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Don’t tear down the skyways!

snowy street
Let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be stuck out on the Nicollet Mall this month with no way to get back inside.

A nasty image popped into my head as I sat reading Sam Newberg’s critique of the Minneapolis skyways in MinnPost:

The thermometer outside the den window read 5 below. For just a moment, I imagined Sam out on the Nicollet Mall in his shirtsleeves, with no way to get back inside because all the doors on the buildings facing the mall were locked. I should have been ashamed of myself for that malevolent thought. Marooned on the Nicollet Mall in shirtsleeves in January would have been cruel and unusual punishment. Not at all Minnesota nice.

But Minneapolis without skyways – particularly this winter – would be cruel and unusual punishment for folks who must spend their days downtown.

Newberg doesn’t see it that way. He maintains that our 50-year-old skyway system has contributed to the deterioration of the Nicollet Mall, long this city’s urban crown jewel. Newberg, like other skyway critics, sees those handy pedestrian bridges sucking the energy out of downtown’s first-story street life. True, Newberg doesn’t want to tear down all the skyways – only those crossing Nicollet Mall.

Stopping to shop?

Unless we do so, he maintains, “our well-intentioned efforts to make Nicollet Mall one of the most vibrant public spaces in America will remain seriously hobbled.”

If the mall skyways were to come down, Newberg claims that the 15,000 pedestrians who move between City Center and Gaviidae Common each day would cross at street level and shop there on their way to and from work. Of course, they would have to cross at street level because they would have no choice. But stopping to shop while they are shivering in the cold? That doesn’t seem likely.

Today, we have a pedestrian system that connects 80 downtown blocks. It may be confusing and somewhat intimidating for first-time users, but it is a system without breaks. To sever the links between downtown’s west end, past Hennepin, and its east end, beyond Nicollet, would do irreparable harm to the system as a whole.

Newberg never fully explains the benefits that would be gained from cutting back the current system. He declares that “skyways continue to keep people off the street.”

If so, why is the mall thronging with pedestrians on Thursdays during the spring, summer and fall, when a farmers’ market pulls all those downtown workers out of their office cubicles? And what about the string of outdoor cafes that are filled with customers once the wind chills are no longer part of the daily weather reports? Newberg acknowledges the market and outdoor restaurants in an offhand way, but quickly resumes his criticisms of those skyway links that connect the east and west ends of downtown.

Not a year-round place

As plans proceed to revitalize the Nicollet Mall, Newberg wants to see vibrant street life along downtown’s commercial spine; a laudable goal but not a realistic option this month and for several months to come. As much as we may wish that it were not so, we need to acknowledge that Minneapolis is not a year-around outdoor place – at least not for those of us who have given away our snowshoes and our cross-country skis.

The skyways make Minneapolis more livable during those deep-freeze months that always seem to last too long. For the past 50 years, they have helped create a thriving downtown that anchors our entire metropolitan region. Without them, downtown would be a dismal place and winter would be a lot more painful than it is today.

Let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be stuck out on the Nicollet Mall this month with no way to get back inside. A prospect that none of us, not even Sam Newberg, would find very appealing.

Iric Nathanson writes about local history for a variety of Twin Cities publications, including MinnPost. His book, “Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City,” was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. 


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Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Adam Miller on 02/03/2014 - 03:46 pm.

    We have thriving sidewalks

    They are called skyways. Yet some would like to kill those thriving, semi-public places in the hopes that it might make other places more vibrant. You know what? It might, but even if it does, we’re down one set of vibrant spaces.

    There’s a lot of room for skyway improvement – they should be more public, more accessible, better designed and open longer and with uniform schedules – but getting rid of them would be shortsighted.

    Our city is different than others. That should challenge us to be more creative, not spur us to conform.

  2. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 02/03/2014 - 03:55 pm.

    better connection

    At the very least, though, we really need to connect the skyways to the sidewalks better, and not make it necessary to walk through the front doors of privately owned sky scrapers. This might very well benefit both the skyway system and the sidewalks.

