A hill above the lattice of highways hugging the Potomac River, adjacent to the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va., offers a spectacular view of Washington, D.C.
It’s part of a green space that extends from the popular U.S. Marine Corps monument to nearby Arlington National Cemetery. Tourists come by the busloads; locals like to bike, walk and run on its paved paths.
We sometimes go there to take in the sights when visiting Daughter No. 1, who lives within eyeshot of the memorial.
On a trip late last month, we walked over early one evening as the sun still reflected off recognizable D.C. landmarks: the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Capitol dome. But there was another sight to behold that I don’t recall from our last visit two years ago: tower cranes.
We counted eight in immediate view, then a couple more from another vantage point closer to the Iwo Jima statue. On subsequent days, in the car on various highways that transect the region, we saw still more.
Tower cranes are the tall, tall cranes used in building construction — like the one that rose above Washington Avenue in Albany through last summer during the final three-year phase of repair and restoration at the state Capitol.
Looking like the product of a giant Erector Set, tower cranes first came to this country in the late 1950s, according to a data sheet from the National Safety Council. Used stationary, traveling along a rail-mounted undercarriage or “climbing” vertically within a building as it rises, they often are equated with boom times.
Indeed, Washington Mayor Vincent Gray, in his State of the District address earlier this year, boasted of “a level of development that is unprecedented,” as evidenced by the 55 cranes then dotting the skyline.
More recently, the Washington Business Journal, reporting on city-issued building permits — which construction companies need to raise cranes in D.C. — put the running tally at 60 this year. That compares to 23 permits for tower cranes in all of 2011 and just 10 in 2010.
Tower cranes are named for their base tower, which can rise several hundred feet vertically. The tower supports horizontal arms, or jibs, that an operator high up in a cab can swing 360 degrees to hoist or swing loads over high obstructions. In D.C., the cranes are on sites for apartment buildings, office towers and hotels — even a new National Mall museum.
Locally, we see them only occasionally — which seems to say more about our geography than economy.
Todd Helfrich, president of the Eastern Contractors Association, a Colonie-based trade group for companies involved in commercial, industrial and institutional construction, said they are more common in tight urban areas where a truck-mounted boom crane is impractical.
Tower cranes come with a big upfront cost, though — Helfrich declined to give an estimate — so they don’t make sense for a short-term project. “You don’t generally use [them] unless it’s a two-year-plus project,” he said.
He speculated that the planned renovation of the former Dewitt Clinton hotel in downtown Albany into a Renaissance by Marriott property — and the construction of an adjacent parking garage — could be the next time we see a tower crane in the region.
That is, he said, unless an aggressive construction timeline of less than two years is adopted, making a tower crane less practical.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.