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Minneapolis’ oldest skyway still in use turns 50

MinnPost photo by Iric Nathanson
Each weekday, throngs of people hurry through a narrow walkway spanning 7th Street on their way to and from their office cubicles or shopping sites.

Each weekday, throngs of downtown workers hurry through a narrow walkway spanning 7th Street on their way to and from their office cubicles or shopping sites. Few, if any of them, probably know that this unobtrusive glass and steel structure is Minneapolis’ oldest skyway still in use today.

The 7th Street span, connecting the Northstar Center with the Roanoke Building, opened 50 years ago this summer, on June 12, 1963. The previous year, in 1962, the ribbons were cut for the city’s first skyway, a half block away. It crossed Marquette between 6th and 7th, but it was demolished to make way for the new Norwest Bank tower, now named for Norwest’s successor, Wells Fargo.

The two early skyways were both built by local businessman Leslie Park. As one of the downtown’s major property owners, Park was concerned about the postwar suburban boom and its potential to drain the economic vitality out of the city’s historic central business district.

In 1955, General Mills, one of Minneapolis’ premier companies, moved out of downtown to a shiny new campus in Golden Valley. The next year, the Dayton brothers unveiled their innovative, climate-controlled Edina shopping center in what had been a suburban cornfield.

MinnPost photo by Iric Nathanson
The 7th Street span, connecting the Northstar Center with the Roanoke Building, opened 50 years ago this summer, on June 12, 1963.

“From the day Southdale opened its doors with free parking, Park knew that downtown was in deep trouble,” noted newspaper publisher Sam Kaufman.

“Les was an imaginative, far-seeing guy,” added his partner, Ed Baker. “He knew that downtown had to compete with the suburbs … or go down the tube.” 

Began promoting the idea in ’50s

park portrait
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Leslie Park

As a way of revitalizing downtown, Park began promoting his idea for the covered walkways in the mid-1950s, but kept encountering skepticism from other business owners who feared that his plan would cut into street-level retail activity.

In 1959, the local real estate developer was able to test his plan when his Baker Properties began designing the Northstar Center, a multiuse project at 7th and Marquette, which included an office building, retail shops, a hotel and a parking ramp.

As part of the design, Park included the early pedestrian bridge spanning Marquette Avenue, which linked his Northstar Center to the Northwestern Bank building across the street. Park’s creation, soon dubbed a “skyway,” proved to be a great success. “Pedestrians found the new structure irresistible as they swarmed over it, comfortable and protected from the August heat and the bustling traffic,” observed Kaufman.

“No one in Downtown Minneapolis needed convincing after Les Park’s first skyway opened,”  recalled Ed Baker. “It drew traffic, it had immense potential. It was finally tangible.”

Slowly the skyway system began to grow as additional links were added in the blocks surrounding the Northstar. Because each new skyway was privately developed by the adjoining property owners, the system grew in an ad hoc fashion with no uniformity or consistency in design. Early on, the pedestrian bridges connected buildings that were already in place, so connections across downtown streets were often awkward.

Twists, turns — and stairs

In some cases, the passageway on one side of the street was at a higher level than the one the other side, so skyway users had to go up or down stairs to get from one building to the other. Often, there were twists and turns through narrow interiors hallways that were not intended to carry the pedestrian load that occurred the noon hour.

By 1972, seven skyways were in use in the downtown core, but all seven weren’t yet interconnected. The next year, the towering IDS Center on Nicollet Avenue was completed. IDS was the first major downtown development designed to have skyway connections on all four sides. The IDS Center’s strategic location made it the link that connected the skyways in the Marquette office district with those serving the retail stores along Nicollet.

As the city’s eighth skyway opened in November 1972, the Tribune noted that Minneapolis was gaining a national reputation as a “second story city.”

“The skyways are more than bridges to a network of second story corridors, for many corridors have small stores, snack shops and bank teller windows geared directly to heavy foot traffic,” the paper observed. “Second floor rents have zoomed to nearly double in some instances, often equaling ground-floor rents.” 

By mid-1974, with all four IDS skyways in place, the system had connected eight downtown blocks from 5th to 9th Street and from Nicollet to Second Avenue South. The Minneapolis Star noted that the skyway system, “born of winter, may prove to be main contribution of Minneapolis to urban architecture.” 

Today, it’s world’s largest skyway system

Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis
2013 skyway map

Building on the success of Les Park’s 1962 experiment, the system continued to grow over the next 50 years like a giant octopus reaching its tentacles ever deeper into downtown. Today, Minneapolis has the world’s largest skyway system, connecting 80 blocks through a sometimes confusing but climate-controlled maze of walkways extending over eight miles. And now, in 2013, that system is poised for a major eastward expansion as plans are being made for a link connecting the downtown core with the new Viking stadium.

“The system’s pluses and minuses have long been debated,” noted architectural historian Larry Millett. “Skyways have undoubtedly helped the central core remain vibrant, providing all-weather connections from one end of downtown to the other. Yet they have sucked life up and away from the streets. The lack of obvious connections between the street level and the skyways is also a problem. What is certain is that the skyways are here to stay, and however fashionable it may be to decry their mournful effect on street life, the fact is, that come January, just about everyone who can use them, will.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 07/03/2013 - 11:16 am.

    Central core vibrant?