  3. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 02/03/2014 - 04:13 pm.

    The case against skyways

    First the pros:

    Skyways increase the speed and flow of car traffic because they remove pedestrians from the streets, and building owners and office workers like them, and they helped keep some companies in downtown St Paul and Minneapolis.

    Also, they’re good for people with limited mobility: the elderly, those in wheelchairs.

    The problem is that almost without exception (IDS), buildings designed around skyways create terrible street fronts: walled buildings with few doors or windows, many parking garage exits. Architecturally, it’s a zero sum game. There is only so much activity (doorways, stores, people) to spread around.

    Plus the confusing nature of skyway spaces (you mention this) means that, even if technically “public,” they exclude many people. Most people who don’t have a job downtown (or money to spend) feel “out of place.”

    This spatial alienation means that public money spent on skyways becomes a subsidy to private property owners. In Minneapolis (and St Paul) skyways “close” at certain times. Compared to streets, they are not public.

    Intentional or not, this exclusion is a de facto segregation of downtown according to race, class, and transportation modes. The literal social stratification of downtown is obvious to anyone waiting for a bus in either city.

    Moral qualms aside, they’re also bad for Minneapolis as a whole. Economically, skyways cause the downtown retail economy to struggle because they separate and segregate the potential population of customers. If starting a store or restaurant, you must choose either 9 to 5 office workers or after-hours sidewalk strollers. Catering to both is almost prohibitively expensive. This reduces the entrepreneurial potential of both downtowns.

    Thus, Sam is right. If we want a Minneapolis with diverse and dense street activity, it’ll be extremely difficult in areas with skyways. In both downtowns, the recently “successful” areas are those where the skyway system does not exist. Coincidence? I think not.

    Both cities should stop building new skyways, and begin phasing them out as buildings get remodeled. (This is especially true in Saint Paul.)

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 02/04/2014 - 12:12 pm.

      I think you understate the pros

      Skyways significantly increase property values downtown. Skyway-connected buildings are more appealing to tenants and residents. They make living and working downtown more appealing and more practical. They increase and distribute retail activity. They create walkable spaces. They facilitate things like parking in lower-cost structures built on less central and less valuable land, allowing for greater density of productive land use in the immediate downtown core (i.e., no one working east of Nicollet will be parking in the A, B and C ramps without skyways).

      I also think you’re wrong about the problem. Buildings designed around skyways (IDS, US Bank Plaza, the Dorsey Building, the Target store, etc) are the best ones. The buildings with the worst street fronts, and the worst integration of the skyway to the street, are the ones that were retrofitted to skyways (the Baker Building, Rand Tower, Medical Arts, etc). Those are great old buildings, but if you’re in the skyway you don’t know what’s going on on the street or how to get there and vice versa. Buildings that actually give thought to moving people between the two “sidewalks” actually have people moving between them. Those that do not (see, Block E), create two separate spheres, neither of which can really thrive.

      I wholeheartedly agree that skyways need to be made more public. I wholeheartedly disagree that we can make downtown into a retail destination for “after-hours” strollers by making it less pleasant and less usable for the people who are already downtown and already using the skyways.

      Rather than declaring the issues with skyways insurmountable and imbuing their removal with magical qualities, urbanists would be far better served to work to improve the system. There are many things that can be done.

      • Submitted by Sam Newberg on 02/04/2014 - 04:11 pm.

        Best Street Frontage is In Older Buildings

        I have to take exception to one part of your argument. The Baker Building, Rand Tower, Medical Arts building and others relate VERY WELL to the street. For example, the little café that serves crepes in the Medical Arts Building is perhaps the BEST relationship between street and retail space in all of downtown, and downtown would be an infinitely more pleasant place if we had more retail spaces occupied like it. Why are these buildings like this? Because they predate skyways and are of an era when buildings faced the sidewalk because that’s where ALL customers were.

