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Powerful, but Vulnerable Urban Symbols

September 16, 2001

Article by Sue McAllister

Skyscrapers define a city's silhouette and embody its identity. San Francisco has the Transamerica Pyramid, Chicago its Sears Tower and New York City had the World Trade Center -- a symbol of wealth and stature around the world.

But in the wake of Tuesday's destruction of the World Trade Center, will anyone want to build or work in such high-profile landmarks?

It's possible that businesses will begin weighing the advantages of leasing space in towering, prestigious buildings against safety concerns when looking for offices, say some in the commercial real estate and architecture fields.

``This will have far-reaching effects,'' said Bill Walsh, president of Cornish & Carey Commercial/Oncor International, a real estate brokerage. He speculated that the terrorist plane attacks could make tenants reconsider security precautions, the number of signs on and around buildings and whether to house workers in several locations.

Depending on how long the shock of last week's events endures, ``lower profile is going to be of interest,'' he said.

As they watched the televised disintegration of the World Trade Center last week, some who work in the Bay Area's signature buildings wondered whether their own workplaces could be vulnerable.

One man who works in San Francisco's 555 California building -- one of the city's tallest at 779 feet -- said his wife pointed out to him that his workplace could be viewed as a target because of the symbolic weight of its name -- the Bank of America tower.

``That made me a little queasy coming in to work,'' said the man, who did not want to give his name. ``This, the Transamerica, maybe the Pacific Stock Exchange could be targets around here.''

Peter Tsai, 23, works in the Transamerica Pyramid as an investment banker for Banc of America Securities.

``If it had happened in San Francisco, it would have happened here,'' he said, standing in the plaza outside the 853-foot-tall landmark. He said he realized the new dangers that people could face by working in such a recognizable structure, but ``the thing is, it's needed for each city. This is part of the San Francisco skyline.''

But what made the World Trade Center a target for terrorists was not the towers' heights, nor even the fact that they were instantly identified with New York, said Laurie Donohue, a fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation. The towers are recognized worldwide as a symbol of American financial dominance, and that's why they were picked instead of defense installations or key transportation routes, for example.

``There is cold, rational logic in that choice,'' she said. ``Symbolism is everything in terrorism.''

Those who attacked the United States wanted to inflict both massive physical and psychological damage, Donohue said. Thus, a structure like the Transamerica building, while a local monument, doesn't have the stature the terrorists sought. If the plane that crashed into the Pentagon had demolished the Capitol -- investigators have said that might have been the hijackers' intent -- seeing the familiar rotunda ripped away would have devastated Americans.

``If they had succeeded in that image, they would have been completely successful,'' Donohue said.

In Silicon Valley, many technology companies have campus-type layouts or are housed in low-slung nondescript buildings that do nothing to draw attention. In downtown San Jose, the proximity of the airport limits how high buildings can be, and the two tallest buildings are only 18 stories.

Throughout the valley ``are some very, very prominent corporate names whose preference appears to be not for downtown signature high-rise, but rather for a low-rise suburban campus,'' said Stuart Gabriel, director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California.

One reason is because technology makes it easier to decentralize workers into multiple locations. Another is that corporations have begun to rethink how they present themselves to the outside world, said architect John Duvivier.

``They're concerned that they don't project an image of throwing their shareholders' money around,'' said Duvivier, whose San Francisco firm designs office buildings and interiors. ``They really don't want splashy, stylish places that look like they've spent a lot of money.''

In light of last week's events, commercial real estate brokers say building tenants will certainly begin inquiring about how they can beef up the security provisions in their leases. Whether any will choose to move for security reasons, or whether developers will try to build terrorism-proof structures, remains to be seen.

Jim Malley of Degenkolb Engineers in San Francisco, a firm that specializes in designing steel-framed buildings and in seismic work, said no developers or owners have approached him yet about retrofitting existing buildings to withstand terrorist attacks of the kind at the World Trade Center.

Municipal building standards already address concerns about wind, floods, earthquakes and other foreseeable conditions. After Tuesday's events, he said, terrorist acts ``will have to be added to the list, unfortunately, for a small class of buildings.''

Despite the new sense of vulnerability, we'll probably keep building skyscrapers. One reason is purely economic: In many urban centers, it makes financial sense to maximize the number of workers that can fit on expensive land, so developers build tall.

Another factor -- at least before Tuesday -- is that many companies enjoy the cachet of having their name on a high-rise or their offices in a well-located, lavishly appointed skyscraper.

``I just don't think the psyche of the San Francisco investment banker is going to prevent him from being at the top of a prominent high-rise,'' said Nick Sloneck, an executive with commercial brokerage CB Richard Ellis. ``People will pay a premium for views in this market in a heartbeat.''

The same may be true in New York, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has already pledged to rebuild his city and restore its skyline.

The desire to build monuments is as old as human history and as powerful as the human ego. Richard Rosan, president of the Urban Land Institute, said we haven't seen the end of tall, iconic buildings.

``Mankind has always built symbols,'' he said. ``We build things that give us the feeling . . . of power and importance.''