Askov Finlayson owner Eric Dayton has launched the Skyway Avoidance Society, a group of people who pledge to avoid the skyways and brave the city’s weather year-round. Photo by Eric Best

Askov Finlayson owner Eric Dayton has launched the Skyway Avoidance Society, a group of people who pledge to avoid the skyways and brave the city’s weather year-round. Photo by Eric Best

For Dayton, it’s his way or the skyway

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 Skyway Avoidance Society logo
The Skyway Avoidance Society logo

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.”

  • Shawn

    Are you out of your mind? I LOVE the skyways. Especially when I’m roaming through them incoherently on my way to work at 7:30 a.m. Not all of us embrace the chill that is a Minnesota winter. Our skyways are unique (wrote an article about them in DTJ a long time ago) and useful. There’s no reason both the street and skyway levels cannot thrive together.

  • http://twitter.com/pricenomics Tan

    Gibberish marketing gimmicks! We’ve more important fish to fry!

  • Nora

    It’s easy when you are young, fit and wealthy (how much are those jackets?) to decide what is best for all. Everyone seems to forget the disabled, the elderly, children and parents with strollers. Let’s try to be a bit more inclusive and remember not everyone has your advantages. Walk outside if you like and let others do as they wish.

  • Buster

    Dear Eric,

    Please keep your butt in the North Loop. Thank you.

    Best,
    Buster

  • David

    It is true that vibrant cities have people from every part of society interacting in the public sphere. Two important points that are often overlooked are the inaccessibility of the street to people with disabilities and the accessibility of the skyway system to these very same individuals, this is especially true in the winter. First, while people might say the street is ADA compliant this is not always true and compliant is not always inclusive. Many corners and sidewalks are designed and built with good intention but still remain difficult or impossible to navigate for people with disabilities. Let’s challenge Eric Dayton to champion the full accessibility (above and beyond ADA compliance) of the street level (snow and ice removal included) before he advocate for the elimination of the only way for many individuals to access goods and services. Second, given the climate in Minnesota (temperature shifts and various forms of precipitation) there will always be a portion of the population that relies on the skyway system to get around and participate in the vibrancy of the public sphere.Without skyways many of these individuals would not have the same level of
    freedom to participate in Minneapolis culture. Just imagine using a power
    wheelchair in heavy rain or individuals who have a disability that is
    exacerbated by the cold. Should they just stay home when it rains or all
    winter?
    Let’s argue that the skyway system is a means to ensure that all members of our society can interact in the public sphere and that their elimination would further segregate Minneapolis. The Skyway Avoidance Society campaign should include individuals with different types of disabilities so their perspectives are understood before drastic changes are sought.

  • Lynn Wehrman

    Thank you for saying this, David. Most of our staff team live with one or more disabilities. We moved our office to downtown Minneapolis so that they could shop, eat out and go to meetings more easily due to the skyway system. We have invited Mr. Dayton to visit our office in the 15 Building and spend the day with us learning what it’s like to do business downtown when you live with a disability. Perhaps then he might see why the skyway system levels the playing field for us, and many others.