These are the best and worst of times for downtown Minneapolis — best because of a surge in residential and hotel construction, and the opening of a stunning new park and stadium; worst because of a continuing slide in retail shopping and a gnawing realization that skyways, for all their advantages, are making it harder for the city to reach its full potential.
Eric Dayton, the entrepreneur who co-owns a popular North Loop restaurant, bar and clothing store, spiced up the skyway debate this month by launching the “Skyway Avoidance Society.” The clever campaign aims to raise awareness among the quarter million people who live, work and regularly visit downtown that sticking to the second level sucks energy and vitality off the street, leaving sidewalks barren and storefronts empty. “People have to realize that skyways impose a price,” Dayton said.
He’s right, of course, although the wintertime comfort that skyways provide is a price that most people seem willing to pay no matter the consequences down below. Truth is that skyways — now a nine-mile labyrinth of indoor bridges — saved downtown from near extinction in the 1960s as business fled to the suburbs. They created a climate-controlled “mall” of stores and offices that mimicked the successful suburban style.
When that style began losing favor in the 1990s, many cities and towns across the country revived their downtowns with leafy streetscapes that attracted a smaller, more creative scale of shops, cafes and housing choices attractive to new generations of workers.
Except for the housing portion of that trend, Minneapolis’ downtown core has pretty much been left behind. Building owners are reluctant to resize their street-level real estate to match the new market as long as pedestrians prefer skyways. Likewise, the city is unwilling to invest in streetscapes that few people use.
There’s a social aspect, too. With pedestrians pushed to the second level, sidewalks are disproportionally left to drifters and panhandlers who further discourage commerce down below. It’s a common perception among visitors that the city is unsafe, according to recent research commissioned by Meet Minneapolis, the city’s tourism bureau.
The notion of a downside to the much beloved skyway system isn’t new. Six years ago, in their Downtown 2020 Plan, business leaders acknowledged the need for clear, easy-to-navigate vertical connections between sidewalks and skyways as a way to unify the pedestrian system and mitigate the problem. Unfortunately, building owners rejected vertical connections proposed in the design for the new Nicollet Mall, now under construction.
Those same private owners, many of them absentee, are also impeding preparations for the 2018 Super Bowl. The city needs their cooperation to install a clear, consistent system of signs and tech-friendly navigation to make the skyway system less mysterious to visitors.
Skyways are not going away any time soon. They’re popular with the public and a signature for the city. They are important to the value of office towers and other downtown structures. But closer public/private collaboration is urgently needed to unify the bilevel pedestrian system, beautify the outdoor pedestrian atmosphere, and understand that skyways make it harder and more costly for the downtown core to appeal to new generations of workers and shoppers.