Fast Life Along the Skywalks

journalism

TIME: Architecture & Design – August 1, 1988

Fast Life Along the Skywalks

By going indoors, city dwellers escape the city

 

Back in the 1960s, when spick-and-span, won’t-the-future-be-fab urban schemes were still regarded with automatic enthusiasm by almost everyone, and when suburban malls were suddenly sucking shoppers away from central cities, the idea seemed perfect: build enclosed bridges — skywalks! — between the upper stories of downtown office buildings, stores and hotels, and nobody will ever have to go outdoors at all. Fortunately, most such future-a-go-go notions of the era — moving sidewalks or 300-story apartment towers — never came to much.

Skywalks, however, have proliferated. During the past 25 years, the downtowns of more than a score of cities in the U.S. and Canada have become climate-controlled labyrinths. Calgary has 42 bridges running 6 miles that link 110 buildings. The American skywalks (also called skyways, skybridges, * or, in the unfortunate case of Charlotte, N.C., the Overstreet Mall) are concentrated in the upper Midwest, where winters make strolling problematic. Two separate systems in Minneapolis and St. Paul consist of 73 bridges running 6 1/2 miles between 65 city blocks; Des Moines’s 32 bridges connect 21 downtown blocks. Most of Detroit’s 20 “tubes” have been built since 1983.

 In northern cities like Calgary, where the average winter temperature is 26.2 degrees F, the original, climate-mitigating rationale for skywalks was not unreasonable. What’s wrong with being able to wander unbundled from office to store to parking garage in the middle of north-country January? “To be out of the weather,” says Pat Huntington, general manager of the Saks Fifth Avenue store that is plugged into Cincinnati’s 23-odd skywalk system, “is a tremendous feeling of security.”

 But very early on in the skywalk boom, weather was superseded by boosterism economics: elevated bridges came to be seen as prods for real estate development, quick fixes for tapped-out downtowns. Here and there they seemed to do the trick. The growth of the publicly owned Des Moines Skywalk System, which began in 1982, has indeed coincided with an economic revival of the city’s downtown. Skywalks are not cheap: construction can run as much as $3,000 per linear foot. But developers can charge 5% to 10% rent premiums to tenants in towers plugged into the systems.

 The bridges need not be ugly, but with very few exceptions (Detroit’s, for instance) they are. At their best, skywalks are bland modernist modules. At their worst, they are like the one that smashes headlong into Minneapolis’ quirky turn-of-the-century Egyptian Building, nearly obliterating a carved bas-relief frieze. But aesthetics is not the biggest problem. Skywalks are, in most places most of the time, pseudo-sensible amenities. They are artifacts of an earlier, 1964 World’s Fair era, when convenience — insulation from nature and from the urban hurly-burly — was the great American goal, neurotically pursued. Skywalks pull pedestrians off the streets year round, rain or shine, hot or cold. Inside their hermetic world, urban dwellers are deprived of much of the richness of the city. “Cities are places where people are drawn together to experience one another,” says Elliot Willensky, vice chairman of New York City’s landmarks preservation commission. “Skywalks rob us of that.”

 In some fundamental ways skywalks are more perniciously anti-urban than the shopping malls they are intended to compete against. Good malls, like city streets, encourage lingering, serendipity; skywalks, however, are pedestrian freeways, streets distilled to the strictly utilitarian function of providing transit from Point X to Point Y, no detours allowed. In skywalks, there is none of the traditional city’s invigorating mix of commerce and leisure, businesspeople and loiterers. “The street is the way of democracy,” says Richard Maschal, architecture critic for the Charlotte Observer. “The Overstreet Mall system creates a biracial society.” Sam Bass Warner Jr., a Boston University urban historian, sees skywalks as a symbol of urban abandonment, not reinvigoration. They are, he says, “a sign that we’ve given up on the street. They treat the street as essentially an automobile place. That is going to make for a very poor downtown.”

 The skyways in St. Paul are perhaps the best in the U.S.: the design is standardized and inoffensive, the system is publicly owned and easily accessible to people in wheelchairs. Nonetheless, skyways have come to dominate downtown St. Paul’s cityscape and retail life entirely. About 90% of the shops are on the second story, and on the streets below there are long stretches of shopless, blank walls. Calgary has gone out of its way to retain street life (roving musicians and soapbox speechmaking are encouraged), yet even there, says James McKellar, a former Calgary planning commissioner, the skywalk system “kills and sterilizes ground-level activity.” For a city to lure pedestrians off the streets, whatever the reason, may be suicidal in the long run. “The retail shop on the street is the key to a multi-use downtown,” explains Jaquelin Robertson, former New York City planning commissioner. “It is the life and character of the city. No one goes to Europe,” he adds, “to walk along skywalks.” Indeed, the profound urban lessons Americans have recently learned, in part, from Europe — the importance of preserving old buildings, the singular pleasures of the piazza — are at odds with the skywalk epidemic.

 Enthusiasm for skywalks has not been ubiquitous. In the 1970s, when corporate headquarters and shoppers were abandoning its downtown, Hartford came very close to erecting a skywalk system as a way, its boosters hoped, to revitalize the city’s downtown. Local opposition, on both fiscal and philosophical grounds, prevented all but a few skywalks from being built. Meanwhile, downtown Hartford has undergone a renaissance on its own. A 1982 / Seattle ordinance prohibits any skybridge that blocks a vista or reduces street traffic — in effect, all skywalks.

 Despite the generally balmy weather in Atlanta, Architect-Developer John Portman loves nothing more than connecting his bombastic towers and atriums with skywalks: one running through Peachtree Center is 640 ft. long. “People moved to the suburbs because they want low anxiety,” Portman says. “We must bring them back to the center city. The pedestrian bridge is a part of that.” Now, however, Atlanta zoning officials are considering a recommendation by the 300-member Central Area Study group to prohibit further skywalk construction downtown. As the novelty value of skywalks palls and as more cities realize that downtown vitality is a function of far more than ultraconvenient shopping, urbanites can only hope the fad will continue to fade.

 — Reported by Marc Hequet/St. Paul, with other bureaus