The skyways form a 7-mile-long mall with 400 stores, little crime, uneven hours and
occasionally confusing directions: Part 2 of a 40th-anniversary series
Over 400 stores and restaurants entice patrons to make an impulse buy or pause for a bite within the Downtown skyway system. According to CityLites USA, the advertising company responsible for skyway signage, 250,000 professionals and shoppers a day walk the second-story network.
To accommodate the burgeoning Downtown workforce and tourism industry, skyway construction continues at an intense rate. With approximately 74 completed bridges, the system connects 72 city blocks in the Central Business District. Laid end-to-end, the skyway system measures more than 7 miles long.
This after a mere 40 years of ad-hoc design strategy.
"Skyways sort of happened and were 'fit in' initially," said Frank Brust, director of management services at the Minneapolis Downtown Council. "Each skyway happened as older buildings wanted to be on the system and as newer buildings were built."
Far from a criticism, the maverick design of the skyway system breaks up what would otherwise be a fairly commonplace city core, giving Minneapolis a sophisticated, layered look.
"The skyways are a characteristic singular to our city," said Judith Martin, a University of Minnesota urban planning professor.
She cites uniqueness of exterior design as the system's most significant element.
"The fourth-story skyway gives a really different perspective," she said, referring to the top floor of the double-decker bridge connecting the two wings of Gaviidae Common across South 6th Street.
Ed Baker, architect of the first skyway, believes walking around the skyways to be "charming," like wandering the oddly connected side streets in Europe. "Still, it must be very confusing for newcomers," he added.
Uncertain navigation To eliminate tourist and businessperson confusion, the city installed a unified navigation system in 1985, then tried to upgrade during the next decade. However, a lot of property owners wouldn't cooperate.
"Since this was on a 50/50 cost-sharing basis with the city, we had hoped more entities would participate," said Brust.
Complaints range from frustration over hard-to-find entrances to differing and unpublished hours of operation (see sidebar, page 5).
Without the existence of traditional visual cues, like street signs and landmarks, many skywalkers lose their way and have to backtrack. Some of the more irritated radicals have even proposed ripping up and replacing the carpeting with color-coded tile, much like the multi-colored lines of tape on the floors of some hospitals, according to a 1987 article by the Star Tribune's Dick Youngblood.
"We have a decent signage system, with decent maps," countered city planning director Chuck Ballentine. "The system is quite easy to use."
Martin, who also chairs the city's Planning Commission, agreed with Ballentine. "The navigational system has improved immensely in the last five years," she said.
But despite the fact that the signage is "significantly improved," Martin admitted that the skyway system is more for "Downtown insiders" than the general visitor.
Busting through history Other criticisms of the skyways include marring historical buildings and blocking or cutting up vistas, though cumbersome entrances and underground walkways have been created to preserve some landmarks.
"Blocking views was not an issue until the system became fully developed," said Martin. "But really, what is there to see?"
Spinning these complaints positively means the skyways keep historical buildings fused to the vital veins of the district, and interesting new vantage points are created with each addition to the system. A surprise bonus: the latter also has an enormous impact during the winter holidays.
"Skyways have become viewing stations for the Holidazzle Parade," said Martin. "They're hotspots on cold winter nights."
Crime infrequent Safety remains a bit of a concern, especially during parade season, though Luther Krueger a crime-prevention specialist with the Minneapolis Police Department, believes the skyway system to be relatively crime-free.
The Minneapolis police do patrol the skyways, but less frequently than at street level. That's because the skyways are privately owned and often have their own security guards.
Aside from an attempted rape in 1988 and infrequent acts of vandalism, the skyways have remained a safe haven for those wishing to avoid street traffic and inclement weather. There were those two masked "Skyway Bandits" (1992 and 1999) who robbed major Downtown banks and escaped through the system. However, they both just pretended to have guns while passing threatening notes to compliant tellers. And they both knew the skyway system from every angle.
"Criminals have to get into a building before they can ply their trade," says Krueger. "This acts as a filtration system. They have to figure out the maze."
Because the skyway maze links pricey retail establishments, fine eateries, extravagant hotels and upscale professional offices, concern has also risen about the emergence of a restricted
Downtown society intent on catering to the wealthy. With the average annual income of Downtown workers exceeding $75,000 (CityLites USA), much of the skyway seems to have been built with the elite in mind.
"Private property owners can decide who gets to stay and who gets kicked out," says Krueger. "We often escort [street] musicians out of the skyways."
Martin, however, disagrees with the dual-level theory. "There are all sorts of people in the skyways. Nobody bothers them because of the way they're dressed or the way they look. It's just not public space."
"Uniform" skyway hours Monday-Friday, 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Sunday, noon-6 p.m.
Exceptions: Marshall Field\’s: Monday-Friday 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m. Saks Fifth Avenue: Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.