Eric Dayton is assembling a grassroots group to turn the tide on downtown’s skyways.
Even a 4-below-zero day with a biting wind chill can’t shake Eric Dayton’s view that downtown’s skyways have got to go.
Clad in a parka like the ones at Askov Finlayson, Dayton and his brother’s clothing store in the North Loop, he aims to lead others to celebrate downtown in all seasons. Dayton recently launched the Skyway Avoidance Society, a grassroots group of downtowners who have pledged not to use the skyways, in order to build the case against the miles of footbridges linking the center of the city.
“It’s people who care about downtown, who don’t like the direction they see it going. It’s a first step we can all take, to vote with our feet and populate our city’s streets,” he said. “I want to create a real movement around this that’s a lot bigger than Askov Finlayson.”
The coalition got its start over the past few months as rumors — now confirmed to be true — swirled about the closing of Nicollet Mall’s Macy’s, where Dayton’s great-great-grandfather started the department store that would later become Target. Many called on Dayton and his family to buy the building, in part thanks to a Mpls.St.Paul Magazine piece, but he refused, taking to Twitter to say he would’ve gone through with it under one condition that many may say is impossible.
“If you bring down the skyways, I’ll buy that building. I was serious. I really meant it. I kind of wanted to make a point with that,” he said. “Macy’s closing is kind of a another in a series of major closures, but the symbolism of that building and that store is powerful for people because of the Dayton’s connection. I hope people take this as a wake-up call. If we don’t like this trend — and it’s just a trend — it’s not going to reverse itself.”
Less than a couple weeks later Dayton and his team were out on Nicollet Mall with clipboards getting office workers and downtown residents to join the group and avoid skyways. When members join, either online or at Askov Finlayson, they pledge to not use skyways “for the health and vitality” of Minneapolis, and for their own wellbeing.
Membership does have its perks. Joining the Skyway Avoidance Society gets members a 10-percent discount on parkas at the store, though it’s Dayton’s hope that benefits expand to restaurants and other retailers. Dayton recently got Nicollet Mall’s Hubert White, a family-owned clothing store that’s been based in the Twin Cities for more than a century, to honor the discount on outerwear year-round for card-carrying society members. There are also stickers, patches and other swag to show support.
The idea for the society came to Dayton several years ago when he, like many of the society’s hundreds of members, worked downtown. Walking along Nicollet Mall, he said he observed the inequality of the system, which separated office workers and retail employees from homeless people. While they can be friendlier than a Minnesota winter, the skyways lead to perceived safety issues downtown and come with the cost of leaving downtown bereft of foot traffic, he added.
“To me this whole [Skyway Avoidance Society] thing is: Let’s reframe the decision,” he said. “Would you trade the comfort of the skyways today for a healthy, vibrant Minneapolis year-round? If you just get people to realize the trade-off that we’re making and the price we’re paying for the comfort and convenience, I think you’re going to start getting people who say ‘Maybe I’d make that trade.’”
That price is only going to get greater in the future, Dayton said, as cities nationwide compete to bring in new residents and businesses. Skyways could hold Minneapolis back from competition by leaving retail struggling on two levels, something that few, if any, urban centers can maintain.
“Having a desolate streetscape in the heart of our city is bad for Minneapolis. It’s a real problem. We want to remain competitive and become one of the cities that wins in the next 50 years, rather than being left behind,” he said. “That’s not to say it wasn’t the right thing to do 50 years ago when they were introduced. … Skyways were an experiment. We didn’t know what impact they were going to have. Now we have seen the impact. Just as there were a lot of compelling reasons to create the system then, there are a lot of compelling reasons now to consider dismantling it.”
The solution for Dayton isn’t to tweak the system without at least discussing the possibility of taking them down first. The society is about building momentum toward a critical mass of downtown consumers and business owners putting pressure on property owners and landlords, he said. This could lead to private building owners, many of them based out of the metro, to not build additional connections and eventually phase out skyways in their buildings. The North Loop, the popular area of downtown where he also operates The Bachelor Farmer, a café and Marvel Bar, is evidence that skyways aren’t essential for thriving commerce downtown.
“If this starts to become a chorus of voices, and now it’s some of the downtown businesses that are tenants of these landlords and they’re saying we want to see a change, suddenly it becomes a lot harder to ignore. And that’s I think how what was once was perceived as off the table and impossible is now on the table.”
To get to that point, the first step is just to take Dayton’s pledge.
“This is a grassroots effort. It’s the hundreds of people who have signed up who are now carrying their cards and hopefully, even on a day like today, sticking to their pledge and walking outside, and that’s the beginning.”