Skyway Connections on Nicollet Mall

A topic of conversation recently has been the need for better public connections between Nicollet Mall and the downtown Minneapolis skyway system, to meld our distressingly disparate pair of pedestrian pathways into a unified urbanist utopia. Both a Minnpost article and a discussion on the forums came to the conclusion that the Nicollet Mall project’s abandonment of its originally proposed “Crystal Stair” up to the IDS/Macy’s skyway meant that we were missing out on the best chance to get a public connection we’d had since the previous redesign that proposed and abandoned public stair towers, and the best chance we’ll get until we rebuild the whole thing again, probably in the 2040s or so. They aren’t wrong. A public stairway would be a multimillion-dollar piece of infrastructure, and is unlikely to happen outside the framework of a larger project. The thing is, though there does need to be easier flow between the skyway and sidewalk, we don’t need to build a new, expensive connection. We already have a bunch of them, in buildings up and down the Mall.

A public skyway access point, just a few yards from where we're desperately missing one.

A public skyway access point, just a few yards from where everyone says we need one.

 

I took an moderately exhaustive tour of the skyway-connected buildings of Nicollet Mall, and graded each entrance on whether it provides a good skyway connection or not. For the purposes of this post, an entrance with a good connection is subjectively defined as one where a staircase or escalator up to the skyway level is immediately visible upon walking through the door.

There's a skyway coming out of this building. Can get into it here?

A skyway is coming out of this building. Can I get into it here? Will security glare at me?

Hence, the US Bancorp Center and IDS Center, with their bright, airy lobbies and prominently placed escalators up to obvious skyway retail, count as great connections, but 50 South Sixth, with its escalators hidden in a dimly-lit alcove behind the elevator bank, doesn’t. The Medical Arts building doesn’t provide a good connection, but City Center, everyone’s favorite bad urban design punching bag, does, as long as you can ignore the oppressive façade long enough to get through the door. Of the roughly fifteen buildings on the Mall that are connected to the skyway, seven of them have good street to skyway connections, and importantly, each block between 5th and 11th Streets has at least one.

The problem isn’t that there aren’t connections between the street and skyway; there are. The problem is that it’s hard to find them without already knowing where they are, which puts newcomers in a bit of a pickle. Luckily, as with so many of our urban design issues, we can look to another city that’s solved this exact problem, and shamelessly copy their solution. Surprisingly, the city in question isn’t even (either) Portland.

Like Minneapolis, Des Moines, Iowa has an extensive skywalk system that connects just about every building in the central business district, with tendrils reaching out of the core to hit sports facilities and parking ramps and the like. Unlike Minneapolis, there are ubiquitous red circle signs at just about every building entrance (and matching signage up on the skywalk level), letting newcomers know exactly where (and when) they can get in or out of that climate-controlled maze they see above.

Can I get into the Skywalk here? I sure can!

Can I get into the Skywalk here? I sure can!

As a visitor there recently, I walked the length of downtown Des Moines in the skywalk system, and, while I occasionally took a wrong turn, I never had that unsettling feeling of not knowing where I’d be able to get out of or back into the system. It was pretty cool.

Obviously, someone would need to pay for these signs. I suspect that the Des Moines skywalks are city-owned, like the skyways in St. Paul, so the city most likely pays for them. Since the skyways in Minneapolis are privately owned, it would maybe make more sense for such signs to be funded by some sort of business association with a vested interest in downtown visitors. I don’t really know how much these signs would cost, but let’s wing it and say that they cost $850 each installed. The stair/elevator tower at Central Station in St. Paul cost $1.7 million, which would buy 1,000 skyway access signs, and 1,000 more sidewalk access signs for the corridors inside. Such an investment wouldn’t create a single-point connection in front of Macy’s, but would cover the entirety of downtown, with a bunch left over to give to St. Paul. If we want to start cautiously, and just do the 15 to 20 entrances on Nicollet Mall itself, we’d be looking at about $30,000. As far as public realm improvements go, that’s about two curb extensions. If we as a city want people besides downtown regulars to use the skyways (up for debate, I know), a solution like this is almost too cheap not to do.


Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

22 Responses to Skyway Connections on Nicollet Mall

  1. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller June 16, 2015 at 8:34 am #

    I’d been pondering writing something like this, perhaps venturing farther from the Mall too, but this is exactly right. We do a lousy job of taking advantage of the streets/skyway connection we have too. And here on the Mall, we actually have them. We just need to help people find them.

    It’s really elsewhere that the connections are missing, typically in older buildings that were not designed with multiple pedestrian levels in mind.

  2. Kyle June 16, 2015 at 10:17 am #

    Joey, the issue is that these are Privately-Owned Public Spaces (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Privately_owned_public_space). We want publicly-owned skyway access!

    • Matt Brillhart June 16, 2015 at 10:37 am #

      Public access would still lead directly into a privately-owned skyway and privately-owned building. So what’s the difference, really?

      • Alex Cecchini
        Alex Cecchini June 16, 2015 at 10:54 am #

        St Paul’s model with a public easement in skyways is a better model IMO. It allows them to control and standardize hours. In theory (the Lollie incident a year ago somewhat disproves this), it would also remove some of the public access concerns about private spaces. But those issues exist on sidewalks today with police anyway. Something is better than nothing in this case.

        • Joey Senkyr
          Joey Senkyr June 16, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

          Pretty much what Matt says. In a couple years, if the current plans go through, the library will be a publicly-owned skyway access, but actually getting anywhere will still depend on the whims of Opus or whoever they sell their Ritz Block project to. Unless Minneapolis can somehow get control of the skyways like St. Paul has, I don’t really see the point of creating potentially dead-end stairways.

