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Cranes towering over Denver

Cranes tower over Denver, literally and figuratively, as an illustration of the building boom.

The crane is Colorado’s new state bird.

I first wrote that line, or something like it, for the Rocky Mountain News in the mid-1980s.

At that time, developers from Canada, Texas and other places, were changing the skyline of Denver.


Cranes are towering over Denver. Photo courtesy of GE Johnson.

During that era, Republic Plaza and Tabor Center were under construction in downtown Denver and the Denver Tech Center was poised to double in size. While new office buildings were driving the building boom in the go-go days of the ‘80s, while in recent years it has been largely multifamily projects that are putting the cranes to work.

Earlier this year, a national report ranked Denver No. 2 in the nation for the number of multifamily cranes in service.

The Crane Index released by Rider Levitt Bucknall North America, a Phoenix-based construction consulting firm, said last November that 10 of the 19 cranes in Denver were for multifamily projects.

Only Chicago, where 31 of its 56 cranes were for residential projects, topped Denver by that metric.

This is how RLB summed up the Denver market: “The Denver construction market remains strong. The residential sector takes the lead, making up half of Denver’s crane counts over the past year. Much of the residential construction surrounds the new light rail lines near the Union Station area of downtown Denver. Other sectors consistently strong in the Denver market include mixed-use, hospitality, and commercial developments. Similar to other cities experiencing a notable construction influx, construction trends are migrating just outside the metro area, where real estate is vast. South of Denver, the Denver Tech Center is seeing large national firms relocate to the area.”

Trey Nobles, Sr., a vice president of the Rocky Mountain region for GE Johnson Construction Co., thinks RLB is under-counting the number of cranes looming in the Denver area.


Trey Nobles, Sr.

“Maybe in Denver proper there are 19 cranes, but if you look at the surrounding area like Greenwood Village and Lakewood, there have to be more than 19 of them,” Nobles said.

In fact, the DenverInfill Tower Crane Census in late 2016  counted 32 tower cranes in central Denver alone, and that number has stayed steady since then.

Indeed, while driving home on California Street from a function last Saturday night, he counted five cranes from one spot near the Colorado Convention Center.

“To be able to see five cranes from one place is pretty incredible,” he said.


Cranes are going crazy in Denver.

And GE Johnson alone has eight cranes currently operating in the Denver area. It just took a couple of them down, in fact.

Most buildings of five to six stories or taller typically need a crane, he said.

A three-story apartment building, for example, might be able to be built using forklifts or pulley systems, and not cranes.

“Cranes are the most efficient way of moving materials around and stairs are the least efficient method,” he noted.

Most of the cranes in the Denver area are known as jumper cranes, which are designed to rise as the building goes up.

“Theoretically, they are not limited by height,” Nobles said. “You just keep adding sections. So if you look at Dubai, those cranes didn’t start at 150 stories, or whatever they build there. They start off just like the ones we see in Denver.”

Some sites need two cranes.

“It’s a function of reach,” Nobles explained. “The way cranes work is the farther out on the boom you go on the horizontal distance from the mast, the less weight you can lift safely.”

So if you drew a 50-foot radius around a crane, it might be able to lift 5,000 pounds. Go out another 50 feet and you might be able to lift only 1,000 pounds.

And it’s no simple task to move the big, tower cranes, as they are typically built on large structures anchored by caissons to transfer the the load to the ground, he said.

“There are some cranes made to travel on rails, but you do not see those very often in Denver,” Nobles said.

At GE Johnson, there has been no shortage of cranes in the Denver area.


GE Johnson has not suffered from a shortage of cranes in the Denver area. Photo credit: GE Johnson.

“We made very early arrangements for the cranes,” some of which are owned and others are leased, he said.

He does think it is likely there is a shortages of cranes in some markets, which could slow the construction process.

“Given the construction boom that is happening nationally, and not just here in Denver, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if there were some shortages,” he said. “I would think there would have to be.”

In the ‘80s, Nobles was in Denver, but as he was still in high school, he wasn’t quite the aficionado of cranes as he is today.

“We probably don’t have as many 50-story cranes up now, as we did then, but we have more of them,” Nobles said. “My sort of visual imagery of that time, if I am accessing my hard drive right, is that that I remember them being taller, but focused in downtown. Now, they are everywhere.”


Cranes soar in downtown’s skyline.

So does he think cranes are Colorado’s new state bird?

“I love using that line,” Nobles laughed. “I love looking in the skyline and seeing all of these tower cranes up in the air. I don’t know if the average person looking at cranes thinks is is interesting or is disengaged when it comes to them. But for those of us in the industry, it is really exciting to see all of these cranes.”

If you scratch the surface of just about any deal, there is a story behind it. The Rebchook Real Estate Corner looks at the what and who that make the Colorado commercial real estate industry spin every Tuesday and Thursday online at CREJ.com. The people behind the deals are passionate about what they do, whether they focus on offices, apartments, industrial, retail, land or lending. They also are passionate about their clients. Given the cyclical nature of commercial real estate, those who prosper in it have plenty of stories to tell. I hope to share them with you. 

This column includes news stories, in-depth looks at deals, profiles, Q&As and pieces on the latest trends. Contact John with story tips at JRCHOOK@gmail.com or 303-945-6865.

John Rebchook has been taking the pulse of the Denver-area and Colorado commercial real estate world for almost 35 years. He joined the editorial staff of CREJ in 2011. Prior to that, he was the Real Estate Editor of the Rocky Mountain News from 1983 until it closed in 2009.