Happy 50th Birthday to the Minneapolis Skyway System!

[Happy birthday!]
Fifty years ago yesterday, the Minneapolis’ skyway system was born. It was August 26th 1962, and over the streets of downtown Minneapolis a ribbon was snipped by a small group of people in an unadorned glass and steel structure bridging Marquette Avenue. That skyway no longer exists, but like an Octomom hydra, dozens more have taken its place, and today the skyways are one of Minneapolis' more unique features.
Most people you'll talk with would say that skyways in Minneapolis make common sense. Hardly anyone gives them a second glance, and they’re taken for granted, blending into the background of our everyday lives. But actually the half-century of the Minneapolis skyway system is an extremely rare occurrence. Of all the similar downtown systems in all of North America, it’s almost the only one that has been anything like successful.

Today Minneapolis is one of increasingly few cities that still touts skyways as a good urban idea. (Caveat: I’m not one of them. I’d gladly see them amputated, shipped out of town, and turned into Brad Pitt-designed FEMA trailers.) So, on the 50th anniversary of their birth, I suppose we could pause for a moment and to celebrate, to recognize the life of our city’s stratifying “gerbil chute” isolation.

Happy birthday, Minneapolis Skyway System! Let’s wander through all the unmarked, confusing, and climate-controlled twists and turns of your half-century of “progress.”

Meet the Parents: The Strange Genesis of Minneapolis Sky Bridges

To really wrap your fingers around the birth of the skyway system, you have to understand the history of American downtowns. As Robert Fogelson’s wonderful book explains, as early as 1915 downtown business and property owners were starting to panic about traffic congestion tied to the rise of the automobile. Back then, the majority of people traveled through the city on streetcars lines that all terminated in the centers of cities. These downtowns all had huge shopping districts with huge department stores and huge sacks of closely guarded retail profits. The conventional wisdom was that the coming of the automobile was going to improve everything, if only city officials could figure out a way to make it travel faster to and from the core.

Even in the '20s large numbers of cars began clogging city streets, honking constantly and getting in the way of streetcars, and even then car drivers protested vociferously if anyone even suggested removing a parking space. Supported by the close-knit construction, oil, and auto lobbies, city officials began to brainstorm ways to increase traffic flow and parking availability. Notable infrastructures that were born in this era included the stoplight, the limited-access freeway, the one-hour parking zone, and the parking meter. The point of all these new technologies was to keep traffic moving as fast as possible through the impossibly congested streets, which had to accommodate not only increasing numbers of space-hogging cars, but clunky streetcars, stinkysweet horse carts, and the kind of pedestrian throngs found today only at the State Fair. It was the kind of thing superlatives were made for.

The idea for skyways came out of this hectic downtown heyday, part of utopian fantasies about multi-level streets. There are lots of great turn-of-the-century illustrations of this dirigible future, and most of them have a healthy dose of bridges in the sky. They even existed back in 1882, as Fogelson explains:
Elevated sidewalks were […] a combined sidewalk and overpass, they were designed to expedite vehicular traffic by removing pedestrians from the streets. Pedestrian 'walks,' bridges that ran over the streets from rooftop to rooftop, were another. although this scheme “is hardly practicable yet,” New York’s Real Estate Record and Builder's Guide wrote in 1882, "it may be worth thinking about seriously a few years from now."
(Fogelson 260)
Drawins sky bridges kicked around the dartboards of city leaders for decades during this period, along with slightly more practical fantasies of subways and freeways and flying cars.

[Flying cars!]

It turned out that all of these ideas were insanely expensive, and anyone who actually tried to build anything quickly discovered the politics of bureaucratic gridlock. At this point, city governments hadn’t figured out how to pay for anything except by hugely unpopular taxes and assessments. It wasn’t until people like Robert Moses began to put together the modern freeway-industrial complex that anything much happened to change downtowns. And by the time the Federal government began footing the bill for big infrastructure projects following World War II, the focus was on freeways, “slum clearance,” and parking lots. (Two must-read accounts of this process are Robert Caro’s riveting biography of Robert Moses, and Dolores Hayden’s highly accessible history of suburbia.)

