Skyways give Downtown an economic bounce

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May 21, 2002 // UPDATED 1:20 pm - April 30, 2007
By: James Beach
James Beach

At a million bucks per, they pay off in many ways; the final part of our three-part 40th-anniversary series

In 1985, experts estimated that the core of Minneapolis would have more than 25,000 residents before the turn of the century, according to Sam Kaufman's book "The Skyway Cities." They win the prize for good guessing.

Currently at just over 26,000, the population of the Downtown area owes much to the convenience and accessibility of the skyway system. Offering the latest products, services and entertainment, Downtown has much of what an urban sophisticate could want.

"I consider the skyway system as a network, rather than as individual bridges," said Ed Baker, designer of the first skyway. "People can live Downtown and also be connected with it."

Baker, who drafted the skyway design circa 1960, points out that the skyway system effectively solved some traffic problems by bringing the majority of pedestrians up to the second level. "We wanted to make sure there weren't hordes of people holding up traffic," he said. "Even

automated people-movers were considered at the time."

Mall mauler?

Frank Brust, director of management services at the Downtown Council, argues that skyways "unite Downtown retail facilities under one roof, which rivals the Mall of America (MOA) in terms of square footage."

However, most experts see competition as futile and prefer to think of Downtown as its own entity.

Judith Martin, urban planning professor at the University of Minnesota, cites Downtown's numerous restaurants and entertainment services as most important to continued success, something most malls don't plan for.

"Downtown's retail establishments aren't exclusive," she said. "Compete with suburban malls? We can't."

City Planning director Chuck Ballentine agrees. "Despite the array of merchandise Downtown offers, we won't take business from the malls," he said.

However, Ballentine believes the indoor-outdoor possibilities of Downtown and its skyways to be a strength the malls don't have. Still, protection from weather extremes may not be as obvious a skyway selling point as you might think.

A 1993 survey in the Journal of the American Planning Association of shoppers and professionals in five cities documented that 71.5 percent prefer the ease and comfort of the skyways, even in pleasant weather. And 66 percent say they prefer to travel above street- level.

Besides cold-weather cities like Calgary, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Duluth, mild-weather cities such as Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas and Fort Worth have also expanded their skywalks.

This suggests economic growth, not inclement weather, is the primary factor.

In Downtown, growth has been undeniable. "Since 1995, we've added 7.5 million square feet of office space [to Downtown]," said Ballentine. "The new space will accommodate 30,000 more Downtown workers."

The coming cross-hairs

Former mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's Development Plan framework stresses safety and long-range planning. According to a 2001 MSCA Newsletter, the plan emphasizes Hennepin Avenue and Seventh Street as "cross-hairs" of the entertainment district.

Block E, the $134 million multi-purpose entertainment complex to be completed this fall, will have four skyway connections, integrating the formerly isolated Warehouse District restaurants, galleries and boutiques into the retail core.

The question remains whether a city can support street-level retail, a second level and larger retail developments.

Critics warn that something has got to give, be it the street-level shops or newer buildings like the '80s budget-buster The Conservatory, which was demolished less than a decade after opening its exquisite but quickly abandoned doors.

"The skyways did have a negative impact during the '80s and early '90s," admitted Martin. "But over the last several years the Downtown economy has improved."

Million-dollar walkways

With the Nicollet Mall Target store now open, and Block E and its multiple skyways nearing completion, Minneapolis appears to have recharged its economic battery. This is very good news, since the addition of just one skyway can carry a hefty price tag.

First, consider the cost of the bridge itself, including designers, materials, and construction crews. Then adjust for the guaranteed difference in height of the two sets of floors and ceilings.

"Engineers also have to match new and older buildings when planning for a skyway," Ballentine points out.

Renovating existing passageways and arcades and creating interior connections comprises another large chunk of the price, which can put the cost of a new bridge well over $1 million.

Upkeep, utility and security expenses ensure the building owners will be reaching into their pockets more than once.

By contrast, gaining permission to build a skyway bridge is relatively inexpensive and uncomplicated.

"It's a routine process," said Martin. "Otherwise there wouldn't be so many."

After obtaining the required encroachment permit from the city, property holders gain the rights to skyway-level street-space. The rights must then be renewed every year to retain control of the bridge.

"As long as [the skyway] is logical and part of the system, property holders can encroach on the air rights," said Baker. "It's like [the city granting an] easement."

Martin adds, "The city is not terribly involved -- just enough so buses won't get stuck beneath."

Safety first

And just how safe are the walkways themselves? Strict codes and rigid construction standards are the norm, though the skyway system sways with a rhythm of its own.

Minneapolis architect Bernard Jacob, author of a skyway study, was quoted by the Star Tribune in 1991 saying, "There's a vitality to the whole system. It's fun. They're very bouncy."

That is more very good news, considering the daily traffic of 250,000 shoppers, tourists, businesspeople, residents and Convention Center visitors.