|[The two "skyways to nowhere." File photo.]|
To my eye, the twin amputated skyways symbolized the structural autonomy of the skyway systems themselves. They were the material incarnation of architectural agency, the way that our buildings shape us through time. “No matter how long it takes,” they seemed to say, “we will hang out here until a timely erection.”
But that was years ago, and things change, even things as bound by inertia as downtown Saint Paul…
A little over a year ago, and to little fanfare, the mothballed Minneapolis skyway to nowhere was finally re-attached to a building. After over a decade of abandonment, a new mixed-use residential tower ("the Nic on 5th”) rose up on the parking lot next to the Nicollet Mall light rail station. The skyway was “full” again of “life,” as dozens of people walked its carpeted hall during business hours staring at their phones.
And just last week, change came to Saint Paul. The team remodeling the Saint Paul Macy’s white elephant building announced they would remove the skyway to nowhere as part of the remodeling project for the building. The vacant lot still sits there on the other side, but the facade work on the Gruen-designed modernist parking-lot box means that, instead of waiting for a future building, the designers are opting to just forget about the skyway and focus their attention on the street below.
|[Two Skyways Diverged in an Empty Downtown, and I Took the One Less Traveled By… (which is really hard to do because these things are really empty,
Expansion vs. Contraction
|[One of my favorite Minneapolis skwyays, on the Eastern periphery.]|
Unofficially, downtown Saint Paul is done building new skyways. (Officially, there was almost a sentence in the last downtown plan stating as much, but at the last minute the plan was changed to say that skyways would be strongly discouraged.) There have been occasional debates I’ve encountered over the years where people suggest a new skyway-attached building outside of the downtown core. For example, there’s a potential debate about the “Gateway” site, the large vacant lot at Kellogg and West 7th, next to the Xcel Center. The city’s aspirational 2014 downtown plan (“Saint Paul: City on the Move!”... yes it actually says this) depicted the potential hotel there as being connected by skyway to the arena and the parking lot behind it.
|[Call for skyways (CFS) from a 2014 plan by a downtown Saint Paul task force.]|
This would be a big change for an area which is so far skyway-free, and I for one would be against it. I’ve spoken a few people in the West 7th neighborhood group who are also strongly opposed to skyways, making the case that they would strongly impact views and a sense of place along this important street. More importantly, a skyway would run counter to the goals of downtown of increasing street life, which the city has been working on for a while. And even more importantly, a skyway here is not necessary. Ingress and egress at the Xcel Center works just fine as it is, and if any group should know how to dress for a five-block walk to and from their car, it’s hockey fans.
(Instead, a hotel project like the one depicted in the rendering is under construction a block away at the old 7 Corners Hardware site, and it’s blissfully free of sun-blotting skyways.)
Plans for the Gateway site are currently in the works, likely mixed-use residential or office space and, if they’re smart, Saint Paul policymakers will take skyways off the table from the very beginning. It’s not a coincidence that none of the new building projects downtown — CHS Field, the Custom House, the Penfield — are skyway connected. The past and future charm of Saint Paul depend on the old pre-skyway architecture.
|[New skyway in Minneapolis.]|
|[From a 2014 downtown Minneapolis plan, by the Downtown Council.]|
The skyway link: exception and the rule
|[Saint Paul's central station skyway tower.]|
Back in the 1980s, and again two years ago, downtown Minneapolis leaders brought in famous architects and urban designers to try and square the skyway circle and “re-think” Nicollet Mall. As I wrote in Minnpost, during both remodeling processes, consultants recommended a high-profile easy-to-navigate link between the skyways and the street. And both times, downtown decision makers nixed the idea.
The problem for building owners was simple. A straightforward connection would run counter to the ugly truth behind the skyway system: skyways are explicitly designed to be private space used by
(Of course, this is all my personal analysis of the situation. Officially, nobody admits that skyways deliberately befuddle.)
|[Two failed visions for connecting the skyways to the street in downtown Minneapolis.]|
|[A bathroom not open to the public in downtown Minneapolis.]|
(Side note: according to one study I read, for decades, many police incidents in the Minneapolis skyways have gone unreported, handled by private security to avoid headlines and the potential destabilization of property values that come with them.)
Either way, however, the impossibly blurry lines that skyways create make them very difficult to control or effectively police. And even if skyways are “successful” at achieving their modest nine-to-five goals, their existence leaves the downtown sidewalks out in the cold, greatly reducing the potential for either downtown to have thriving ground-level businesses and diverse, self-regulating street life.
A Bold Prediction about Downtown
|[Updated rendering from the 2014 downtown Saint Paul vision document.]|
But barring a massive increase in density, there’s no reconciling the skyways with thriving street life. In its most recent visioning document, the Minneapolis Downtown Council says a lot of nice things about sidewalks. They write that they want to “deliver a consistently excellent pedestrian experience that inspires people to explore Downtown block after block, no matter the season or time of day—24/7/365” and to “embrace density to build the kind of critical mass required to sustain a successful urban core.”
|[Lady gazing wistfully at the Nicollet Mall sidewalk.]|
Yet architecture tells a different story. The large new downtown park is nice, but half the people that might use it will simply look down from a distant window like gerbils. As long as skyways suck up street life, the park, like much of downtown’s plazas and “green spaces”, will remain symbolic, used ten times a year on warmer Sundays. The thriving parts of downtown Minneapolis have been and will continue to be outside the skyway system — the North Loop, Warehouse District, and Guthrie riverfront — and the sidewalks in the core, including Nicollet Mall many hours of the day, will remain largely lifeless.
|[Saint Paul's skyway to nowhere, not long for this world.]|
And so we wait for the downtown renaissance. As they remove the skyway to nowhere over Wabasha, one of Saint Paul’s best downtown streets despite the parking lots, it’ll be nice to get a little more sunlight on the sidewalk.