Meanwhile in post-war Minneapolis, things weren’t going well for downtown business interests. By the time the 1950s had rolled around, an unfortunate series of events had taken place that created a highly romantic atmosphere for the skyway system’s coming conception. The first of these was the exodus of a few of the city’s largest corporations away from the downtown and out to corporate campuses in the suburbs. In 1956, General Mills (practically synonymous with the city’s industry) announced that it would flee downtown in favor of a new office park in Golden Valley. A few years later, agriculture processing giant Cargill leapfrogged them, ejecting themselves all the way to Lake Minnetonka. This was part of a trend all over the country, and it really freaked out anyone who owned property downtown.

[The brand new General Mills headquarters in Golden Valley, 1959.]

[Southdale in Edina, c. 1956.]
Secondly, in that same year (1956 was an important date in Minneapolis history), Dayton’s opened up Southdale, the first indoor automobile-centered mall anywhere in the world. It debuted to pomp and dazzle, and every piece of Edina confetti haunted the sleep of downtown retailers. Faced with the twin exoduses of office space and retail, downtown businessmen hit the big red slum-shaped panic button. There were emergency meetings at the Minneapolis Club, and in 1956 (that same year) The Downtown Council was born. It was a private-controlled politically-involved business association that's still around today. (In fact, it’s still calling many of the shots downtown.)

The first act of the Downtown Council was to tell the city government to form a Planning Department, and to have them hire a planning director whose job would be to figure out how to keep the city’s downtown from kicking the proverbial bucket and retiring to that great Cold Omaha in the sky.

(One final part of this puzzle, the midwife, if you will, was a column that Barbara Flanagan wrote in the Minneapolis paper about navigating through the downtown in wintertime without going outside. I haven’t been able to track down a copy of this column, but it was referred to me by Minneapolis planner Jack Byers, who’s 1998 dissertation on skyways is still the definitive history.)

As ordered, the Planning Department’s first move was to produce a plan for preserving the future of downtown. They published the first draft in 1959, and it’s a comprehensive study of downtown with many chapters. Towards the end of the chapter on transportation, you’ll find the first glimmer of what would become the Minneapolis skyway system.

[Illustrations of the skyways from a 60's era Minneapolis plan.]

Granted, the ‘59 plan has many suggestions about improving transportation and reducing congestion. Many of them are good ideas! For example, there’s a discussion of street furniture, the importance of street trees, and good thoughts about how to improve transit efficiency and experience. But at the very end of the section, the notion of “second-level walks” appears. These were defined as  “any connecting walkway build one or more floors above the ground level.” They were seen to have many advantages over the traditional sidewalks:
[Second level walks] can be built without interfering with vehicular movement, can be easily enclosed and air conditioned […] they could be designed to include sales space and conveniences which would make them function as an integral part of the buildings which they connect. The impression could be given that the structures which are linked together are all a part of one huge whole rather than being separate buildings between which one must travel […] Interesting and dramatic views could be obtained from upper level walks. […] They could increase the variety and interest of street scenes by limiting and framing views […and finally] Some pedestrian traffic would be removed from surface streets thus reducing conflict with vehicular movement and thus reducing congestion.

On the other hand, their main disadvantage was their expense, plus the difficulty of negotiating the complexities of property ownership. But overall, the 1959 plan is sanguine about skyways. Not only would they move faster, they’d lead healthier lives. As the plan states, “persons in the central area will gain a more relaxed attitude which will presumably add to their efficiency and improve their general well-being and attitude toward life. Since there are so many of them, this could have a salutary effect on the whole city.” Second-level walks were the urban equivalent of Prozac.

It was of these fertile circumstances that the skyway was conceived. Into our story enters the father of the skyway system, a downtown property owner named Leslie “Les” Park. According to Kaufman’s Babbit-esque volume on the Minneapolis skyways, Les Park pretty much personified Minneapolis’ protestant ethic WASP elite. He was a devout Methodist who owned a lot of downtown property. (Famously, he claims to have donated all of the liquor profits from his hotels to charity because he believed them impure.) Park had a new downtown office and retail building on the corner of Marquette and 6th Streets, and in the 50s he began pitching the idea of bridging his building with the one on the other side of Marquette. The more that suburbs gained traction, the more people listened to his ideas. And eventually he got agreement from the city and his neighbors, and created his first second-level walk sky bridge. And so, on August 26th 1962, the first skyway was born.


Growing Up, Reaching Out, Touching Hands...

[Les Park.]
Park’s first skyway across Marquette proved to be popular, and the next year he followed it up with another one across 6th Street, bridging the Northstar Center with its neighbor.  (This one is still there, the oldest extant skyway. Go ahead, you can walk across it!)

