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.
“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
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
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.”