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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Last Word (Thom Nickels) from ICON Magazine

The global economic crisis has put many of the world’s skyscraper projects on hold. In Philadelphia, architects Gene Kohn and Bill Louie of Kohn Pedersen Fox architects, creators of the city’s Mellon Bank Center with its iconic pyramid top, will have to wait a while before their 1,500 foot high American Commerce Center becomes a reality.

The project, which was to include a 26-story hotel and 6-stories of street accessible retail along 18th and Arch Streets, not to mention a striking 300 foot spire (described by most who have seen the design as “iconic and breathtaking”) that would make it taller than the Empire State building, is now in the limbo of lost skyscrapers. The American Commerce Center joins a number of “on hold” skyscrapers worldwide.

Included on the “on hold” list is the 72-story Torre Gran Costanera in the Chilean capital of Santiago, which was slated to become one of the tallest buildings in the southern hemisphere. Another shelved skyscraper, the 150-story or 2,000 feet tall Chicago Spire, was slated to be completed by 2012, but the only thing visible to date is the building’s completed foundation, a hole reminiscent of an archeological dig.

The global building crisis is also affecting a city like Dubai, where there’s always been a happy, unending money flow: the city’s 0.6 mile high Nakheel Tower has been put on ice until conditions improve. According to Emporis, a German Company that tracks development, 11% of the world’s skyscraper projects (29 of 301 U.S. projects) have been tabled.

For Philadelphians excited about the prospect of mega-skyscraper as potentially changing Philadelphia’s reputation from a “connecting” city to New York and Washington to a world class destination, this is not good news. The project’s resumption in the near or distant future (barring a complete global collapse, of course) will provide over 2,000 construction jobs to the city over the 3-year period.

Philadelphia developer Garrett Miller, Vice President of the Philadelphia division of Hill International, Inc., told me that when the ACC finally gets built, it will create a dynamic new environment for Philadelphia.

“Cities are dynamic environments,” Mr. Miller said. “They either improve or they get worse. Philadelphia needs to put itself in a position to change for the better. Although we have a great historical past that we should respect, it’s important for us to realize this and embrace our future. Cities don’t stay the same. When you choose to live in an urban environment, you choose a dynamic area that is always evolving.”

After the tower’s proposal a small but formidable opposition group was ACC’s biggest problem. These were mainly older Center City residents who wanted the height of the tower reduced significantly. Opponents feared a taller tower would block views of the city from their Kennedy House Blvd. windows, or cast “unsightly shadows.” The group also suggested that the building’s height was out of scale with the neighborhood, despite the fact that the proposed project was not in the Fairmount neighborhood but smack in the middle of Philadelphia’s financial district.

The global skyscraper squeeze has created a fair amount of frustration. Mr. Miller, for instance, didn’t have much to say on the present inactivity surrounding ACC.

“Who knows what’s going on with the economy and with the American Commerce Center,” he said. “When will the economy come around? When will the world get better? Who knows…!”

But one city’s skyscraper Requiem is another city’s hallelujah chorus.
In New York City, Anthony Malkin, owner of the Empire State Building, asked New York City officials to block the construction of a 1,216 foot skyscraper at 33rd and 7th Avenue, less than ¼ of a mile from the Empire State Building. Malkin wanted Vornado Realty Trust, creators of the new project, to scale the building back to 825 feet and put a 17-block buffer around the Empire State Building to protect its viewing province. While Malkin never mentioned “shadows,” he doesn’t want the iconic structure that many know as “King Kong’s perch” to be outdone by a competitor.

But Vornado Realty Trust, unlike the city of Dubai, seems to have no worries about money. They just want to build.

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, the voice of ill-reason on some issues, encapsulated sound logic when he said, “One guy owns a building. He’d like to have it be the only tall building. I’m sorry, that’s not the real world. Nor should it be.”

The Social Security Trust Fund is a vulnerable baby: imagine Moses lying in a crocodile-filled Nile.