Elsewhere in the downtown, others followed suit, and office buildings began docking with each other like vintage science fiction. The skyway system kept slowly growing, creeping ever outward until it reached a critical mass and became a bona fide entity when the IDS center joined all the skyways together at the architecturally acclaimed Crystal Court atrium. After that, like Skynet, the skyway system took on a life of its own.

[William H. Whyte touting the IDS center's public space.]

During the 80s building boom, most every new office building was designed to feature the skyway system. They became so commonplace that elaborate complexity began to be seen as a huge problem, so the city began regulating them in the late 80s, attempting to mandate certain hours of operation, wayfinding signage, and rules about public space. Still, they were a maze to anyone who didn’t spend most of their lives in a cubicle. Most Minneapolis downtown plans form this era contain oodles of hair-pulling over how to improve and fix the skyways, particularly around issues of accessibility and legibility. Meanwhile one of the key problems has always been that they depopulate the actual public sidewalks, turning the city into a concrete ghost town that wouldn’t be out of place in a post-Zombie apocalypse.

And so it has gone for fifty years, at least until recently. Most 21st century buildings don’t really connect to the skyway system, opting instead for street-level activity. (The skyway-free downtown library is a good example.) Jean Nouvel’s endless bridge seems to me like a big skyway joke, a giant artistic tongue offering a razzberry to the skyline. Today the skyway-laden office core sits alongside and atop the increasingly popular, populated, skyway-free hot spots like the North Loop, the warehouse district, and the mill district. It’s almost as if there are two downtowns overlaid atop each other, ignoring each other like ex-lovers at a cocktail party.

Midlife Crisis?

[A typical skyway today.]
Typically, when you turn fifty you start glimpsing your obsolescence. You begin longing for your youth in ways that make little practical sense, and doing increasingly stupid things. I suppose that skyways are no exception. (Block E, anyone?)

In the last few years, the steel office bridges have become something of a pariah among urbanists. (For example, see the extensive conversation over at Streets.mn.) And, in fact, they are one of the primary issues of disagreement in urban policy circles. At a recent talk featuring the downtown planners of both Minneapolis and St Paul, skyways were one of the key areas of disagreement. The St Paul planners wanted to phase them out, while the Minneapolis planner whole-heartedly defended them.

Have skyways “saved downtown,” as many business people and politicians suggest? Or as others argue, are they one of the main things casting a dark shadow on a potential downtown renaissance?

My personal criticism of the skyways comes down primarily to two things. First, they segregate the downtown into two grade-separated populations. This has a host of troubling consequences, easily revealed by a glance at the demographics of people on the street and in the skyways. In addition, to the extent that some people walk around on the sidewalk, they’re bad for business. Almost all skyway businesses close promptly at 5:00, because after that point skyways desert themselves like the RNC during a hurricane. Entrepreneurs have to decide whether or not to cater to the daytime office crowd, or the after hours sidewalk people. Either way they choose, it comes at an economic cost. Imagine how many more businesses, shops, and bustling street activity there might be if all the city’s passers-by were on the level? (The Marquette Avenue food trucks, which lure people out of the boring, bland skyways and into the bright savory sunshine of public space, are the perfect illustration of this.) The density and diversity of a downtown sidewalk is pretty much what defines a city, and Minneapolis is missing out.

[The tour getting kicked out of the crystal court.]
Second, despite all appearances, skyways are not public spaces. In conjunction with the Soap Factory art gallery, I recently led forty people around downtown Minneapolis on a tour of the skyways. We circled through the skyway system, and saw the skyway’s highlights: the longest skyway, the oldest skyway, the most beautiful skyways, the skyway to nowhere that dangles out over an empty surface parking lot. It was gloriously mundane.

The only problem was that they began to close. Around 7:00, many parts of the skyway system shut their doors. If you should find yourself leading a group of a few dozen art and urban space lovers through the 4th floor of Gaviidae Common, you will get asked to leave by an epauleted man riding a Segway on the carpet. The IDS crystal court closes to the public each night, and the downtown Macy’s shuts its gates like a Medieval fortress. The skyways are no replacement for the sidewalk. They’re not public space, and this simple fact has let to a great many bad planning decisions. (Block E, anyone? No, seriously, I’ll sell it to you.)

Still, people love to talk about how much they love the skyways. And, at this point, they’re not going anywhere. I suppose every half century or so, I can take a moment to grudglingly offer them my half-hearted appreciation.

