Shopping Inside Is Out

For centuries, commerce and fresh air went together. They’re starting to again.
February 2017
The skywalk in Minneapolis (Flickr/Sharon Mollerus)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

If you’ve ever been a stranger in downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul, there’s a good chance you’ve done the same thing I’ve done: wandered into the maze of glass-enclosed second-floor skywalks that crisscross the city center, then found it impossible to work your way out again. It’s a unique form of urban panic. You worry about getting locked in for the night -- then manage to escape only through the Minnesota kindness of a local who leads you to the street by a virtually unmarked exit.

In a situation like that, you may also have had the thought that I’ve had: Why would any city, especially one in the midst of an urban revival, want to trap its residents in nine miles of faded and monotonous corridors rather than encouraging them to create a vibrant street life down below? There’s one simple answer, of course: It gets cold in Minnesota in the wintertime. That’s why the skyways were built in the first place.

But it isn’t a very good answer. People in Minnesota are used to the cold; if they couldn’t take it, they wouldn’t live there. Besides, winter clothing is a lot more efficient now than it was a half-century ago. If you’re dressed right, you can be comfortable on most days even when the temperature is in the single digits.

I was interested to learn recently that there are genuine Minnesotans who agree with me. They have created an organization called the Skyway Avoidance Society, which asks citizens to sign a simple pledge promising “to avoid using the skyway system at all times and in all conditions.” The society’s motto is explora foris --  Latin for “explore outside.” Its ringleader is Eric Dayton, owner of a ground-level apparel store in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. He offers a 10 percent discount to anyone who signs the pledge. (Dayton is the son of Minnesota’s governor. Whether that helps or hurts his cause, I don’t know.)

Dayton’s crusade may be a little gimmicky, but he is plugging into a debate that has been gaining traction for a good while now. In 2011, a committee of local planners in Minneapolis released a report declaring that the glass-enclosed corridors were an anachronism that “pulls the life and energy off the street, leaving sidewalks barren and storefronts empty.”

None of this is to suggest that the skyways are going to disappear anytime soon. Thousands of people have grown used to them over the past 50 years and aren’t eager for drastic change. What it does suggest is that a reassessment of the values of indoor and outdoor life is taking place in cities around the country, even in Frost Belt cities where you might not expect it.

About the time that the Skyway Avoidance Society started attracting attention in Minneapolis, owners of the Grand Avenue Mall in Milwaukee were pondering what to do with a property that was seen 35 years ago as the savior of downtown but has turned out to be a major civic embarrassment.

When it opened in 1982, Grand Avenue Mall boasted major department stores, 80 specialty shops and an enormous food court in a building that covered 367,000 square feet of retail space over three blocks of downtown land. From the beginning, however, sales in many of the stores were disappointing. The retail mix and clientele gradually slid downscale, and by the first decade of the new century quite a few of the spaces were empty. The developers who bought Grand Avenue in 2015 for the fire-sale price of $24 million candidly admitted that they did it mainly to acquire the parking garage.

There are plenty of conventional explanations for the plight of Grand Avenue Mall. The project’s opening coincided with a substantial exodus of shoppers to the suburbs, and the recession of 2008-2009 spoiled an ambitious and costly effort to modernize and re-brand the enterprise. But many Milwaukeeans bring up a different problem: Grand Avenue Mall was and is an indoor edifice. It turned its back on the street and sidewalk where an increasing number of city residents were interested in spending their time. Commerce with an outdoor connection began to do well in many neighborhoods of Milwaukee in this decade; Grand Avenue Mall wasn’t in a position to benefit from that.

This was hardly unusual for a downtown mall built in the 1980s. Many cities modeled their projects in those years after two successful “festival malls” of the previous decade, Boston’s Quincy Market and Baltimore’s Harborplace. Those two, the last time I looked, were still doing well. But they provided something that most of their successors didn’t: a textured indoor-outdoor experience. Visitors to Quincy Market strolled in and out of a legendary 18th-century building. Those in Baltimore explored a working dock and the boats parked there.

Not every city has the natural advantages that Boston and Baltimore have. But very few of them even tried to grasp the lessons that were there to be learned. Instead, they built big square boxes with all the action inside and, in many instances, blank walls facing the street. Nearly all of them opened with great fanfare and rosy predictions of a downtown commercial renaissance. Some of them have managed to stay afloat. Others have found office tenants to take over the retail spaces. The least fortunate ones are half empty or, in some cases, closed altogether.

These disappointments occurred in the context of a much more familiar event in modern commercial life -- the gradual decline of the garden-variety enclosed mall. Roughly 1,100 of these malls are still in business, but the number shrinks every year and virtually no new ones have been built anywhere in the country in the last decade. There are numerous explanations for this phenomenon, led by the last recession, the growth of online retailing and the fact that there were just too many malls built for all of them to succeed. But another reason is equally important: People have stopped going to enclosed malls because they would rather shop outside.

The evidence for this proposition is the health of “lifestyle centers,” the outdoor projects that generally seek to recreate elements of a traditional Main Street shopping experience. There are now nearly 500 of these centers in the United States, many of them on the sites of former enclosed malls that have either been retooled or gutted and replaced in an effort to cater to the sensibilities of the next generation of customers. In Arlington, Va., a few blocks from where I live, the long-ailing Ballston Common enclosed mall will be replaced next year by Ballston Quarter, a facility built around an open-air plaza where, the developer says, “people will want to come together to create a life as unexpected, singular and true as they are.” The salesmanship is over the top, but the project is consistent with what is going on in virtually every major market in the country.

So people want to do business outside. But why? And why now?

A better question might be, why not? Commerce has been largely an outdoor activity for most of the past thousand years of Western history, from the fairs of medieval Europe to the boulevards of 19th-century Paris to the main streets of every town of every size in the United States. Throughout all this history, streets and plazas were seen as much more than thoroughfares to travel through. They were open-air gathering spots not only for the transaction of business but also for the cultivation of sociability and the quotidian enjoyment of ordinary life.

There were plenty of positive reasons to be outside; there were negative ones as well. In most neighborhoods of most cities, home interiors were dingy, crowded, stiflingly hot in the summer and cold in the winter. When you look at a photograph of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1890s, it’s important to realize that the overcrowded street was the habitation of choice because the inside was barely livable -- a place fit for eating and sleeping and not much else.

By the mid-20th century in most cities, interiors had graduated to decency. Soon they were enhanced by television and air conditioning, powerful inducements to spend leisure hours sitting inside rather than strolling down sidewalks. Even more important was the drive-up commerce that cars made possible. Shopping came to be conducted with no more time spent outside than it took to get from home to parking lot to store and back.

This is how many of us have been living for as long as we can remember. But we need to look at it as a departure from historical custom.

A generation is emerging that has decided enclosed mall corridors are boring and busy streets and plazas are enticing. Why exactly millennials have made this judgment is an intriguing question. Perhaps they are reacting not just to suburban shopping but also to the indignities of the auto-dominated life in general. Maybe a generation affixed to mobile phones and social media is struggling to regain some of the everyday human contact that technology has cost them.

I don’t pretend to know. What I do know is that the return to outdoor life has already taken down some big ugly commercial buildings that were supposed to last many more decades. In time, it may even take down the skyways of Minnesota.