Developers want to build America’s tallest skyscraper in an unlikely city

Jan 27, 2024, 4:06 PM

The "Legends Tower" would be part of a new development project. (Courtesy AO)...

The "Legends Tower" would be part of a new development project. (Courtesy AO)

(Courtesy AO)

(CNN) — A group of developers wants to construct what would be America’s tallest building in an unlikely place: Oklahoma City.

The proposed location for the 1,907-foot “Legends Tower” is certainly unconventional. The skyscraper would be more than double the height of Oklahoma City’s tallest building now and the fifth-tallest building in the world.

The ten tallest buildings in the United States are in New York and Chicago, the country’s first-and third-largest cities, respectively. Oklahoma City is America’s twentieth largest city, with around 700,000 people.

The developers note that Oklahoma City is expanding, and they say the city can support such a project. It grew by nearly 2% between 2020 and 2022. Between 2010 and 2020, Oklahoma City was one of 14 US cities that added more than 100,000 people.

The plan serves as an endorsement of a growing city. But the proposal may be doomed from the start. Oklahoma City’s mayor is noncommittal about the plan, and one city economist dismissed the skyscraper as “pie in the sky.”

The developers, led by real estate investment firm Matteson Capital and architecture firm AO, announced plans this week to build the skyscraper in Oklahoma City as part of a new mixed-use development project in the city with retail shops, restaurants and other attractions.

Another reason why the development is a surprise: The work-from-home revolution since the pandemic has weakened demand for office space. More office space is currently sitting empty in the United States than at any point since 1979. Many of America’s tallest buildings, such as the 1,766-foot One World Trade Center in New York and Chicago’s Willis Tower, which is 1,729 feet, are office buildings.

So, instead of offices, the proposed Oklahoma City tower would include a Hyatt hotel with hundreds of rooms, around 1,750 apartments, and 110,000 square feet for retail stores and restaurants.

In Bricktown, the district where the massive development project and skyscraper are slated, the developers say demand exists because of new sports and entertainment options. Voters recently approved a new arena for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder in the area and plans for a new soccer stadium are in the works.

“Oklahoma City is committed to growing as a major metropolitan area. The city has invested in infrastructure surrounding the project,” Scot Matteson, the CEO of Matteson Capital, said in a statement to CNN.

‘Tough sell for investors’

The developers need to get approval from Oklahoma City to build the tower.

When asked whether he supported the tower, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said in an emailed statement to CNN, “In my observation private developers often announce plans and some of those plans happen, and some don’t. I have no strong opinion and look forward to following their effort.”

The bigger barrier could be financing the skyscraper, said Stefan Al, an architect and author of “Supertall: How The World’s Tallest Buildings Are Reshaping our Cities and our Lives.”

“I’m not sure it’s worth the premium of the construction costs,” he said. The taller the high-rise, the more expensive it becomes because of added structures to support the building.

“Is there a market to pay for that expense?” Al said, adding it would be a “tough sell for investors.”

The entire development project is estimated to cost $1.6 billion, including $770 million for the tower, Matteson said. Funding for the project will come from multiple sources, he said, including $200 million in subsidies approved by the city. The firm is also pursuing additional state and federal funding.

But the tower would be an “unprecedented outlier” in Oklahoma City, said Jason Barr, a professor of economics at Rutgers University-Newark who studies the economics of skyscrapers and is the author of “Cities in the Sky: The Quest for the World’s Tallest Skyscrapers.”

The height of a city’s tallest building strongly correlates with its second-tallest building, he said, and the proposed Oklahoma City tower would be more than twice the height of the city’s current tallest building, the Devon Energy Center office building.

A city’s population is also a strong indicator of how tall its tallest building will be.

Large cities like New York can have taller buildings because they have more people and more companies, he said. But the Oklahoma tower struck Barr as “way too tall given the city’s population.” New York’s population is around 12 times the size of Oklahoma City’s, and Chicago’s population is four times larger.

“The smaller the city, the harder it is to fill all that extra space and at a price that makes it worth it.”

Steve Agee, an economist at Oklahoma City University, said the idea is “pie in the sky,” especially since interest rates are hovering at 23-year highs, which would make financing the building more difficult.

“I don’t see the economics working in their favor,” he said. “It’s not fathomable to me that Oklahoma City is ready for a building like that.”

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Developers want to build America’s tallest skyscraper in an unlikely city