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The Galleria leads past a half-dozen contemporary paintings to what has to be the world's most futuristic and ostentatious trolley station, a covered, wraparound structure that vaults out of the rear of One America Plaza. Back inside, on the white marble information desk, is a list of the building's 50-odd tenants: mostly law offices, financial services groups, architectural firms, communications and computer companies, and a radio station. Incidentally, and as the fellow with the walkie-talkie and the earpiece at the information desk will inform you, there is no public restroom.

My chaperone up into One America Plaza was a security guard, who explained that to go all the way to the top, into the "crow's nest," we'd be taking the elevator to the 31st floor, then a second, special elevator to the 34th floor, and then we'd have to walk up steps, outdoors, the last four flights.

The express elevators in One America are silent, beautiful, and very fast. Built by Mitsubishi, they're designed to travel 1200 feet a minute (the fastest in San Diego), and their interiors are paneled in exotic karelian burl wood inlaid with stainless-steel trim. I was most impressed by the smooth ride punctuated only by prim little beeps. That, and the fact that we were at the 31st floor in about 20 seconds, by which time I felt like a sealed water bottle on an airplane, with all the air sucked out of me and my ears about to explode.

The last door in the building, out to the crow's nest, opened onto the whirring, humming, buzzing, ear-filling sounds of multiple huge turbines. I was standing inside a slanting, pointed mesh enclosure, basically a very big tent, with a jumble of metal ducts and fans and tanks all around. In the center of this industrialization, rising the last 40 feet through the iron mesh, was a gray, metal spiral staircase, 50 steps, the most dizzying 50 steps I'd ever endeavored. After winding around and around and around, the stairs ended on a star-shaped platform, outdoors in the wind, with five steel girders meeting in a point above my head. I was now officially drawing the highest breaths in all of downtown San Diego.

To the south, on a clear day, you see Tijuana; to the north is University Towne Centre. Mountains perforate the east, and wide water spreads west. In between, dozens of high-rises are gradually eating the view. If not for a few tall structures in the south center of downtown, you'd be able to watch baseball games at Petco Park, over half a mile away. And even more of the view was about to go: right across the street, kitty-corner to the southwest, the Electra, the "tallest residential building in San Diego," was currently being built.

After I descended, back down on ground level, I crossed the street to check out the progress of the Electra, and I wandered into a place where I shouldn't have been. "Hard hat area!" a worker yelled at me. "Boots. No shorts." Well, I answered, with my bare head, sandals, and cutoffs, I'm almost in compliance. But the guy didn't like the joke. Cement mixers mixed, lattices of steel uprose, enormous stanchions propped, huge holes gaped, and over it all, two giant cranes swung massive blocks and girders -- so I could tell the rules were for my safety.

Turns out the Electra is going up in the midst of the shell of the old (1911) San Diego Gas and Electric Building. At the time I stood there, last October, the 50-foot-high, 94-year-old shell was being held up by dozens of mammoth braces, inside and out, while hundreds of workers crawled all over the skeletal beginnings and foundation materials for what will one day be a very tall building.

In fact, at 475 feet, the Electra will be the tallest residential building in San Diego in 2007. But the tallest residential building in 2005 (at 450 feet) was the Pinnacle Museum Tower on Front Street. Tenants began moving into the Pinnacle in October 2005. I called the concierge to ask what special information and provisions were provided for tenants living over 400 feet in the air.

Richard Amberry, concierge at the Pinnacle, immediately answered, "Of course we furnish our tenants with foldout ladders and plastic ropes for scaling down the sides of the building in case of an emergency." Then he laughed. "No. No. I'm kidding. Imagine your grandmother having to do that." Amberry then began to paint the real modern picture of high-rise safety.

"We have the cutting edge in technology for fire alarms and sprinkler systems," Amberry said. "We have a committee put together to train our residents what to do in the event of an evacuation. And the building itself has all the latest technology to make it safer in the event of an earthquake or fire or what have you."

Amberry told me that he's worked in high-rises for many years, and the effects of an earthquake can be unnerving. "Sometimes a building will take 20 minutes to quit swaying," he said. "I personally always joke that if I had a 1200-square-foot high-rise, I'd only ever use 800 square feet of it because I'd never go near the windows. I hate heights. But, of course, the glass in this building is nonbreakable and tempered and really thick and all that good stuff, so the windows are just as safe as the walls." Luckily for Amberry, the concierge does almost all of his work on the ground floor.

A straight shot another quarter mile down Kettner Boulevard from the Electra, the Manchester Grand Hyatt, at 497 feet, the tallest waterfront building on the West Coast, rises in two conical towers from a wide driveway. After entering and walking through the football-field-sized lobby, I found, tucked onto a section of wall near the concierge's desk, six plaques dedicated to the people who built the Hyatt. Etched in the plaques were hundreds of names, too many to count, and over 60 companies specializing in everything from fire sprinkler systems to doors, steel, glass, marble, engineering, waterproofing, and elevators. Scanning these plaques, I gained a heightened appreciation for the level of coordinated activity that is required to put up a high-rise.

How tall is tall?

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