Once the pride of Minneapolis, the city's 8 miles of skyways have become a villain in the vision for downtown's future.

Prominent downtown boosters say the network of elevated walkways is sucking life from the sidewalks. Modern cities put a premium on a vibrant street scene, but business leaders noted in a recent 15-year plan for downtown that the skyways are "leaving sidewalks barren and storefronts empty."

"I don't think we need any more skyways," Mayor R.T. Rybak said. "I don't think that they help at all."

Improving the massive system -- the longest in the United States and largely privately owned -- has proved vexing for City Hall. But nearly everyone who watches them closely agrees that pedestrians need simpler connections between the skyway and the street.

"It's way too mysterious," said Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Design. "And you shouldn't have to go into like hotel or bank lobbies. It should be easier."

Skyways have recast the Minneapolis cityscape in ways that were likely unimaginable when the first one opened in 1962. The imposing metal structures now loom around nearly every corner of the downtown, forming an elevated maze that snakes through hotels, corporate offices, department stores, even the county jail. The beehive comes alive in the early morning hours as downtown offices start the day. There are sometimes peculiar scenes, like workers walking through the men's section of Macy's to get to their offices, passing rows of slacks and sweaters roped off until the store opens.

Once a savior

Visitors looking for downtown bustle often won't find it on the street. With a good map or some friendly advice, they can join the hordes moving around Minneapolis without setting foot outside.

They may also find people like Gene and Patricia Poppler, who left their 4-acre plot in Hastings for the year-round comfort of a skyway-connected apartment. They take the skyways to their favorite restaurants, the downtown YMCA and the theaters on Hennepin Avenue. If a spot isn't connected to the skyway, they probably aren't going there.

"It makes our lives a lot easier," Patricia Poppler said.

The mayor and others acknowledge that skyways helped save downtown, when its future was threatened by the growth of suburban malls and office parks. On frigid days, workers can shop and eat out instead of being trapped in their office cafeteria.

Nevertheless, Rybak "would not support the development of any new skyways in the city."

Yet he knows he can't stop them altogether. A $3 million skyway opened last month connecting Accenture Tower with the Ameriprise building. Another is planned for an apartment building on Nicollet Mall.

Building owners can charge higher rents for skyway-connected properties. The city also has skyway incentives in its zoning code. The city tries to keep standard hours for skyways, but it's hard to enforce and some buildings shut off their skyways unexpectedly.

The larger problem is connecting them to the streets in more obvious ways. Visitors sometimes glance up from the sidewalk to the busy skyway and wonder how they can get into it. City plans have called for improving ground-to-skyway access since the 1980s. The 15-year vision for downtown unveiled last month showed glass elevators lifting pedestrians from the sidewalk.

It's no simple task, however.

"How do you build and maintain that and who monitors it? And it becomes a security situation," City Council Member Lisa Goodman said. "So there's been a lot of resistance to building staircases from the skyways to the sidewalk."

Transitions matter

Rybak appealed to developers of an apartment building on 5th Street and Nicollet to build a skyway with visible connections to the street. The building will feature a two-level lobby that accomplishes the link.

Urban planners and architects hail buildings with more seamless transitions as the future of skyways -- exemplified by the downtown Target store and the IDS Center's Crystal Court. "There are ways to elevate buildings to have the landscape flow into them," said Vincent James, a Minneapolis architect co-authoring a book about skyways around the world. "To shift from one grade to another without the perception that you're just going from one deck to another."

Yet getting people out of the skyways sounds like a hard sell. Lined with tiny eateries and candy shops, they are micro-business incubators, in the view of Council Member Gary Schiff. He favors expanding the system.

In private hands

Changes to the private skyways would depend on the cooperation of their owners. Some in City Hall are considering requiring property owners to observe standard operating hours or create better access as a condition of building a new skyway, but they have little leverage over what's already in place.

Kevin Lewis, executive director of the Greater Minneapolis Building Owners & Managers Association, said changes to existing buildings or mandates on new ones will come at a significant cost to building owners.

Sam Grabarski, president of the Downtown Council, suggests discouraging retail in segments of the skyways, so more of them become strictly thoroughfares to get to stores and restaurants on the street.

One local consultant proposed a radical and likely unpopular solution on his blog -- tear down the skyways. In Sam Newberg's view, visitors see the tunnels in the sky as more of an oddity than a necessity. "We want people to come to town to see the Mill City Museum and the Guthrie," Newberg said. "It's kind of embarrassing that they're coming to see something that's a curiosity."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper