Let’s start with the name: skyway.
It’s so very Spacely Sprockets, conjuring visions of the Jetsons commuting through the clouds. In a skyway, it would seem as if we could leapfrog between skyscrapers, or grab lunch alongside the local falcons.
In truth, we’re simply upstairs, one floor up from the storm drains.
We still can view the clutter of drivers’ dashboards or check which food trucks are parked out front. Yet since the first skyway opened in 1962, the elevated passages have signified escape, whether from traffic noise, stoplights or the weather.
This year, Minneapolis, home to the world’s most extensive skyway system — in the world, baby! — will bolster that status when the 8 miles of existing walkways are extended another mile to U.S. Bank Stadium sometime this summer. Seems like a good time to examine the invention that made possible our second-story city.
Minneapolis may be known for its skyways, but they weren’t designed for visitors, but for 9-to-5 office workers.
In the mid-1950s, downtown was on the ropes. Swanky Southdale, with its indoor shopping, had opened in Edina, while General Mills had moved to verdant suburban headquarters in Golden Valley. The city was losing its mojo.
Leslie Park, a visionary real estate developer, long had touted elevated walkways, and as downtown vacancies grew, people began listening. With architect Ed Baker, Park oversaw the first skyway installed over Marquette Avenue in 1962, connecting Northstar Center and what was then Northwestern National Bank.
Called a skyway from the first, it was an immediate success, being a tourist attraction and a boon to workers — and undeniably new.
“I always sort of got the impression that it was simply this cool idea, being very modern,” said local architecture critic and author Larry Millett. “The first idea of skyways really goes way back to pedestrian planning ideas from the early 20th century, the aim being to separate vehicular and pedestrian traffic,” keeping people from the mayhem of the Mustangs and Camaros coursing down the streets.
According to various accounts, moving folks into the skyways didn’t harm street-level retail business, and it boosted second-story traffic.
Then again, there was only one skyway.
For worker bees, not newbies
Think of the system as a hive for worker bees, with more restaurants than clothing stores, more shops to buy flowers than shoes, more places to make copies, buy a snack, grab some coffee or deposit a check.
As with honeybees, office tenants just know where they’re going. They rarely glance at the directional signs. They know to turn right at the Orange Julius, cross the next skyway, then hang a right at Au Bon Pain and boom, there you are.
Anyone who’s tried to give directions to a newbie finds that it’s almost impossible to guide them by buildings or even streets because there’s often not a clear correlation.
The magic words? “Here, let me just show you.”
You still may make a false turn or two, but once you know to go down that hallway with all the old skyway photos, and then turn right, you’ll always find that place with the great egg rolls.
Large conventions, however, merit extra signage, said Brent Foerster, senior vice president of destination sales for Meet Minneapolis. Especially if attendance requires lodging at some distance from the Minneapolis Convention Center. Still, it’s the skyways that probably lured the conventions here.
“We’re an Upper Midwest destination — we have winter,” Foerster said. “We compete with other cities for these events, and [skyways] help us overcome that factor from November through April.”
“I know,” he said, laughing. “We think April is spring, but for a lot of people from the South, it still feels like winter.”
Haters gonna hate
Don’t get the idea that everyone loves skyways. Ha!
Some urban planners and architects revile them, and not without cause, such as the skyway that pierces the carved rose-toned Egyptian facade near the Rand Tower. Skyways often are damned as sucking vitality from the streets.
With each skyway managed by its buildings’ owners, “Minneapolis has a mishmash of styles, connecting different styles of buildings — which can be interesting or maddening, I suppose,” Millett said. “It was never a unified ownership of the system.”
(In St. Paul, the skyways are operated by the city, which has led to a more neutral, or cohesive, look.)
Time out for irony: Now that food trucks are popular, some second-story restaurants have cried foul, saying the trucks suck vitality from the skyways and don’t have to bear the tax burden of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“It’s kind of a question mark,” said Peter Bruce, founder of Pedestrian Studies in Edina. “As soon as the food trucks were out, some marginal fast-food places folded quick, which is kind of counterintuitive because those food trucks aren’t cheap. But having a pleasant outdoor experience was just enough to cut into business.”
So, it seems that skyway and on-street businesses get a turn at winning and losing. How Minnesotan. How nice.
Skyways now a fact of life
The Minneapolis Downtown Council’s 2025 Plan expects downtown’s population to double to 70,000 residents within this decade, with more people using skyways the way other people walk around the lakes.
“We’re heading for a generally more active downtown,” said the council’s president, Steve Cramer. When the skyways to the Wells Fargo buildings and the stadium open this year, the system will approach 9 miles in length, he said.
That’s continuous length, Cramer noted, heading off any snark that the skyway system in Calgary, Alberta, is longer. It is, at about 11 miles, but instead of flowing one into another as they do here, their skyways connect a few buildings here, a few buildings there. Here, you can walk from the Convention Center to within a block of the Mississippi River and never wait for a stoplight.
Despite skyways being dismantled in a few cities such as Baltimore and Cincinnati (where average January high temps are 40 degrees, sheesh), local skyways are here to stay, Cramer said.
“What I hear from developers in the core of downtown is that if you have an opportunity to connect to the skyways, you do,” he said. “It’s hardly even a question anymore.”
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185