Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
Downtown Minneapolis is marked by an ant-farm of skyways. Are they a boon or a bust?
There's something odd about Camille's Sidewalk Café at 150 S. 5th Street in Minneapolis: It isn't anywhere near the sidewalk.
Instead, Camille's is on the second floor of an office building. Camille's has plenty of company. On the second floor of buildings throughout downtown Minneapolis there are coffee shops, restaurants and all manner of businesses. These establishments are linked by a network of second-floor glass tunnels: Minneapolis' famous skyways.
Almost since the first one opened in 1962, the skyways have been an iconic part of downtown Minneapolis. Minneapolis' skyway network is the largest in the world, allowing pedestrians to traverse an eight-block by ten-block area without ever stepping outside. And, to a sizeable number of Minneapolis urbanists, that's a problem.
One critic of the skyways is Steve Berg, a longtime reporter for the Star Tribune, who now writes for the Web site MinnPost.com. Minneapolis, Berg says, "has difficulty becoming a 24-hour city because of the skyways."
Berg's point is that the skyways have stunted the development of street-level businesses in Minneapolis. And, he argues, the city's hamster maze of second floor tunnels isn't a substitute for vibrant street life. The skyways bustle at lunchtime, but, after the commuters leave, the second floors of office buildings aren't exactly conducive to a night on the town. Many skyway businesses close for the day in the early afternoon.
It's an open question, though, whether Minneapolis would really be better off had the skyways never been built. Most likely, criticism of the heated tunnels was muted this January when, during a cold snap, high temperatures stayed below zero degrees Fahrenheit for a few days in a row. Even under normal conditions average high temperatures in January are in the low twenties, with lows in the single digits.
Jim McComb, a veteran Minneapolis retail consultant, has studied the skyways. His take is that by giving workers a warm place to shop, they're a net benefit to the city. McComb thinks critics of the skyways have made them into scapegoats for the challenges downtown Minneapolis faces. "What the skyways have done is probably doubled the amount of successful retail activity you can have downtown," he says. "There's a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about skyways, primarily from people who weren't around when we didn't have any."
What's clear is that something needs to change in downtown Minneapolis. For years, the city has been losing out on retail to suburbia, especially the mammoth Mall of America. The discussion going on in Minneapolis, however, isn't whether or not to get rid of the skyways. As the home to so many businesses, they're here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. The real debate is over how, given the presence of the skyways, the city can get people and businesses onto the streets. It's in this context that Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is proposing streetcars and others steps that he hopes will make downtown more vibrant.
Berg frames the dilemma like this: "You have a downtown that's actually a suburban office park. How do you transform that into a 24-hour city, where people don't just work for eight hours and go home, but where people live, work, shop and walk? How do you make it into a place where people go out and be in the community?" Those questions, he acknowledges, don't have easy answers.