So, here’s to you, Minneapolis skyway system. Happy birthday, I guess.

[The first ever baby picture of the Minneapolis skyways, c. 1959. Note the lack of climate control!]


Barbara Lindeke said...

Interesting history of the system, Bill.

njorgenson said...

I appreciate your article, and understand why the idea of skyways can take away from the street scene, but the skyway is a fantastic development and is a complete benefit to Minneapolis.

Do not forget first off that a lot of the cities who have phased out such concepts do not have the winter climate that is unique to Minneapolis.

You argue that 21st century buildings have been built without them citing the library and the Guthrie. The Library is placed outside the reach of the current Skyway, and has plans for a skyway connection once the Nicollet residences and new Xcel energy headquarters are built. And the Guthrie is completely out of the DT core. But has it's own for prop moving convenience.

When you speak of mid-life crisis it only reminds me of urban renewal, and destruction of the gateway district. The buildings were 50-60 years old, and didn't seem to fit the new urban ideal, so let's tear it down right? Now in the full retrospect, 100 - 120 years of the original buildings being built, we are sorely saddened by our mid-life crisis decisions right? (easily insert street cars into this argument) So should we tear down the skyways because we're having a mid-life crises? How about we try learning from the past for once and say no.

The skyways are not preventing a renaissance. Our downtown core has had a TINY population. No one is there after 6 or 7 pm to help fuel skyway level restaurants. But look what is happening on the outskirts of DT. North Loop, Mill City, and Loring Park are starting to sprout cafe's and such left and right. Only when people start living DT (population only 35k) will we see a 24 hour lifestyle happening in the neighborhood where skyways exist.

And people are obviously not hamsters. The food trucks have proven that people will leave the skyway for something on the street. but even the food trucks will only be there 6 months a year, and to serve the business crowd.

And then there is what I think is the biggest benefit of skyways in Minneapolis. And that is our beautiful skyline. Surprisingly dense and compact despite the excess of surface parking lots at ground level. Why? Not because of city planners and zoning, but because of the skyways. Any developer who knows anything knows to build an office building where they can connect to the skyway. This is such a value, that they are willing to develop the more expensive parcels in town before less expensive ones on the edge. This has prevented Minneapolis from turning into a Phoenix, or an Atlanta, or any city that has sprawling stretches of office buildings and unwalkable urban spans.

I'd just ask you to think twice before completely condemning them in your and others minds. They serve exactly the purpose that they were built for. Getting people from building to building with out facing the elements, and traffic of Downtown. If you want better street life your fight is primarily increasing the DT population.

Bill Lindeke said...

Yeah well you know that's just like your opinion man

Matt BK said...

This is a great post, especially for someone like me who isn't from Minneapolis. In Grand Forks, ND we have a few skyways on UND campus, but these are substantially different.

From what I can tell, your issues are mainly with the way skyways are not actually public space at all times. Rather than spending the money to immediately scrap them, couldn't something be done to improve accessibility? Hours of operation, lack of signage/confusing navigation, choices made by vendors--these all seem like issues that could be fixed through negotiation with the skyway owners.

Again, good post, it made me think about a lot of things.

Centretowner said...

@njorgenson: FYI, the city council of Regina, Saskatchewan, recently voted to stop building their skyway system (which they call 'pedways') and return to focusing on the ground level.

According to climate data on Wikipedia, Regina's average temperature is a few degrees colder than Minneapolis, and I understand its pretty damn windy too.

I know very little about either city, but thought you might like to know.

Anonymous said...

During the 70s I was downtown a great deal and the skyways always seemed a great idea. As a grad student at the U, I rode buses to/from classes and enjoyed downtown Mpls enormously. Of course in that era, Mpls, the state of Minnesota, etc, was truly in a 'golden era.' As much as I walked around the city, there were days where the temperatures were too low and the walking surfaces too icy/snowy for easy foot traffic. When I moved to California in 1977, I thought that SF was probably the greatest city on the planet, but Mpls downtown was number 2.

Anonymous said...

We don't have a good subway or 'EL' system like other cities have. However, I am able to cross through downtown quickly and not bundle up thanks to the skyways. Were there no skyways, chances are that I wouldn't travel very far from the block I work on during the cold and hot months.

Additionally, as a lover of architecture, I am able to pass through the interiors of buildings and view some magnificent spaces I wouldn't have a chance to see otherwise.