated now.

Just take GE. One of the world’s largest companies, GE certainly could have had its own tower, and, given the generous package of incentives state and city leaders rolled out, it probably could have gotten it for free! But GE instead has chosen to go for a relatively modest new building in the Fort Point neighborhood, wanting to immerse itself in the city’s fast-growing innovation culture.

By contrast, multimillionaire condo buyers are still ready to pay top dollar for a penthouse in the clouds – hence the new, 690-foot Millennium and the nearly 700-foot Four Seasons.

Yet these soaring towers are more the exception than the rule in Boston. Just look at what’s been built over the past 15 years. The number of low and midrise condo buildings far outnumbers the handful of new condo skyscrapers taking shape on the Boston skyline.

A shiny new tower every decade or so isn’t such a bad thing, but the fact is, Boston doesn’t want to be and certainly can’t be New York. The Hub’s preference for modest mid-rise buildings over towering iconic structures is not a bad thing, but rather what helps make the city what it is.

Yes, the Hub is truly one of the world’s greatest cities. And it no longer has to put up soaring new office towers to prove it.

Tower Boom Fails To Materialize

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 4 min