Minneapolis officials want to reduce bird fatalities near downtown skyways by requiring the pedestrian walkways to be built using bird-safe design methods.

The proposal to rework building standards for upcoming or newly renovated skyways aims to help the birds migrate more seamlessly through the area and avoid deadly collisions.

“Skyways pose a larger threat than people would imagine,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon, who’s pushing for the change.

But with new guidelines like requiring special glass or lighting, for instance, the move could drive up costs for area developers and change the aesthetic feel of the city’s 8-mile skyway system. The glassy and airy feel of many of the walkways is also their most lethal attribute for area birds.

“On face value, it looks like a good principle, but we have to look at all of the details,” said Jacob Frey, who represents the downtown area on the council.

City officials are seizing momentum from what became a hotly contested discussion earlier this year between the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) and bird advocates who insisted the new Vikings stadium needed special fritted glass.

The Minneapolis City Council supported the request. But MSFA officials said they wouldn’t fulfill the advocates’ demand, saying it would ruin the airy feel of the stadium and add upward of $60 million to the $1.06 billion project.

Now bird advocates are moving to different terrain.

City Council Member Linea Palmisano said an extended area of glass like the skyway system can appear as a safe corridor for birds to fly through, and the system’s 50-foot height puts it at the same level of many birds’ migration patterns.

According to data used by Minnesota’s Audubon Society, nearly 45 percent of all bird collisions occur at buildings’ first, second or third stories, which is the typical height of skyways.

Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and Downtown Improvement District, said the committee is well aware of how skyways threaten birds’ safety, and it is looking to weigh the proposal’s costs and benefits with city leaders and developers.

“We know that these window collisions are a big problem,” he said.

The Downtown Skyway Advisory Committee would be a strong force in deciding how the change would take effect if it garnered enough support from city officials.

A new trend

Cities elsewhere, like Portland and Chicago, are leading the bird-friendly design trend by pushing methods ranging from dimming lights, using fritted glass and strategically placing plants around buildings to signal birds away.

The San Francisco’s city planning department oversaw a study that found by using the special fritted glass to make the interior of a structure less visible increased the projects’ cost by less than 1 percent.

Designers say when they consider bird-safe construction methods in the early phases of project planning, they notice less of a financial impact, said AnMarie Rodgers, senior policy adviser for San Francisco’s planning department.

And as the city’s market changes and this becomes a more popular building strategy, she said, costs for using bird-friendly materials will likely go down.

Because City Council members haven’t decided what specific requirements they want to push forward, it is not yet clear how the change would impact the budgets for Minneapolis developers. Officials plan to include their perspectives in coming weeks as they formally take up the issue and gauge its support.

City staff members will start researching different design methods and evaluate their costs if the bird advocates garner enough support for the change and the proposal moves through the approval process.

“Birds bring a kind of aesthetic benefit, but also, they’re part of our ecosystem,” Gordon said. “Residents and the people in Minneapolis wouldn’t want us to be sponsoring practices that dramatically hurt the bird population.”

 

Jessica Lee is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.