Why Doesn’t Phoenix Have a lot of Tall Buildings?

Excerpt from Valley 101: The Great Big Book of Life, a collection of Clay Thompson’s columns for The Arizona Republic. (Originally published February 13, 2000.)

Q: Why are there no tall buildings around here?

A: No tall bildins? Golleee, mister, why this here newspaper bildin its own self is 10 whole stories tall. Why, that’s taller than two silos!

Sorry, we couldn’t resist slipping into our world-famous Gomer Pyle imitation.

Why are there no tall buildings around here?

That’s a good question and to get a good answer we went straight to good old Max Underwood, a professor of architecture at Arizona State University and an expert in Phoenix architecture who has on more than one occasion made us sound smart.

Downtown Phoenix
Downtown Phoenix. Photo Credit: iStock

“One reason is that there is so much space available that they didn’t need to build tall buildings,” Underwood said. “It’s a lot more expensive to build up than out.”

On the other hand, Chicago, for example, is penned in by Lake Michigan, so if you want big, the only way to go is up.

Another reason, he said, is that Arizona developed later than big cities whose skylines took their shapes during the Age of Skyscrapers.

One more reason—boy, is Underwood smart or what?—businesses are changing. Many corporations are leaner (and often meaner) than they used to be, and they don’t need to pack so many workers into a centralized space. And modern communications, especially computers, mean workforces can be decentralized.

And communications and media mean that corporations such as Sears, as in the Sears Tower in Chicago, or Transamerica, as in the Transamerica Building in San Francisco, don’t need gigantic skyscrapers to establish their identity in the public mind.

For the record, the tallest building in Arizona is the Bank One Building in downtown Phoenix — 40 floors, 570 feet.

Back in 1986, we were all mesmerized by a French businessman named Georges Schriqui, who came to town and announced he was going to build the world’s tallest building right here in Phoenix, although why he wanted to do this we can’t seem to recall. It was going to be 114 stories tall and cost $800 million.

As it turned out, nobody actually had $800 million, or at least not $800 million to spend building the world’s tallest building.

Schriqui said a big French financial institution had agreed to finance the project, but after talks with Schriqui, a spokesman for the institution said, “C’est a point mort,” which is French for “That dog don’t hunt.”


  1. Steve G says

    I also believe that downtown is in the flight path of Sky Harbor International airport which also restricts the height per FAA regulations.

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