The Skyways Aren't Going Anywhere. How Can We Make Them Better?

The Skyways Aren't Going Anywhere. How Can We Make Them Better?

I...I struggle to feel super strongly about the Minneapolis skyway system. Which is weird! Everyone I know and their sister has searing hot takes about skyways, especially if you don't live or work downtown and are only there for a Twins game a few times a year and you live in South Minneapolis and do your grocery shopping by driving to a Costco in the suburbs. Thanks for coming to the Twins games.

But you might be surprised to learn that most people are completely unfamiliar with this conversation. For those who are wondering what all the hubbub is about, there are a lot of issues with skyways. An incomplete list:

  • They suck life off of the streets and make the place feel like a moonbase
  • They're difficult for new or infrequent users to navigate
  • They encourage or require restaurants and shops to close after office workers leave
  • They put your whole cityscape in a weird, privatized mall space

We're Not Alone

Minneapolis isn't the only city that has skyways, or something like them. Cold Canadian cities tend to. Calgary, up in Alberta, has them, and according to Google Streetview and also my friend who was there last month, Calgary feels a lot like Minneapolis. Toronto has a giant tunnel system, Montreal has tunnels, etc. Northern European cities do not, though latitude can be deceiving, and average winters in Minneapolis are considerably colder than winters in Stockholm and Oslo due to the North Atlantic oscillation.

Tunnels in Montreal in January 2016

Tunnels in Montreal in January 2016

For now, it does get pretty cold in Minneapolis in the winter. I've worked downtown and lived in Loring Park for about six years now, and I've gotten some use out of the skyways, mostly over the lunch hour and in walking to Nicollet or Hennepin to catch a bus when it's raining. I, personally, am probably less bothered by the cold than by rain, but I'm weird and like a nice cold gust if I'm in most moods. Often, the walk outside is faster if you're going more than a few blocks, so that's a good reason to do it.

They're There

One thing that's important to recognize, and it's a doozy, is that the skyways are...there? They are not going anywhere. Which is a boring comment, yes, I know the point is that they should/should not be there so of course we should talk about it, but...they are not going anywhere.

Unlike in St. Paul, where the City owns 'em, in Minneapolis they're controlled by different property owners who are risk-averse and not likely to volunteer to own the first building not on the system. Billions of dollars worth of downtown real estate are configured with a second story mall, and the private sector is not going to undertake that retrofit in the foreseeable future, and it would be a pretty silly thing to throw public money at, all things considered.

And in any case, this conversation isn't really about anyone reading this, it's about the many tens of thousands of downtown workers who commute by car or bus from the suburbs or other parts of Minneapolis, and fill office towers that provide a significant chunk of the city's property tax revenue. Anecdotally, those people seem to appreciate the skyways. Has anyone done a survey of office workers? Not sure. Pretty confident that the vast majority of downtown workers consider the skyways to be an important amenity. Of course the vast majority of the metropolitan labor force, if polled, would fill in the Grand Canyon to expand the Grand Canyon parking lot, so grain of salt and all.

People are already think they are paying a lot for parking, and walking multiple (!) blocks to their offices, which I can laugh at, but these are big hurdles for...the vast majority of that metropolitan labor force. Right now we are still maybe in a blip where a lot of (younger) people are okay with paying a time/money premium to work downtown because no one has figured out that food trucks are overrated, but that pendulum swings around all the time, and it's already starting to swing back towards suburban office parks, I think, as gas has gotten cheaper. So the overall equation is a little more complicated than "everyone just likes cities by default now, tough shit, Eagan."

Anyway, I don't want any of that to be the case, and "most people disagree with you [that the skyways should be torn down]" is a lazy argument, but it clearly is the case and should be acknowledged.

Making the Skyways Better

But yeah, the skyways are not great for the streets. So what are some things that we could do to make it better? We've already got some stuff on the books. Last year Minneapolis put some new skyway development standards into place that will apply to new buildings:

  • New skyways are limited to the downtown zoning districts, or hospital/college/university campuses
  • Street-level entrances to buildings with a skyway require exterior signage noting the location of the skyway entrance
  • Elevators, stairs, and escalators linking the street and skyway level have to be clearly identified with directional signage, and the linkages have to be conveniently located
  • There's some bird safety stuff in there that we have to care about now because everyone pretended to with the Vikings stadium
  • There's a baseline set of operating hours, Monday through Friday, 6:30 AM to 10:00 PM, Saturday, 9:30 AM to 8:00 PM, and Sunday, from 12:00 PM to 6:00 PM

And to be clear, this only applies to new buildings built with skyways. We can't retroactively force people to maintain certain operating hours or put up signage.

No More New Skyways?

Well, we certainly have the ability to ban new skyways outright. This currently is not being talked about seriously; there is in fact a skyway incentive on the books where a new building is allowed a higher floor area ratio (density) by right if there is a new skyway connection included. That might not be super significant in the context of downtown office or residential towers, but it's there.

But we could adopt a policy or staff direction saying, basically, we're not issuing encroachment permits for new skyways anymore. Right now, skyways that go over the public right of way (city streets) require approval from Public Works. So we could just stop granting that approval--but a lot of existing policy would need to change too. It's not impossible, but my sense of things is that there would be significant push back, especially outside of the Twitter-users-who-were-in-Hamburg-last-fall demographic. I would support it, but like the guy who just got back from Hamburg, I'm a nightmare.

It might be easier to pull it off in specific areas, e.g. no new skyways outside of the real core downtown area, maybe like so:

Some of our newest skyways are well east of this area, connecting to the new Vikings stadium through the Wells Fargo office towers that were built in Downtown East. Which brings me to the next idea...

Limiting Second Floor Retail

One good potential compromise would be allowing skyways, or allowing them in certain areas, but then prohibiting second floor retail in new buildings. This would address most concerns people have, I think. The issue isn't as much...people walking around, exactly (though that is a big part) as much as it is the life--the storefronts, the restaurant seating, the doorways and windows.

In the new Wells Fargo office towers in Downtown East, you've got a ground level restaurant with a silly name, and that's it. On the skyway level, there's a bank, there's a coffee/bagel place, a sandwich/salad place, a convenience store, maybe something else I'm forgetting. It would look and feel a lot better walking around the area if those things were on the ground floor. You would deal with that moonbase feeling.

People walking around will be drawn to that street life if it seems nice. Then you can leave the skyways up for walking back to your car at 5:30 PM on January 3rd, or whatever. There is a general and correct criticism about skyways: that it is kind of bananas to set up our entire downtown for the five worst weather days of the year.

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Things are steadily getting better for pedestrians downtown--there are bumpouts going in on 9th Street, the plans for the 8th Street reconstruction are really good, and I'm optimistic about the upcoming 4th Street and Hennepin Avenue (!) rebuilds. Many, many parking lots have been filled in with new buildings with active uses, and the Nicollet Mall reconstruction is inching towards completion. It would be nice if there were people around to enjoy it!

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