The recent sale of the Minneapolis Macy’s building, originally home to Dayton’s, inspired sadness and nostalgia among many. I’m proud that my family’s store was once such an important institution. But this watershed moment also reminds me of something my grandfather, Bruce Dayton, often told me: “May you never look back and say, ‘Ah, those were the days’ — and be right.”

I was born and raised in Minneapolis. You won’t find anyone more passionate about this city. So it pains me not to be more optimistic. But the departure of Macy’s (along with Barnes & Noble across the street) is just the latest in a series of exits by anchor retail tenants. These aren’t isolated incidents; they reflect an alarming trend that will continue if we don’t do something about it.

When the Macy’s rumors first started, I read an article suggesting that my family and I should acquire and save the property. I responded with a challenge: “You bring down the skyways,” I said, “and I will buy the building.”

That implication, that Minneapolis would be better off without its skyways, sparked intense debate. The Editorial Board of this paper agreed with my negative assessment of the skyways, but argued that we’re stuck with them (“Find ways to improve skyways, streetscapes,” Nov. 28, 2016). That’s been the conventional thinking for a long time.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Why do we have skyways in the first place? Fifty years ago, when they were first introduced, all the major trends were moving away from Minneapolis. Shoppers were abandoning the city for the novelty of shopping malls. General Mills had just moved its headquarters out to a campus in Golden Valley. Civic leaders were worried about the city’s survival, so they attempted to compete with the new climate-controlled environments by turning downtown into one.

It was a bold move, one that may well have saved Minneapolis at that time. But now, a half-century later, those trends have reversed. Shoppers are turning away from malls in search of a more authentic experience, which has driven the rise of the North Loop. Companies are relocating from the suburbs to be where the next generation of talent wants to live and work. Downtown Minneapolis should be thriving, and yet we can see the results of the skyway experiment in the form of empty streets and vacant storefronts.

We’re a 2017 city living with 1967 urban-design thinking, and it’s not working for us anymore.

Why are the skyways so bad? Fundamentally, they rob our streets of the energy and vitality that come with foot traffic, the lifeblood of healthy retail. And that’s not just my opinion. It’s an assessment shared by every urban designer who has ever analyzed our city’s challenges.

In 2007, the Downtown Council commissioned a report on our retail woes. The No. 1 factor identified was the bifurcation of foot traffic by the skyways. In response, we did nothing.

We prefer to point the finger elsewhere, because it’s easier. The sad state of our retail is the Mall of America’s fault. Or online shopping is to blame. Or, most recently, it’s the Nicollet Mall construction. We’ve looked everywhere for the cause of our problems except in the mirror. How many more experts have to tell us the skyways are hurting our city before we believe them?

The skyways are also a detriment to public safety, perhaps the most pressing issue we face as a city. We can try to achieve safe streets in one of two ways. One is through escalating the police presence. We’ve tried that. It’s simply impossible to police every last troublemaker away from a city, and even if it did work, do any of us really want a downtown Minneapolis that feels like a militarized zone? The other option is to take back our streets. As the old saying goes, there’s safety in numbers, and right now dowtown’s streets are dangerously empty. Putting all pedestrians onto street level would mean any troublemakers would be vastly outnumbered by people heading to work, home, shops and restaurants. Streets would feel safer, and be safer. That’s how it works in other cities across America, and it will work here, too.

I know what you’re thinking: “But I like the skyways.” And I get it. However, that’s not the question. This isn’t about whether or not we enjoy having the comfort and convenience the skyways afford, especially in winter; the answer to that is easy. Instead, let’s ask ourselves if we value their benefits on the coldest days more than we would having a safe, vibrant, healthy city 365 days a year.

That’s the price we’re paying. Once we understand the trade-off, I think we’ll reconsider. To those who claim that the skyways are essential to our winter survival, you might be surprised to know that Minneapolis has averaged only 3.5 days per year with below-zero high temperatures since we began keeping track in 1871. And the “we need them” argument is only getting weaker with climate change. Since 2000, the average is down to one below-zero day each winter. One day! We can handle that, right? Of course we can. We’re Minnesotans.

