Elissa Novotny Leino and Mark Eskildsen considered the Minneapolis street below after a walk through the skyways on a recent afternoon.
“There’s not many people down there,” said Novotny Leino, an architect in town for a conference.
“Every time I’ve been here it seems like that,” said Eskildsen. “But I understand why … you’ve got like little streets in the skyways. So why would you go outside?”
It’s been five years since downtown business leaders called skyways a “blessing and a curse” that “pull the life and energy off the street level, leaving sidewalks barren and storefronts empty.”
Their 2025 plan for downtown suggested creating clearer connections between the bridges and sidewalks to revive street life. Yet the issue has sat largely unaddressed even as the skyway web has grown by seven bridges with several more on the way. The arrival of the Super Bowl in just over a year has renewed interest in the problem.
Downtown Council President Steve Cramer said that that event, new skyways to U.S. Bank Stadium and more downtown residents have prompted discussions on how to make skyways easier to use.
Fixes could include more consistent skyway hours and new technology to help people find their way in and out of the winding, 9-mile system. The city also added regulations this year for new skyways that will require obvious entrances and exits to and from the sidewalk.
But retrofitting the existing system — largely owned and maintained by private building owners — has been an uphill battle.
The redesign of Nicollet Mall initially called for two staircases from street to skyway. Cramer said that concept was scrapped after questions about maintenance, costs and the fear the steps could become a magnet for loitering and panhandling.
“Would that staircase idea have become, in effect, an attractive nuisance? A place where people hang out?” Cramer said. “That was one of many concerns that I think in the end made everybody rethink that design idea.”
Some fans of pedestrian traffic wonder if the skyway system has more of a fundamental problem.
Urbanist Gil Penalosa, who has visited the Twin Cities several times in recent years for speaking engagements, said the skyways have left downtown Minneapolis “spiceless” with blank walls at street level.
Entrepreneur Eric Dayton, whose retailing family includes some of the earliest boosters of the skyways, is among the system’s most vocal opponents.
Dayton, co-owner of the Bachelor Farmer restaurant and clothing store Askov Finlayson in the North Loop, said the city should follow the lead of other cold climate cities, like Stockholm and Copenhagen, and treat winter as an asset — rather than trying to escape it.
He thinks the city should consider deconstructing the system altogether, citing the retail success of the skyway-less North Loop.
At a minimum, he encouraged people to go outside to attract more retailers back to the streets.
“The easiest, cheapest, most immediate thing is for people, if they care about downtown, to get outside and walk the city,” Dayton said. “Walk to work, walk to lunch, get some fresh air, bundle up, and embrace what it means to live and work in Minnesota.”
But that might be a hard sell for some. Many people who use the skyways regularly see them as a convenient way to stay warm on the go and avoid car traffic.
Peter Bruce, a consultant who tracks pedestrian traffic, estimated that skyway traffic rises by about 7 percent for every 10 degrees the temperature falls.
“The skyways are really very efficient,” said Tim Sheehan, a downtown condo dweller walking through the skyways for exercise. “Particularly in light of the variability we have in our weather. You can get to just about any place through the skyways.”
Out-of-towners, however, often are left bewildered on the sparsely populated sidewalks. Aaron Beimborn, a valet at the Minneapolis Marriott hotel sees it happen regularly.
“[Last week] a lady from New York was like, ‘Where the hell is everybody?’ ” Beimborn said.
New design rules
The city has tried before to make the skyways and streetscape feel unified. An initial plan for the 1990 revamp of Nicollet Mall included glassy cylindrical “stair towers” that never became reality. Some buildings, like the downtown Target store and IDS tower, are credited for having more seamless connections between levels.
A visitor on Nicollet Mall now is hard-pressed to find signs indicating where and how to enter the system, which can involve entering a random building, finding an elevator and navigating some empty hallways.
But the city for the first time this year enshrined minimum skyway standards into its zoning code.
Those include requirements for an obvious public entrance and outside signs, as well as clearly marked and convenient stairs, elevators or escalators.
It also limited new skyways to downtown, hospital or university areas.
City Planning Commission member Sam Rockwell said the city is spending millions to reconstruct Nicollet Mall and will be undertaking an overhaul of Hennepin Avenue. That’s why he added language requiring new skyways to have signs indicating how to reach the street.
“We are trying to tell people that we have the skyway system and go up there — that’s where all the life is,” Rockwell said. “We’re not trying to do anything when it kind of comes down to these details to bring life back to our streets.”
Those rules will apply when new skyways, including two that may connect to the Central Library, are built in the coming years.
Cramer said the Downtown Council is exploring possible tech-driven ways to make skyway navigation easier all around. Google Maps does not help with skyway navigation, and other mobile sites and apps remain clunky for mobile use.
Michael Bleakmore, co-founder of Skyway MyWay, one of those sites, has pitched Cramer on bringing in a German firm that uses trolleys with cameras to develop indoor mapping aides.
Bruce, the pedestrian traffic expert, believes skyways have been crucial for downtown, keeping the retail community connected. During the winter months, almost all downtown foot traffic is upstairs.
“It’s fun to have a lot of people walking around you,” Bruce said. “It might be crowded in the skyway, but you get buzz like you would in Chicago or something walking on a busy street.”