        Many retail spaces at ground level in these older buildings still relate well to the sidewalk, but have second-tier or non-retail tenants because retail has migrated to the second level – this is particularly pronounced on Marquette and 2nd Avenues, for example. This leaves the ground level spaces and streets far less vibrant, and it’s a damn shame.

        You are correct to point out that these older buildings don’t have good circulation between street and skyway level, and that newer buildings relate better to the street. But even these newer buildings have a lot of retail space on the skyway level – and street level activity still suffers as a result.

        • Submitted by Adam Miller on 02/04/2014 - 04:34 pm.

          To-may-to, to-mah-to

          Those buildings are designed well to relate to the street in a world without skyways, maybe. But we live in a world with skyways, and in that world those buildings are quite poorly designed to relate to the street. They lack the necessary means to motivate or even allow people to move between the two levels. In the world we have, they are poorly designed.

          And, honestly, I’m not sure those buildings are even that great in the skyway-free world. They are mostly flat walls facing sidewalks that are not particularly inviting and a bit narrow, unless you like to get up close an personal with passing buses.

      • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 02/06/2014 - 09:24 am.

        I’m not so sure

        that the increase in property value is directly related to skyways. One example:

        “Near $155 per square foot, the price is in line with what office buildings in the core of Minneapolis sold for in the past year. For example, Plaza Seven sold for $138 per square foot, RBC Plaza sold for $171 per square foot and IDS Center sold for $180 per square foot”

        There are many high-value residences in Loring Park not connected to the skyway network. I’d be curious to see rents/sqft in the new LPM tower compared to Nic on 5th (keeping in mind that Nic is directly LRT adjacent and a quicker walk to many downtown jobs, skyway connected or not).

        Beyond that, if there is an increase in property value for skyway-connected buildings, how much of that is attributed to public costs that may or may not ever be recouped? Skyways are mostly viable because they’re connected to parking ramps, many of which are municipally owned (for an example of cost, the city will be spending $10M alone to build skyways in the Ryan/Stadium development) and facilitate more people living away from downtown and driving rather than taking transit, bikes, or walking, all of which would make sense to complete the final leg of the journey on a public sidewalk. The fact that downtown’s built form (tall skyscrapers lined by numerous parking ramps or surface parking) is in large part a result of massive public projects from the Urban Renewal stage of our history. It’s nearly impossible to calculate what % of the costs of freeway building, demolition, land opportunity costs, etc can accrue simply to skyway benefits, but I’m guessing that number is non-zero, and that without all that social engineering our cityscape would look much different.

        Asking for more public money to connect one semi-public network to an already fully-public one seems like a bad idea. How much snow clearing, transit improvements (looking at you, 7th St & Nicollet Mall bus stop), etc could we get for that amount? Urbanists should be looking to maximize the return on investments made to improve our cities. I think, given the social and financial ills skyways impose on our city for marginal benefit (only during the coldest months relative to other cities without skyways), the burden of proof is on skyway supporters to show that further investment is the best option.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/05/2014 - 07:18 am.


      “Skyways increase the speed and flow of car traffic because they remove pedestrians from the streets…”

      Shouldn’t that be in the con category?

      • Submitted by Adam Miller on 02/05/2014 - 12:21 pm.

        Or perhaps neutral

        Because we counter act it with lights that are timed to require a stop at every intersection.

  4. Submitted by Andrew Richner on 02/03/2014 - 04:47 pm.

    Not anti-skyway, just anti-this-skyway

    The stuck-outside scenario is not hypothetical or contingent on tearing down the skyways. It is actual and current. Visitors to downtown on nights or weekends will find significant portions of the skyway either closed altogether, or the many retail and dining options shuttered. More troubling is the routine trespassing performed on anyone using the skyways for purposes other than transit or shopping. The rag-tag seven piece band we see at the top of the anti-skyway article illustrating a vision of Nicollet’s vibrancy has no place in the skyway system, and what should be more troubling, nor do certain populations, such as the homeless, for example, who find that busking, begging, and sleeping, though they occasionally crop up in the skyways, are quickly swept out to the street level.

    The benefit of the skyway system should seem unassailable, but the reality is, it faces so much criticism for the draining effects it has on public life downtown because it is not much more than a diffuse food court for office workers. It’s for that reason that it serves as a detriment to downtown in general and Nicollet Mall in particular. Until the skyways are a truly public asset, they will always be a drain on the vitality of the area.

  5. Submitted by Max Musicant on 02/03/2014 - 05:08 pm.

    If the Fin’s can do it, so can we

    Iric, this really is not a compelling rebutal. You don’t lay out any arguments beyond “it exists, therefor it is worth keeping”.

    There is evidence in countless European cities that people can and do use streets when it is cold. Here, for your enjoyment are a couple of links to active scenes during the cold winter months in Helsinki Finland:

    More can be found through simple searches for: Moscow, Oslo, or Reykjavik

  6. Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/03/2014 - 09:15 pm.

    vibrant St paul streets?

    To be sure the skyway system can and probably should be improved. Better street level access would be a welcome change. But bifurcating the system by removing Nicollet mall crossings is sheer idiocy. Being able to cross the city for lunch, shopping, or renewing one’s drivers license midwinter is of significant benefit to downtown workers. creating a vibrant street scene is a laudable goal, but for what tradeoffs – and are those tradeoffs truly necessary?

  7. Submitted by jody rooney on 02/04/2014 - 07:56 am.

    There are plenty of places to have a vibrant

    street life other than the Nicollet Mall.

    Many of the articles in here rant about separate bikeway as a safer alternative to shared lanes this one wants to throw the pedestrians under the bus literally. Separated pedestrian traffic is safer for everyone involved particularly in a congested area. If you want a vibrant down town there is always Hennepin Avenue.

  8. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/04/2014 - 08:15 am.


    I’d be curious to know if anyone wanting to tear down the skyways actually works downtown. To anyone who does, the idea is ludicrous.

    Skyways are a Minnesota tradition. The Replacements even wrote a song about them.

    • Submitted by Sam Newberg on 02/04/2014 - 11:07 am.

      Skyway by The Replacements

      The song “Skyway” by The Replacements is about a man who sees a woman he wants to talk to but he’s up in the skyway and she’s down on the street catching a bus, and then she is gone….

      A missed opportunity for love, all because of the skyways.

      • Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/04/2014 - 01:39 pm.


        he would have had a better chance if he’d seen her from the seat of a bus headed in the opposite direction?

        Gimme’ a break.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 02/04/2014 - 03:13 pm.

      Great point…

      My wife still works down there, and although I moved my office into my home recently, I still get down there a couple of times a week minimum. I’ve yet to meet anyone that laments the skyway system, much less wants to get rid of it. As Adam pointed out at the top, the vibrancy exists on the 2nd floor…just replacing the location while adding the discomfort of foul weather that we endure six months of the year makes no sense whatsoever. Besides, there’s no shortage of people on the sidewalk when the weather turns in spring. This debate seems like just another example of a solution in search of a problem.

  9. Submitted by Andrew Richner on 02/04/2014 - 08:43 am.

    Nicollet Arcade

    Just a very speculative idea regarding Nicollet. Even if you took down the skyways, there’s still not really any available space on some of the busiest portions of Nicollet for retail to go in. One possibility to get more small-shop retail space on the street level, pass pedestrian traffic through it, and not compromise the cold-weather advantage of the skyway would be to make a portion of Nicollet 100% pedestrian and cover that portion, a la the Galleria in Milan.

    It could be placed between 6th and 8th, starting mid-block between 6th and 7th and ending mid-block between 7th and 8th. Bus traffic would re-route for northbound buses to Hennepin, southbound to Marquette, and traffic on 7th could re-route to 6th and 8th. Build it green with only natural climate control, potentially with seasonal total-enclosure options. The entrances, if done right architecturally, could be made landmarks, things to take your picture next to like how people take pictures next to Chinatown gates in cities that have them. Then, replace the skyways with grand staircases and put in rows of small shops and keep it open 24/7/365. There you would have the coveted street-level retail while still having shelter from the elements, as long as it feels like a street and not a shopping center.

  10. Submitted by Mark Iezek on 02/04/2014 - 10:10 am.

    Helsinki and the other cities named are warmer places

    The average January high and low in Helsinki is 29.7F and 20.3F. For Moscow, they are 25.0F and 15.6F. For Oslo, they are 28F and 19F. For Reykjavik they are 36.5F and 27.7F.

    The Twin Cities are colder in January, with the average high of 23.7F and average low of 7.4F. The low temperature especially is lower here (8F colder than even Moscow.)

    I followed the links to a picture of Helsinki holiday shopping on streets without any sign of snow and another with maybe 1-2 inches in a park. It looks balmy.

    Without skyways, would there be any life in either downtown, much less street life?

  11. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/04/2014 - 01:44 pm.

    Must it be either or?

    It seems to me that a clever building owner/merchant would ensure access from both the street and the skyway level. ( I, for one, have no desire to hoof it down Nicollet or any other downtown street between Thanksgiving and Easter.)

  12. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/04/2014 - 01:48 pm.

    One wonders what the impact on all the businesses in…

    …the skyway system would be, and whether Mr. Newberg or any other proponents have given even a second thought to these enterprises.

    See and click on the headers for “Food and Drink”, “Shopping”, etc. and below that header area you’ll see icons which when clicked populate the map with icons representing the businesses in the skyway based on those categories.

    I’m not a skyway user, and though I did know there were plenty of businesses lining the skyway system, or congregated around its pathways – but I didn’t realize just HOW MANY there are !!

    The site doesn’t indicate counts of those businesses by the geography of the skyway system, but if you click on the various elements in the map, you can get an idea.

    So if Mr. Newberg and the other “urbanists” succeed in shutting down the skyways over Nicollet, forcing the thousands of pedestrians down to the street, how many businesses in the skyway system will be negatively affected, and to the tune of what losses ?

    One wonders if these folks have followed their own thinking to its logical consequences, even to this extent, as they dream of vague properties such as “vibrancy”.

  13. Submitted by Jim Greg on 02/04/2014 - 08:41 pm.

    Connect skyways to the sidewalk

    With wide stairs at every street crossing connect the skyways to the sidewalk. Problem solved. Make the transitions easy. Mimic our in and out mentality. Have two story storefronts. Embrace our uniqueness. Make sure that skyways are open 24x7x365. We can do this.

  14. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 02/05/2014 - 03:55 pm.

    … or “skyway” the sidewalks

    So, why not enclose the sidewalks as the skyways are enclosed? I remember the old NSP building having heaters in the soffit above the sidewalk passing the building; wouldn’t it be more efficient to just glass in the sidewalks (except for access at the corners, of course)? This would only inconvenience people who intend to jaywalk.

  15. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/05/2014 - 07:17 pm.

    Frozen North

    Like it or not, the skyway is an infrastructure around which businesses plan their marketing and people plan their daily activities. Cutting the system down the middle because some people believe that being on the street is inherently better than being in a skyway is ridiculous. We’ll simply force businesses that survive in the skyway to pay for a new (potential) boom on street level. And, honestly, I doubt that’s how it will play out. When I worked in Downtown, there was no way I was going to make the choice to cross Nicollet at street level in January. If a business was out of reach of the skyway, I simply wasn’t going. Like it or not, you’re not going to attract more suburbanite visitors to Downtown by making it harder for every day Downtown workers to get around. Ironically, because it’s difficult to transit from sidewalk to skyway during off hours, you can already see the effect of closing the skyway–people who visit Downtown during those off hours spend time at street level. People who work Downtown already know how to get between the ground level and the skyway, so if they wish to do so (i.e., it’s nice enough to), they will exit the skyways.

    In the end, the problem isn’t the skyway. The problem is that there is little to gain from going Downtown for retail shopping unless you work there. Sure, you can go to a theatre and see a Broadway play or go to an Orchestra concert (FINALLY), but you don’t need to go to the Downtown Macy’s because your suburb already has one. And Downtown Minneapolis simply isn’t quaint enough to spend an evening or weekend shopping at the little places there, even if they were open. Stillwater would be a more pleasant place for that. And Downtown Minneapolis simply isn’t grand enough to spend a weekend or evening being bedazzled by the lights and spectacles. The little dazzle it has can be fully appreciated during your dinner and trip to State Theatre.

    Downtown Minneapolis and many of its businesses survive because people work there during the weekdays. For those businesses, the best thing is to make it very easy for workers to get to those places. That’s what the skyway is for. The restaurants and theatres and bars survive at street level because people can’t get to the skyways when those places are popular.

    As for the claim that the skyways are sadly unintegrated…that has more to do with the fact that Downtown businesses are sadly unintegrated. Again, the skyways are mainly for the benefit of workers (with a few exceptions, such as around the Convention Center and Orchestra Hall and surrounding hotels). If you don’t see much diversity there, it’s because the workplace has little diversity. If you don’t see economic class based diversity, it’s because the workplace in Downtown has little economic class diversity.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/06/2014 - 07:04 am.

      “little to gain from going Downtown”

      THAT is a mouthful. A lot of people have avoided downtown for years because of its inconvenience and high costs. Due to poor transit service, you might consider driving to downtown, but then you have to deal with real inconveniences and pains-in-the-arse.

      This includes the leech-like purveyors of parking space which drive up the cost of every single trip downtown. According to a recent MinnPost article, when the Orchestra was virtually closed due to the lockout, the parking fees “lost” were estimated at $414,000, since “an Orchestra Hall attendee pays an average of $10 to park during a performance”. $414,000, just from Orchestra Hall attendees !!

  16. Submitted by Bjorn Awel on 02/07/2014 - 03:06 pm.

    It really is amazing to see how much the opposition to Sam’s post is based on “its cold outside and people won’t cross the street in January.” It is clearly a wonder that Uptown or any other area in the Twin Cities survives. I feel sorry downtown Minneapolis — whether or not you are for or against taking a few skyways down, you must admit that the streetlife sucks. When you’re competing against other cities for labor, talent and business, this actually means something. So instead of saying that Sam has a terrible idea, please come up with better ideas to activating the streets. And sorry but “there needs to be stairs down to the street” is not a gonna cut it.

  17. Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 02/08/2014 - 08:19 am.

    Prisoners of the Climate…and the Past

    The skyway system was an not unreasonable response to our very harsh winter climate, but it has had reinforced some decisions from many years which has long since made us “prisoners” during the winter months, moving through glass boxes and down long corridors, each pretty much like the other. Except for briefly glimpses of the streets below, you might as well be in any of a number of suburban office complexes.

    Reinforcing this “retreat from the street” was the city’s disastrous “urban renewal” efforts, mostly during the 1960s and 1970s, which effectively eviscerated the urban streetscape and resulted in what is now an office park/shopping mall covering much of downtown that might have been transplanted from the 494 strip. The rest of downtown has been rightly described as an “sea of parking lots.” The North Loop in particular is a graveyard of former hotel sites turned into parking lots and ramps. Almost completely gone is the typical urban experience of walking down the sidewalk passing shop, restaurant, services, bar, etc. You might have a few half-blocks of storefronts here and there, or maybe whole blocks along the margins of downtown. But by and large, there is little or nothing to see or do at the street level. You might as well take the skyway.

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