Minneapolis, Saint Paul Separating on Skyways

[The two "skyways to nowhere." File photo.]
When I began dissecting their skyway systems years ago, one of my favorite bizarro details was the existence of a “skyway to nowhere” in both of the Twin Cities. What fun! In each downtown, a skyway lingered over the street linking buildings that didn’t exist, urban appendices dangling uselessly in much the same way that bricks don’t.

[Skyway safety.]
The two skyways — Minneapolis’s over Marquette Avenue, Saint Paul’s over Wabasha Street — reminded me of nothing so much as the Simpsons’ “escalator to nowhere” (part of the coda to the famous monorail episode). I like to imagine downtown skyway strollers walking placidly through the skyway only to fall 20 feet to their doom (or perhaps, landing on a well-placed life-saving trampoline like a drugged bear).

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, man]

The divergent fates of the two skyways are no accident. Sure, the two downtowns have vastly different economics. (If Saint Paul’s downtown had demand like Minneapolis’, it’s likely the skyway might have stayed up to meet a new building.) But it’s fitting that the Saint Paul skyway is disappearing, because downtown planners have been more adamant about moving beyond skyways. While they might seem similar on the surface, there are a number of ways that the two skyway systems — one public and one private — are becoming less like each other.

Expansion vs. Contraction

[One of my favorite Minneapolis skwyays, on the Eastern periphery.]
Planners in both cities admit that skyways are bad policy, architecturally and economically, but that doesn’t stop developers from wanting to build more of them. Like the one ring, the totemic allure of transcending public space is difficult to resist. But words are one thing, and buildings quite another. if you look at the actions taking place in both downtowns, they are divergent.

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.]
Meanwhile, downtown Minneapolis has just completed its largest new skyway in decades, with the giant airlock skyway running through the Wells Fargo offices and docking into the crashed spaceship Vikings stadium. Though Minneapolis’ official downtown plan — the 2025 Plan — makes some strides about admitting there is a “skyway paradox,” the fact on the ground is that the investment is not on the ground. Instead, it’s dangling twenty-five feet in the air, “closes” on weekends and evenings, and is impossible to find the entrance to. (Yes, I know a preposition is dangling on the end of my sentence like a skyway to nowhere…) That’s bad news for Minneapolis, which will continue to struggle to create quality street-level sidewalks in the downtown core.

[From a 2014 downtown Minneapolis plan, by the Downtown Council.]

The skyway link: exception and the rule

[Saint Paul's central station skyway tower.]
The other place to witness the contrast between the two cities is in their skyway connectivity. Though the #1 complaint about downtown skyways is that they are too confusing, for many property owners, the obscure entrances are a feature, not a bug.

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 white people wealthy people office workers, and to keep out black people poor people "those people" anyone not spending money. In that way, the downtown skyway system is the perfect symbol of Minnesota’s racist passive-aggressive culture, allowing suburban downtown workers to conveniently ignore the realities of visible poverty and racial segregation, and then blame it on the weather to boot! Skyways become the front lines of the architectural battle for downtown, and an easy-to-use access point on Nicollet Mall would provide a tremendous beachhead.

(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.]
In Saint Paul, on the other hand, the city invested in a very public, very central, easy-to-navigate link between the city and the street. And, just as you’d expect in a segregated city, the new skyway has proven to be a massive headache for building owners, prompting some introspective navel gazing by downtown leaders.

[A bathroom not open to the public in downtown Minneapolis.]
To me, these two proposals — one realized, one rejected — point to the unresolvable tension skyways create between private and public space. At best, the skyways function like a suburban shopping mall. But at worst, this ambiguity explodes into often racist profiling and policing, as happened with the Chris Lolle incident in a Saint Paul downtown skyway last year.

(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.]
It might seem strange to say so right now, but I’m bullish on downtown Saint Paul’s future as a real urban space, while I fear that the Minneapolis downtown core is going to be more difficult to resuscitate. This is odd to say now because downtown Minneapolis is much “hotter” than Saint Paul; cranes galore, surface parking lots evaporating, and office and residential populations that dwarf its Eastern twin.

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.]
Meanwhile, if Saint Paul can minimize its skyways, there’s a great deal of street life potential. Ideally, the city would remove skyways from existing buildings, especially those where the steel bridges were retrofit into historic properties. Eventually, this will have to happen, so why not now? In twenty years, particularly if we can build a rail connection along the Riverview corridor, we might be talking about how vital downtown Saint Paul has become, and how walkable, pleasant, and architecturally seamless the downtown streets are compared to its Western twin.

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.


Jim Buscher said...

Don't be so bullish on no more skyways in downtown St. Paul. Bill Hosko is renewing his efforts to get the Public Service Annex building, located across the street from the Penfield, connected via a long skyway to the Robert Street ramp.

Once Walgreens relocates to the new Wabasha Center, that parking lot and small adjacent building could finally see redevelopment. I'm betting any new building will get reconnected to the skyway system. As could any new development on the Central Station block. Perhaps even whatever is built at the West Publishing site.

Bill Lindeke said...

Bill Hosko? Is there anything he's ever done that has been a good idea? He's like a reverse barometer. I'm not going to worry about him. You might be right, but it'll be an interesting conversation. Every year that goes by, more and more people are realizing that focusing on the street is the future of downtown.

Adam said...

I'll have you know I'm an urban office worker, Bill.

And there's not much use of that re-connected skyway to the Nic, as there still not retail in that building. (Although they're working on a side-walk level Starbucks.) The Nic is one of the more convenient street access points, though, as it's right at the light rails station. If you happen to notice the "door unlocked during skyway hours" on the door.

On future tours you'll have to check out the private skyways of Excel Energy. They may be the only entirely-private ones that connect to the main skyway system

Eric Saathoff said...

Bill, I caught this key line in the Strib article:
"If a building replaces that lot, Kyle said they would be obligated to add a new skyway connection where the old one once stood."


Very discouraging, but your description of the city's overall position is more encouraging.

Lucien said...

My mom worked in downtown St. Paul for many decades. She laughs each time someone starts to propose REMOVING the skyway system altogether, for she remembers when the weather actually DID keep people constrained to a block of their offices. BN employees used to go to the Endicott Arcade, but not much further -- due to weather, not wanting to deal with traffic, etc. When the skyways came, she talks of how it basically opened up the downtown area and allowed for people to go much further on their breaks and lunches than they had in the past. The skyways came into existence because they were good for business.

I'm not saying we need to expand the system at this point. But I find some of the comments of the anti-skyway crowd to be unrealistic and ponderous.

adreanaline said...

There's no mention in this article of how the skyways benefit disabled people who live Downtown. My blind family members are able to use the system all-year to travel without worrying about cars. Why is it so easy for able-bodied people to knock the skyways? :/