View from a crane: Charlotte’s building boom is reshaping the skyline

From the ground, the tower cranes of uptown Charlotte look massive and steady, their thick steel legs bolted securely into concrete bases 7 or 8 feet deep. Not exactly the kind of thing you worry will just topple over.

But start climbing one, and it doesn’t feel quite so substantial.

The ladders rock under your feet. When the crane arm swings, the whole structure sways, metal beams torquing around and the cab bobbing up and down – just to make sure you know you’re no longer standing on solid earth.

The 264-foot climb up a crane on Stonewall Street is Travis Bayle’s commute every morning. He’s a tower crane operator, one of the handful of workers playing a pivotal role in reshaping Charlotte’s skyline with the next generation of high-rises.

I climbed up Bayle’s crane this week, one of three owned by Heede Southeast now at work on a Whole Foods and 450 apartments next to the Stonewall Station light rail stop.

It’s cooler at the top, amid the breezes and free from the stifling heat waves radiating off the asphalt. The chimes of the Blue Line light rail, the hum of cars on Interstate 277, clanks of construction machinery – it all sounds distant, almost like being underwater.

“It’s actually pretty peaceful,” Bayle said, “unless a thunderstorm comes in or the wind picks up. Then you feel really small, really fast.”

Once he’s up in the crane, Bayle stays all day – 12 to 16 hours. He takes his lunch, snacks and a gallon of water, because the only way down is another climb.

Counting cranes

The cranes dotting Charlotte’s skyline are a rough proxy for the city’s building boom. There are 12 now hoisting loads in and near uptown, for projects ranging from a 22-story hotel atop the EpiCentre to the 24-story SkyHouse apartment tower on North Church Street to the 25-story office building at 300 South Tryon.

The total is fewer than half of the 28 cranes that dotted the Charlotte skyline in 2008, just before the real estate crash.

Still, for crane companies like Pineville-based Heede Southeast, the good times are back. General manager Jason Kenna said it’s a welcome contrast with the post-recession construction slump, when most of the company’s blue tower cranes sat idle in their storage yard. Now, Heede Southeast is leasing more than a half-dozen cranes to developers and general contractors uptown, including the rig Bayle operates.

And the pace isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon, with more uptown high-rises and major developments in the works on sites from a vacant lot on Stonewall Street to the current location of Marshall Park to the former Charlotte Observer building.

High demand, good pay

One side effect of the boom: Crane operators are in high demand.

“It’s harder and harder finding qualified operators,” said Kenna. “Finding good-quality help is tough.”

Crane operators typically move from job to job, working for a few months, a year or more on one site before they follow the cranes to the next job. Bayle recently finished a job in Atlanta before starting on the Crescent site in Charlotte.

Right now, the South is hot, and builders in fast-growing states such as Florida, Georgia and Texas also need more workers to operate cranes.

Bayle said he gets calls weekly from people in the tower crane world asking if he’d like work or knows anyone who would. (Bayle and Kenna seem to know the whole mini-universe of crane operators, trading small talk about people running cranes in other cities.)

The pay is attractive: Kenna said that with overtime, a crane operator can make in the low six-figures, while putting in 80- or 90-hour weeks.

But there are downsides too: There are no co-workers in the next cubicle to shoot the breeze with, no walk around the block if you want to stretch your legs.

When storms roll in, wind and thunderclaps shake the crane cab. (Any actual lightning strikes should pass down the crane into the ground, where the whole electrically-driven apparatus is grounded).

And on top of the isolation, height and sometimes queasy crane movements, there’s the lack of a bathroom.

“I knew you were going to ask that,” Bayle said when I brought it up. A quick glance around the closet-sized cab shows there are no, ahem, facilities – and 12 hours is a long time to be up there with a gallon of water and your morning coffee. It’s pretty simple, actually, Bayle said: You can use a bottle, like a long-haul trucker might.

‘My knees were shaking’

Atop the crane, Bayle moves with a careful ease, swinging the blue metal arm (“jib,” in crane lingo) with one joystick and raising or lowering the crane’s hoist with another.

He walks out on the jib to the huge concrete counterweights behind the cab, the ground peeking through the metal grate he’s walking on more than 20 stories below, as if it were the most natural place in the world to go for a stroll.

But it wasn’t always that way for Bayle. An Alaska native, he worked on crab-fishing boats, oil rigs in Prudhoe Bay and as a truck driver. It was while he was driving a truck in the Southeast that Bayle first saw a tower crane.

“I didn’t know what they were, but I thought they were pretty cool,” he said.

Bayle had previously worked with ground-based cranes – the kind with an operator on the ground and a single, angled arm. Eventually, Bayle signed up to work on a construction job in Padre Island, Texas, building a bridge.

“My knees were shaking the whole way up,” Bayle said of the first time he climbed a tower crane a decade ago.

He learned how to operate the tower crane on that job, practicing moving the loads around and lowering them into place at the foreman’s direction.

The shift in perspective was tough: From the operator’s seat hundreds of feet up, it’s hard to judge how fast the crane is moving or where exactly over the ground a load is. At first, he’d miss by 50 feet. But he kept at it. On his last day at the site, after six months, Bayle stacked two trailers perfectly, next to the supervisor.

“I could have put it in his pocket,” Bayle said.

Now, Bayle climbs up the crane without a second thought, taking his time to pause at landings and inspect the steel pins holding the structure together after each ladder.

He could technically climb down during the workers’ lunch break, but that’s a lot of ladders to navigate for a few minutes on the ground. When he needs to stretch his legs, he can walk on the catwalk alongside the cab, or along the arm itself.

Most of his communication with other workers is through radios that crackle with snatches of information about steel rebar, generators, loads of concrete. Bayle has one set of radios for the other two cranes on the Crescent Stonewall site – they need to make sure they don’t swing their loads into each other – and another for workers on the ground, where riggers attach loads and direct him on where to pick up and set down his cargo.

At the Stonewall Station site, the mixed-use project by Charlotte-based Crescent Communities will probably keep Bayle and his fellow crane operators busy for about another year and a half. That’s when construction is scheduled to wrap up.

Then, for Bayle, it’ll be on to the next crane.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo