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Editorial: Second Banana; Chicago Loses the Skyscraper War

It used to be the tallest building in America. It used to be the tallest in the world. It used to be the Sears Tower.

Now Chicago’s Willis Tower is second, um, banana to New York’s not-yet-completed One World Trade Center, which was declared tallest in the nation Tuesday by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the official arbiter of disputes over the height of skyscrapers.

Council members from all over the world huddled here last week to decide whether the tower rising from the rubble of Manhattan’s ground zero would claim the top spot in the United States. Yes, this required a panel of experts, and not just because nobody could find a really long tape measure. At issue was whether the pointy thing atop the New York building should count as an architectural element or an antenna.

The council determines a building’s height from the sidewalk to its “architectural top.” A spire, mast or other adornment counts as part of the structure. An antenna doesn’t.

One World Trade Center aspires to a symbolically significant height of 1,776 feet, including a 408-foot needle piercing the sky. Last year, its developer scratched plans to enclose the needle in a fiberglass-and-steel sheath called a radome. The move saved $20 million, but it left the building with a topper that looks suspiciously like an antenna.

Without the needle — we can state this confidently without involving a panel of experts — the building would measure 1,368 feet tall. The Willis Tower, minus antennas, is 1,451.

But the council decided the pointy thing is a real part of the New York building, and just like that, Chicago was second again. Don’t jump! The Earth kept turning after Chicago lost the world’s tallest building title to the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1996.

The U.S. has all but conceded the skyscraper Olympics to cities such as Dubai, Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Eight of the world’s 10 tallest buildings are in the Middle East and Asia. Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Tower, now under construction, will be 3,281 feet tall.

This brings us to the concept of “vanity height” — defined by the council as “the distance between a skyscraper’s highest occupiable floor and its architectural top.” Anxious to measure up in the international skyline, modern developers are adding height to their buildings by piling them with unusable structures rising hundreds of extra feet.

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa — currently the world’s tallest building at 2,717 feet — is topped by 800 feet of unusable ornamentation. That means almost 30 percent of the world’s tallest building is “vanity height.”

New York’s Bank of America tower registers 36 percent, according to archdaily.com. “The average vanity height in the United Arab Emirates is 19 percent, making it the nation with the ‘vainest’ supertall buildings,” the website notes, adding that once One World Trade Center is finished, “New York City will be home to three of the world’s top 10 vanity heights.”

Knock yourself out, New York. Chicago has a much more important architectural challenge on its hands. The Realtor Building — across Michigan Avenue from the Tribune Tower, at the south end of the Magnificent Mile — is due for a major overhaul. Its owners say it soon will be “the next destination building in the iconic Chicago skyline.” That’s good news for the neighborhood.

But what about the Goat? Since 1964, the Billy Goat Tavern has been housed below Michigan Avenue, in a part of the Realtor Building not even visible from the sidewalk. It’s a watering “hole” in the truest sense and the very opposite of vanity height. It must be saved. Chicago can live without the title of America’s tallest building. But the Billy Goat has to stay.

The Chicago Tribune