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Sam Newberg on Skyways at Rail~Volution 2014- Bloggers, Let the Debates Begin!

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Bloggers x 3: Let the Debates Begin!

Listen and learn as local transit bloggers go head to head over three issues specific to the Twin Cities: Hear the pros and cons of Minneapolis’ famous Skyway system. Weigh the ins and outs of regional transit expansion. Explore streetcar growth in the region. Three informative and vigorous debates moderated by Minneapolis TOD director David Frank. Bring your questions and get ready for provocative answers!

Moderator: David Frank, Director of Transit Development, City of Minneapolis, Minnesota
Janne K. Flisrand, Principal, Flisrand Consulting, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Nick Magrino, Blogger, streets.mn, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Sam Newberg, Urbanist, Joe-Urban.com, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Bill Lindeke, Blogger, streets.mn, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Alex Cecchini, Blogger, streets.mn, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Spencer Agnew, Housing and Redevelopment Specialist, City of Plymouth, Minnesota

Published in: Design
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Sam Newberg on Skyways at Rail~Volution 2014- Bloggers, Let the Debates Begin!

  1. 1. Isn’t it about time to start removing our skyways? Noted urbanists have visited and pointed out their drawbacks. In the 1980s Fred Kent noticed how internalized the skyways made us. Carol Coletta said “well you certainly shouldn’t build any more.” A few years ago, Jen Gehl was in town and he noted downtown Minneapolis was “no longer up to the beat” of other world-class winter cities, blaming the skyways for striking a “defensive posture” against nature. Gil Penalosa cautioned us on building something for two bad weeks of weather per year at the expense of the other 50. Even local leaders understand the conundrum of skyways but like their warmth. It would be simpler to just get rid of them. The strategy is easy. Remove one skyway per year, and nobody will really notice when they are gone. See, the original intent of the skyways has not panned out. The first skyways were built in the early to mid-1960s largely as a defense against the loss of retailing to the suburbs, as well as a clever way to grade-segregate pedestrians from cars. Early renderings weren’t climate controlled but rather open-air bridges, yet we’ve become so accustomed to not putting on a jacket in the winter we cling to our skyways like Charlton Heston clings to his guns. All the while they detract heavily from pedestrian life because they literally draw people off the sidewalks, so we have to repeatedly spend millions rebuilding Nicollet Mall just to draw people outside. As William Whyte pointed out in his book “City: Rediscovering the Center,” what cities sorely need is more people on the streets not fewer, but we add skyways and wonder why our streets remain dead. Skyways’ impact on urban design cannot be ignored. Even when we don’t deliberately design buildings with blank walls facing the street, we struggle to populate ground floor retail with anything except destination restaurants because the skyways compete for everyday retail and convenience goods. As William Whyte also pointed out – a downtown can support only so many stores and restaurants, something has to give. We didn’t save downtown retail against suburbanization. As for the small skyway retailers, it is simply a function of supply and demand – 135,000 workers still need coffee, lunch and convenience retail, and food trucks in the past couple years have demonstrated that people will go to the street level if there is a reason to do so. Office tenants would not flee, either. They are downtown because of light rail, restaurants, sports facilities, and entertainment – in other words, the center of it all. Skyway removal will not change that, but an improved public realm will enhance it, particularly as a way to attract younger workers downtown. Ground floor space can be converted back to retail if the foot traffic exists. Downtown also gets bifurcated socially. After recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and the arrest of an African American man in the St. Paul skyway, which are public space, this should give us pause. If a decent-sized group of well-dressed professionals like us from this very room congregated anywhere in the skyway system, we’d very likely be accosted by security within minutes. Any elected official truly concerned about equality should acknowledge this as a problem. Do you realize it is possible to drive downtown, park in one of several parking ramps, go to work or shop, and never set foot on the public sidewalk!? I think it is absolutely insane and doesn’t fit
  2. 2. my definition of urban. Downtown should be downtown. And while our plans call for a strong pedestrian environment, we continue to add to the skyway system against our best judgment. Remember, each new skyway costs more than a million dollars to construct. Yes, this cost is largely borne of the private sector, although the public is paying for the skyway expansion to the new football stadium while the public park remains unfunded. Imagine if we could instead put those millions of dollars towards improving the public realm, like better sidewalks, lighting, planting trees and adding benches, fountains and art? We already have sidewalks, a second set of pedestrian routes is costly and redundant. Some of you will say remove the skyways over my dead body! Well, that is sort of the point. We’ve had them for just 50 years; surely we can be rid of them in another 50. Our memory is short - Downtown street life naturally thrived for decades before skyways were built, and has struggled to do so since. We celebrate being outdoors in the winter with our sports and festivals, yet we shrink away from the elements when we are downtown. Minneapolis must become a more attractive, urbane city with a better pedestrian environment. By redirecting scarce dollars from building and maintaining skyways and instead improving the public realm, downtown Minneapolis can indeed become a better place for people year round.

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