4.27.2017

The Minneapolis Skyway, is it Killing Downtown?


Many people avoid downtown Minneapolis, it's congested, parking is a challenge, and Minnesota weather is - well - often not ideal. For the occasional visitor, it can be frustrating, however the people who work here on a daily basis learn to adapt.

The buildings downtown are connected by a sprawling network of enclosed bridges called the Minneapolis Skyway, which makes it possible to get most places without ever having to go outside.

The Skyway was built at a time when shopping malls were in their heyday.
At that time, shoppers were leaving downtown and taking their business to the suburbs. It was believed that the Skyway could revitalize the district. Turn downtown into something like a giant mall, they said, and customers will come back.

Lately however, a series of retail giants like Macy's, and Sacs 5th Avenue, have closed, leaving huge voids in the network, and causing people to wonder what could possibly fill the empty space. Trends like this have caused many to question the value of the skyways. Eric Dayton, whose family made its fortune from the famous department store of that name even started a group, with his brother and business parther, called "The Skyway Avoidance Society" and ran a campaign on Nicollet Mall asking people to take a pledge, to walk outside regardless of the weather. Minnesota is a Northern culture. We should embrace the cold, he says. When Macy's closed in March 2017, it was suggested that the Dayton family should buy the building, to save it. Eric Dayton responded to the challenge by saying, "tear down the Skyway, and I will". That's how strongly he feels (A Farewell to Skyways: The Case for Bringing them Down).


Eric argues that the skyways have emptied the streets, depriving Minneapolis of a vibrant social life, causing retail to die, and crime to increase. His views echo a report commissioned by the Minneapolis Downtown Council in 2007, which argued that the way to revitalize the downtown is to get people out of the skyways and onto the street. To me, this idea sounds a lot like Jane Jacobs' book "Death and Life of Great American Cities." but how much is it actually based on the experience of downtown Minneapolis itself?

Downtown is actually a very busy place. If the evidence of your eyes isn't enough to convince you of this, the revenue from the parking industry should give you a pretty clear picture. Economic life downtown sustains several large parking ramps, and numerous paid parking lots. Parking is so much in demand downtown that the city pulls in extra revenue from parking meters that cover every inch of space along every city block. And if you are trying to park downtown you probably know, those spots are usually full.

Sure foot traffic on the streets is lighter here than in other major cities. But that's only in appearance, the people haven't gone away. But the streets are less crowded because half of the pedestrians are one level up. The bifurcated traffic actually eases congestion because people have more options. Not only do these options reduce congestion, they help to mitigate deterrents that make moving around downtown in Minneapolis a pain, like the weather. I honestly don't think I would leave the building where I work - to get my haircut, run to the bookstore, buy lunch, or go for a walk and explore downtown - if the Skyway wasn't an option. I'd end up doing it after work or on the weekend - and someplace more convenient than downtown.

New York has the Subway, Chicago has its "L" Train - Minneapolis has the Skyway. Rather than thinking of how the Skyway limits the amount of foot traffic on the street, we should be looking at how the skyway increases the foot traffic downtown overall, and sustains the cities business and social life during bad weather.


It's not that Jane Jacobs is wrong, the problem is Eric and other's use of her theory - if that is, in fact, what's behind their beliefs. Jacobs' examples were describing cities whose structures were designed to deter connectivity. Far from discouraging a vibrant downtown, The Skyway actually encourages it by giving people more options and removing obstacles that make exploring what the city has to offer difficult. What Dayton doesn't realize is that more connectivity is good. The easier it is to get around, the more likely it is that people will do so. It would be different if the Skyways were unused and deteriorating, but Dayton actually had to try and convince people to abandon the Skyway, and he had to go into the Skyway to do it.  Think about that,















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