    Anyone who says or believes this has obviously never traveled to any other place with a truly vibrant street life (like a few miles south to Uptown with nary a skyway in sight yet tons of people out and about in all weather), particularly outside regular business hours M-F.

    It’s frustrating to me that we continue to use weather as a reason for their existence. Is our weather really, truly, appreciably different in January than New York, Toronto, Chicago, etc? If people really do think the difference in weather is appreciable, aren’t we aIl Minnesotans (if not born, transplants) accustomed to it anyway? And if not, is it worth the public money funneled to the system to that short time period in a year where our temperatures are ‘appreciably’ worse than other places? Is it worth separating our retail and restaurant experiences between a true public space (street) and a semi-to-fully private space with limited hours, private security, and limited access?

  2. Submitted by Bruce Bruemmer on 07/03/2013 - 12:34 pm.

    It was also known as the Cargill Building

    Cargill was the major tenant in the new building, and this represented a consolidation all of its offices in many buildings downtown. An employee newsletter, The Northstar Light, was created to publicize the move to employees and it proudly announced the implementation of the all-weather walkways (“which are to be called skyways”). One picture in the 1962 newsletter showed the newly constructed skyway with the caption:

    An eye-stopper is the Skyway over 7th Street connecting the Roanoke Building and the Cargill Building. This Skyway made its first appearance the weekend of May 19-20; the Skyway over Marquette, connecting the Cargill Building and Northwestern Bank Building, appeared the following weekend. The 30-ton Skyways are brought to the site in two sections and are then welded together. They must be assembled on a weekend since it is necessary to stop traffic in the block where the construction is taking place.

    There is no indication when the skyway was operational, but it was up in 1962 and Cargill moved into the building in October of that year.

    Cargill stayed downtown until 1976, when it built a new facility next to its headquarters in Minnetonka.

  3. Submitted by Claude Ashe on 07/03/2013 - 01:20 pm.

    Yes, Alex. They’re worth it.

    “…is it worth the public money funneled to the system to that short time period…. Is it worth separating our retail and restaurant experiences between a true public space…”

    Well after 50 years, demonstrably it IS worth it!

    With all due respect to Uptown, (which I love) I fail to see any difference in “vibrancy” between the street and the skyway. And what is “vibrancy” anyway? Most of the time, I use both thoroughfares to get from Point A to Point B. I guess I’m not really looking for “vibrancy.”

    At any rate, having worked downtown for two decades I saw the skyways’ worth in many ways: people in wheelchairs or crutches, older people, people who were ill and didn’t want to go out in the chill, people avoiding street repair, people popping over to get a quick lunch without having to pull on boots and scarves and overcoats, people who wanted to exercise by walking and NOT slogging around snow drifts. And people like myself on days when it’s 101 degrees outside — if I patronize restaurants on workdays in the summer it’s BECAUSE they can be found via the skyway.

    Plus, (I learned from my visiting UK friends) skyways are an odd tourist attraction which pleases visitors.

  4. Submitted by Brenden Schaaf on 07/03/2013 - 02:49 pm.

    Safer than the street

    Given the way people drive and/or don’t respect traffic signals downtown, I use the skyways year-round to walk the 4+ blocks between my office and parking ramp just because I find them to be safer. The use of the skyways and the fact that building owners continue to add them demonstrates that they are worth it.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/05/2013 - 08:52 am.

      Yeah, because the ongoing carnage of pedestrians downtown…

      … is constant and horrific. People just can’t keep their cars off the sidewalks!. You see it every day.

  5. Submitted by James Murck on 07/04/2013 - 07:23 am.

    Streetways and Skyways are Both Good Opportunities

    I have noticed that the lack of street vibrancy is not really connected with the presence of skyways but the lack of human scale amenities at street level. In downtown where there is retail and businesses situated at street level, there is vibrancy – people of all walks of life mingling, shopping, eating, socializing and whatnot. This is taking place even where there is skyways. The problem is that so many buildings built since the skyways arrival have rendered their street levels as faceless functional facilities devoid of life. In the areas where it is like this, of course there is no vibrancy because there is nothing there – NOTHING. A better stewardship of resources would indicate both skyway AND street level retail and such be present. It seems that here we have an opportunity to thicken our economic ecosystem both vertically and horizontally to the betterment of all…

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/05/2013 - 08:54 am.

      Dude, the Skyways are the reason the streets are empty

      The street level amenities disappeared BECAUSE of the skyways. Look at any photo of Downtown prior to 1950.

      • Submitted by James Murck on 07/05/2013 - 09:39 am.

        That’s not what I’m Seeing – NOW…

        When I catch the bus downtown in the morning and evening on most any day, in any season, where there are businesses on street level, I see people – lots of them going in and out of those businesses whether there is a skyway overhead or not. Where I see no people on street level is in the areas where they have built no street level business/retail infrastructure and instead focused all their business/retail tenents at skyway level and left a blank faceless glass wall with only delivery/parking openings. They’ve done this so much that it seems to be “BECAUSE of the skyways” but from what I see on the street, this doesn’t follow from necessity. I suspect that this is the case due to some form of misguided assumptions or some shortsighted form of social engineering on the part of building designers/urban planners and their elitist wealth-based clients. It represents to me poor stewardship of resources and business opportunity and need not be the case…

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