Despite mounting evidence against the skyways, some Minneapolis leaders still cling to the idea that getting rid of them is impossible — a defeatist outlook in my opinion. We put them up, and we can figure out how to take them down. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Others argue, let’s just try to reduce the problem with tweaks like improved wayfinding. But I don’t want a city that’s a little less bad than it is now. I want a city that’s great. We all do.

The redesign of Nicollet Mall is a step in the right direction, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking a cosmetic face-lift will solve our problems. What we need is reconstructive surgery. When I hear city leaders promise that the new streetscape will be a “must-see destination,” I question their definition of “must-see.” I’m glad we’re planting trees and installing some public art, but let’s not pretend we’re building Millennium Park. So let’s call the mall redesign what it is: a good start. However, if we don’t see this opportunity for transformation all the way through, it has the potential to become a very expensive half-measure that fails to deliver real change.

Let me address two valid concerns about a post-skyway future. The first is accessibility for all our citizens. I’ve heard from many people with disabilities who rely on the skyways in wintertime, and who rightly point out that our city streets are not properly maintained, especially when it snows. As part of rethinking our city’s infrastructure, let’s look at what other cold-climate cities around the world are doing to keep their sidewalks clear and safe for wheelchairs and pedestrians alike (Edmonton has some innovative ideas) and become a global leader in urban design for year-round accessibility.

The second concern is the potential impact on skyway-level businesses. As a small-business owner myself, I absolutely share that concern, so let’s think about what would likely happen.

Some destination second-floor businesses would choose to remain in their locations, benefiting from lowered rent. Others, however, would be forced to relocate or would decide they want to move to follow the critical mass of people. Once on street level, they’d finally enjoy 100 percent of foot traffic outside their doors year-round. But the transition would be disruptive and not without expense.

This is where the city should get creative, perhaps by creating a relocation allowance or helping to finance the associated costs. There’s no way to make a major change like this without hardship; tearing off a Band-Aid always hurts. But at the end of the day, if the short-term pain is outweighed by long-term gain, then bringing down the skyways remains the right thing to do.

To understand why I care so much about this issue, consider a question: When was the last time a Fortune 500 company was founded in Minnesota? The answer is 1977 — UnitedHealth. It’s been 40 years. And do you know what the average life span of a Fortune 500 company is today, in this era of ever-accelerating change and disruption? Fifteen years, and falling. That worries me. It should worry us all.

The last century has been good to Minneapolis. Entrepreneurs like my great-great-grandfather, George Dayton, started small businesses that turned into big companies. Growth created jobs and built wealth that benefited our community, helping to fund nonprofits and build world-class cultural institutions for all to enjoy. We’ve had a good run, but I fear it has made us perilously complacent.

The sale of the Dayton’s building should remind us that nothing lasts forever. The major companies of today will almost certainly not fuel Minneapolis through the next 100 years, so we’d better figure out how to create and attract the ones that will. The skyway issue isn’t just about making Minneapolis safer and more vibrant, it’s ultimately about repositioning our city, Minnesota’s biggest economic engine, for continued success.

Without a safe, attractive, and vibrant downtown, we’re in real trouble when it comes to attracting the new workers and entrepreneurs our economy needs. People have options, and we’re up against thriving places like Denver, Austin and Seattle, all of which are currently outpacing Minneapolis in terms of growth. The cities that will lead in the next century aren’t ignoring their challenges; they’re adapting to change and positioning themselves for the future.

What this critical moment for Minneapolis requires is entrepreneurial thinking, the kind that put the skyways up in the first place. Change is hard and taking risks can be scary, but it’s made easier when we recognize that our continued prosperity depends on it.

If we’re not careful, our city’s glory days could be behind us. But with vision and the courage to act, I believe the best is yet to come.

 

Eric Dayton is co-owner of Askov Finlayson, the Bachelor Farmer, and Marvel Bar in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis.