Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Is it Time to Get Rid of Those Pesky Skyways?

Dateline: 1:46 pm January 6, 2012 Filed under:

The following post shares a similar argument as an article I wrote four years ago for the Downtown Journal (in Minneapolis). I was chastised at the time and suppose I will be again. However, with the recent opening of a new, $3 million skyway link to better connect the Accenture tower to adjacent blocks, as well as the new Downtown 2025 Plan taking on the “Skyway Paradox,” I was persuaded to bring it up again.

So here goes:

Isn’t it about time to start removing our skyways? A few years ago, Jen Gehl, a notable and well-respected Danish urbanist, was in town for an Urban Land Institute presentation. He noted downtown Minneapolis was “no longer up to the beat” of other world-class winter cities, blaming the skyways for striking a “defensive posture” against nature. Save for perhaps one bitter cold winter week per year, I couldn’t agree more. It doesn’t make sense to spend more than $1 million per skyway to perpetuate this anti-world class defensive posture. Gehl’s comments made it into the Skyway Conundrum section of the recently-released Downtown 2025 Plan, so someone is listening! While the plan doesn’t suggest removal, at least they admit the problem, and that, my friends, is the first step to recovery.

The strategy is simple – it took us 50 years to build our skyway system, so let’s dismantle it gradually over the next 50 years. Remove one skyway per year, and nobody will really notice when they are gone (indeed, many of us won’t be around by then, but our grandchildren will thank us). This strategy follows Gehl’s hometown of Copenhagen, which gradually removed a few parking spaces per year from the central city. According to Gehl, nobody noticed when it was a few per year, and coupled with attention to the public realm, Copenhagen is now a world-class winter city. We can do the same with our skyways (and our parking!).

I’m not just saying this because people from around the world believe skyways are a curiosity at best, gerbil tubes at worst. They haven’t fundamentally improved or saved Downtown retail, they are expensive to build and they detract heavily from pedestrian life. As well, we need a concerted effort to continually improve the public realm of Downtown. To their credit, the Downtown Improvement District, Downtown Council, CPED, businesses, developers and elected officials are making the pedestrian realm a priority, but there is so much more to do, and skyways are a distraction from that goal.

The original intent of the skyways has not panned out. The first skyways were built in the early to mid-1960s largely as a defense against the loss of retailing to the suburbs – an investment to make downtown more like Southdale. Well, that clearly didn’t work as a strategy. Retail is a fickle industry, as Downtown boosters well know, and while certainly skyways didn’t cause the loss of department stores and the failure of City Center, the Conservatory, and Block E, I think it’s a fair question to ask did they help? Was it in any way worth the cost?

History has shown us that chasing the next big retailer to come downtown isn’t worth the cost or effort, but I’d suggest that an improved public realm is.

As for the small skyway retailers, it is simply a function of supply (food, coffee and convenience items) and demand (135,000-plus workers). Most of the retail you now find on our skyway level could slowly be relocated to the street level over time, without any fundamental change in demand. Those 135,000 office workers will still need coffee in the morning, lunch, dry cleaners, banks and convenience goods. In other words, the retailers won’t flee to the suburbs, but there isn’t enough to support two levels of retail. Just look at other world-class downtowns like Chicago’s Loop – they have winter, and I’ve spent weekdays working there in the winter. You just go outside for lunch, on sidewalks, no big deal. I’ve also worked in downtown Minneapolis, and I avoided the skyways out of stubborn pride and the quest for urban serendipity. To all of you downtown Minneapolis workers, I feel your pain, but you, too, will get used to it. After all, under my plan, you’ll likely be retired or working elsewhere before your nearest skyway comes down anyway.

Office tenants would not flee, either. Downtown Minneapolis is the best-performing office sector right now, but the primary reason for that is not the skyways, but rather light rail, restaurants, sports facilities, and entertainment – in other words, the center of it all. Skyway removal will not change that, but an improved public realm will enhance it. True, leasing agents will argue that skyway access is an advantage to leasing one building versus another, but that is a circular argument – remove all skyways and the issue will be moot.

Remember, each new skyway costs more than a million dollars to construct. Yes, this cost is largely borne of the private sector (the building owners), but the most recent Accenture skyway link cost $3 million. Imagine if we could instead put those millions of dollars towards improving the public realm, like better sidewalks, lighting, planting trees and adding benches, fountains and art? We already have sidewalks, a second set of pedestrian routes is costly and redundant.

Skyways bifurcate downtown economically. True, they add value to the second story of buildings, but they reduce value of the ground floor. Remove the skyways and the ground floors will increase in rent and value, and the second stories can be converted back to office in many cases, although some will remain retail.

Downtown also gets bifurcated socially. Being private property, building security can keep skyways clear of riff-raff, the homeless and troublemakers, relegating them to the streets. This wouldn’t be as big an issue if everyone was on the sidewalk, providing more “eyes on the street.” It certainly would not solve the homeless issue or prevent incidents at certain bus stops, for example, but a shared sense of responsibility for, and actual, physical sharing of public realm would garner more attention and encourage creative solutions.

Do you realize it is possible to drive downtown, park in one of several parking ramps, go to work or shop, and never set foot on the public sidewalk!? Some of you think that is pretty cool, but I think it is absolutely insane and anathema to urban life. Downtown should be downtown.

That said, we have very good places in downtown such as the south end of Nicollet Mall, for example. That is a great place to simply be and we need more of it. That is what today’s society craves – they don’t go somewhere to shop; they go somewhere to be. Our downtown needs to provide that, and skyways preclude it simply by taking too many people off the sidewalks and out of the public realm.

Some of you will say remove the skyways over my dead body! Well, that is sort of the point. We’ve had them for just 50 years; surely we can be rid of them in another 50. You and I may be pushin’ up daisies by then, but our downtown will live on and be a better place for it. Minneapolis must become a more attractive, urbane city with a better pedestrian environment. Continuing to throw money at expensive skyways is wasteful and prevents us from achieving this goal. Remember, their original intent has not worked, and their current convenience doesn’t outweigh what they take away from downtown.

Kudos to those who prepared the Downtown 2025 Plan for recognizing the “skyway conundrum.” We must encourage continued support for a high-quality public realm, free of skyways, that welcomes and embraces Minnesotans and visitors in all seasons.

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