That’s the feeling I get anyway when I read of the attacks against the system that Franklin Roosevelt initiated on August 14, 1935. Assaults against the Trust have been mounting steadily since the presidency of George W, Bush. The arrows no longer only come from Republicans, either. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, for instance, joined forces with House Minority Leader John Bolhner, in calling for a higher retirement age of seventy.

The suggested age of seventy years is perhaps a comfortable concept for workers in offices where there’s no physical labor involved, but for blue collar workers in the restaurant and construction fields, roofers and house painters, working so many years may be far beyond what the physical body can endure.

President Obama’s bipartisan 18-member Commission that’s slated to come up with a solution for the nation’s public debt (the report is due in November) is expected to recommend cuts to Social Security. The suggestion of cuts is expected because the Democratic co-chair of the committee, Erskin Bowels, a Wall Street CEO, is on record as saying, “Well, we have to cut Social Security.”

But according to Dean Baker, Co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Nothing needs to be done about Social Security.” Baker told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now that the program could pay all scheduled benefits “well into the future, at least twenty-seven years into the future,” and even then “it could still pay the vast majority of benefits, assuming that nothing is done.” While Baker believes that something will have to be tweaked somewhere down the road, the idea that the sky is falling is absurd. “People have paid for those benefits. So, in effect, what we’d be doing is defaulting on the bonds that are held in the trust fund to pay people their benefits. Nothing,” he repeats, “needs to be done.”

If that’s true, what’s all this talk about a new retirement age and cuts to the system? And where is Maggie Kuhn when we need her?

Kuhn, if you recall, argued that politicians who wanted to cut or do away with Social Security had created an intergenerational war over federal funds in order to divert public attention from the nation’s real financial issues: extravagant tax breaks for the rich and overspending on the military.

A march on Washington, or something far more drastic, should be employed if President Obama’s Commission gets its way.

Baker said: “…You have people running around Washington saying, ‘You know, we can’t do anything on healthcare, because we tried that and the insurance industry was too powerful, the pharmaceutical industry was too powerful, so therefore we have to cut Social Security.’ This should have people, very, very worried.”

In the 1970s, Europe agreed to trade crude oil with Arab countries in exchange for promises of unchecked immigration (Strasbourg Resolution 492, 1971). As controversial Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci noted in her book, “The Rage and the Pride,” after the agreement, the streets of her native Florence were flooded with immigrants selling pencils and chewing gum.” Likewise, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and the Netherlands also permitted unchecked immigration from Morocco, North Africa and the Middle East. This was not a sensibly paced immigration process, but an open door policy that led to the establishment of large Muslim enclaves in progressive, modern democracies. Unlike other immigrant groups, the new citizens tended to avoid assimilation into the culture of the host country.

Bruce Bawer, author of Surrender, Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom, noted that that this transformation “went almost entirely unmentioned in the American and European media,” although it was first spotted in the Netherlands by Pim Fortuyn, author of Against the Islamization of Our Culture. Fortuyn, before his assassination by a religious fanatic, was a candidate for the Dutch parliament and made it a point to state that fundamentalist Islam would always be irreconcilable with Western democracy. Fortuyn warned his countrymen to rethink government subsidization of Muslim schools, mosques and community centers. For this he was called a fascist by multicultural progressives, and he was often compared to Hitler.

In the United States, objections to the Ground Zero mosque and Islamic Center have had multicultural progressives up in arms. Fairly predictable “America means freedom of religion” editorials have appeared both in The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. These editorials implied that anyone who objects to the Ground Zero mosque is an Islamophobe or a neocon.

But nowhere in these oatmeal-laden tomes is it suggested that Islam prove its love of peace, fellowship and world harmony by allowing Christians and Jews in predominately Muslim countries the freedom to worship or openly wear crucifixes or the Star of David.

Nowhere is it suggested that Islam give a few inches in return for the respect that it demands, even if that means that the Reverend honorable Imam Rauf of New York, in a gesture to win the hearts of skeptics, offer to rebuild the tiny Greek Orthodox church of Saint Nicholas, the only Ground Zero-based house of worship destroyed on 9/11.

Perhaps a gesture like this would go a long way in defusing some of skepticism around the building of a House of Prayer near Ground Zero.

Thom Nickels

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