A half-century in the skyways

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September 13, 2010 // UPDATED 9:16 am - September 13, 2010
By: Jake Weyer
Jake Weyer

// After nearly a half-century, the skyway system still growing //

As a child in the 1960s, Steve Belmont marveled at Downtown’s early network of enclosed glass bridges floating a story up from the roadway. 

“I was fascinated by those skyways,” he said. “Growing up in a small town, it was something I’d never seen before.”

Following that fascination, Belmont opted to move to the skyway city in the 1970s to study architecture and by 1980, he was working alongside the man regarded as the father of the Minneapolis skyway system, Ed Baker. Baker died in 2006, but not before his creation of the first skyways in 1962 snowballed into the development of one of Downtown’s defining features — an 8-mile expanse of elevated walkways that today connects 73 blocks with 82 individual bridges. 

“He was proud of what he had achieved,” Belmont recalled from his days working with Baker. “I think rightly proud.”

Born at a time when the nation’s first enclosed malls posed a threat to Downtown retail, Minneapolis’ privately owned skyways are today a popular topic of debate. Recent studies have suggested they suck the life out of the city’s streets, confuse visitors and hurt retail. But skyway supporters have argued that the climate-controlled passages make Downtown more inviting during harsh weather and strengthen the central business district.

The skyway network has continued to grow despite the controversy, with the latest addition connecting a parking ramp to Target Field. It probably won’t be the last. The city has earmarked several areas Downtown for expansion of the city’s pedestrian highway in the sky.

Early success

The city’s first skyway spanned Marquette Avenue between the newly completed Northstar Center and Northwestern National Bank (now Wells Fargo). A second skyway built weeks later connected the Northstar Center to what is now the Roanoke building across 7th Street.

The bridges were questioned at first, but it didn’t take long for Minneapolitans to realize their potential. Second-floor property values rapidly increased as workers and shoppers came in from the cold and business owners discovered the potential for storefronts above street level. More skyways were commissioned and structures that began as simple walkways started to mature into larger, uniquely designed bridges.

Before long, Downtown workers and visitors could traverse miles of shops, restaurants and office space without stepping outside. Belmont, who still works Downtown as an independent architect, has spent countless hours in the skyways during the past four decades.

“If it weren’t for the skyway system, on those cold winter days I would get in my car and I would drive to the branch bank about a mile away from where I live and I would drive to the post office about a mile or so away from where I live,” Belmont said.

He said the system has helped develop a “critical mass” of office and retail Downtown.

“I’m certain that the skyway system has helped Minneapolis compete with suburbs and stay strong,” he said.

Sam Grabarski, president of the Downtown Council, said his organization was founded in the 1950s largely because of the need to make the area competitive with suburban retail, which was growing. Suddenly things that were once only available Downtown could be found outside the city, he said. The skyways offered a way to make the central business district more inviting for shoppers. 

“It isn’t one big enclosed mall,” Grabarski said. “But we create an 8-mile maze of skyways that connect a very large district with a lot of retail in it.”

But even at the start, retailers weren’t sure if skyways were the answer.

“If you were to talk to icon names of the past in retail, you would learn that they had doubts at the time and they never changed their opinion,” Grabarski said. 

Skyway vs. sidewalk

In 2007, the Downtown Council hired one of the top retail consultants in the country, Midge McCauley from Economics Research Associates, to take a look at what was and wasn’t working Downtown.

One of her main suggestions was that retailers boost their street presence and move away from the skyway focus. She argued that taking people off the streets diluted activity and added that the skyway system can be confusing, especially for out-of-town visitors.

“If the skyway system has any flaws, I now understand that it is not necessarily conducive to retail and we still are confusing our visitors with how the skyway hours and access through them is not uniform,” Grabarski said.

Because the skyways are privately owned, their hours vary. The city-appointed Skyway Advisory Committee set standard hours of 6:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Monday–Friday, 9:30 a.m.–
8 p.m. Saturday and noon–
6 p.m. Sunday in its Skyway Standards and Procedures Manual, but it can only encourage additional hours.

That’s generally not a problem for the 11 a.m.–1 p.m. retail rush, when the area’s 160,000 workers take their lunch breaks and browse the stores. But it’s a challenge for visitors looking to spend a night on the town.

The Skyway Advisory Committee, which advises the City Council on all skyway-related matters, has worked to standardize and improve signage throughout the system, so visitors at least know where to go and what’s open. But getting every business on board can be tough, especially when map changes need to be made, said committee chairman Michael McLaughlin.

Website developer Phil Cross, who has worked in both the Minneapolis and St. Paul skyways, is working on another way to make the network more visitor-friendly. In a few months, he hopes to complete skywaydirectory.com, a site designed to offer everything from skyway history to the locations of public restrooms, cash machines and coffee shops.

The interactive site will also include apps for smart phones and updates from area businesses.  

“You can just tell when somebody’s confused in the skyway,” Cross said. “And it’s always been kind of a pleasure for me to help them get along and find their way, so I thought maybe someone should come out with a website that has a directory on it.”

The future of the skyway

Though its contributions are debated, the skyway system is poised for expansion.

In a land-use plan for Downtown East and the North Loop, the city identified several areas for skyway growth. All of the areas are within the borders of the existing system or at its edges.

She said the city wants to improve skyway access and use and fill in the system’s gaps before stretching it to new areas. Skyways also should be built for the benefit of as many people as possible, she said.

The city offers an incentive for developers to build skyways in designated areas. Some Downtown zoning districts have no height restrictions, so the city regulates building bulk based on a floor-area-ratio (FAR). A way to get more FAR is to add amenities such as skyways.

The extent of skyway expansion is something Grabarski hopes to discuss during the Downtown Council’s upcoming visioning session for 2025. He said it’s unlikely the system will ever go away, and if there’s any city that can make it work, it’s Minneapolis.

“We probably need to embrace the skyways for what they do offer and we should also not over-invest in them for what they don’t offer,” he said.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.