          • Alex Cecchini
            Alex Cecchini June 16, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

            Sorry, my last sentence was meant more in the general sense of pushing for public easement even though there are still challenges/issues that arise.

          • Adam Miller
            Adam Miller June 16, 2015 at 1:51 pm #

            I don’t know exactly what authority the Downtown Council has, but new buildings don’t tend to be the roadblocks against uniformity/longer hours on the skyway. They tend to be built so that people can pass through without creating heartburn for the business owners. 333 S. 2nd used to be an annoying outlier, but I think it’s come into line. And the Soo Line and 5th Street Towers too, I think.

            The harder to deal with issue is places like Macy’s, who understandably don’t want people walking through their merchandise late at night and also happen to be a hub where many routes converge.

            • John Charles Wilson June 20, 2015 at 11:36 am #

              Does Macy’s still provide early morning (6-9 AM weekdays, before the store opens) access with the merchandise roped off? Could this concept be extended to evenings and weekends with appropriate security funding?

              • Joey Senkyr
                Joey Senkyr June 20, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

                It does still allow early morning access. I would assume they could be convinced to allow evening access if someone else was paying for the security guards, but I don’t really know.

  3. Joe June 16, 2015 at 10:53 am #

    This is a good idea because it is so cheap, but I will say, I’ve been to Des Moines 50+ times and have never noticed these signs. I have ended up in the skyway before, but not because of these. So yes, they are better than nothing, but they certainly wouldn’t serve an identical purpose to the grand staircase. A visitor to Minneapolis would be drawn up the stairs, curious what is up there. They will (probably) not be drawn inside the US Bancorp building because of a blue sign that says S.

  4. Wayne June 16, 2015 at 10:55 am #

    let’s just raise the street level to the 2nd floor and have an awesome ‘underground’ set of bus and pedestrian passages, with occasional car access to get to parking ramp entrances and loading docks. If they’re too afraid to build a tunnel anywhere and insist on some kind of sheltered connection between buildings, that seems like a viable option. Maybe between Hennepin and 3rd ave and 3rd st to like 10th or something?

  5. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 16, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    I can’t believe I never read Sam Greer’s article before now! Thanks for bringing attention again to this.

    I believe the skyway is intentionally designed to be confusing and quasi-public, so as to limit the “publics” that have access to it. In a sense, it literally is “structural racism.” There have been many many attempts to improve wayfinding, but it often reminds me of those anti-smoking ads in the 80s that actually encouraged kids to smoke. In other words, disingenuous.

    (see also: http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2012/01/climate-as-proxy-for-capital-within.html)

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller June 16, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

      I don’t think there is any question that there is tension between, “welcome shoppers” and “oh, not you, poor* person whom we distrust.”

      * “Poor” as a proxy for all kinds of perceived “undesirables” of course.

  6. Nick Magrino
    Nick Magrino June 16, 2015 at 5:38 pm #

    Honestly I’ve never really understood a lot of this wayfinding business. In principle, yes, but who is up in the skyway in Baker Center or whatever that doesn’t know where they are and where they’re going? It takes maybe a week or two to figure out most of the system if you work downtown.

    The parts that are going to be used by irregular users–Crystal Court, etc–aren’t confusing and have windows onto Nicollet Mall. Someone who’s going to get lost walking from Nicollet Mall station to Target is going to get lost regardless of what we do to help them.

    • Joey Senkyr
      Joey Senkyr June 16, 2015 at 5:58 pm #

      There’s several hotels located such that you have to pass through the Baker Center, or worse, the Northstar Center to get to the less confusing parts of the system. People could use the street, of course, but the skyways are unique enough that it’s not uncommon for a visitor to want to try them out, even if it isn’t the most efficient way to get from A to B. I sure did on the rare occasion I visited Minneapolis before moving here.

      You could pretty easily use the same argument about the new bus stop signage. It doesn’t take very long for a regular user figure out which bus goes where, and the trains that are most likely to be used by irregular users are pretty easy to figure out. (Notwithstanding the various Blue/Green mixup stories over on the Green Line Hat post.)

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller June 16, 2015 at 6:49 pm #

        Yes, and to add to that, I see people lost/struggling in the skyways all the time. And it turns out it’s really hard to help as “go that way for awhile and veer right” doesn’t really do it.

      • Nick Magrino
        Nick Magrino June 16, 2015 at 11:25 pm #

        Good point.

  7. HotKarl June 17, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

    Instead of spending on signs, maybe the downtown council and/or city should fund a project to integrate the skyway map with google maps. It would likely do much more to help visitors to our city get from point A to point B during the winter or rainy days rather than external signage.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller June 17, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

      These things do not sound like substitutes for each other. People should be able to get around in the skyways regardless of whether they have a smart phone and/or are using Google maps.

      Google has begun adding indoor details to its maps, though. You’d think they’d be interested.

  8. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig June 17, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

    Better skyway wayfinding signage has been a goal of the Downtown Council for as far back as I can remember, and also made it into the Downtown Action Plan part of Access Minneapolis a few years ago. Why everyone keeps dragging their feet on it is a good question, though…

  9. GlowBoy June 19, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

    Well, I’m one of those confused people, having recently moved to Minneapolis from elsewhere and not being a downtown worker. I’ve been in the skyway system a few times now, and I find it impressive but still baffling at times, even with a map. Several times I have run into unsigned dead ends or ended up walking several extra blocks just to find an entrance. I do like the Rand Building, and I agree that at least City Center makes it obvious how to get in.

    Sure, downtown workers know their way around because they are there every day. That’s by definition. Locals who drive the roads in their neighborhood every day don’t need road signs either. I don’t put numbers on my house so my friends can find me, but so strangers can. My kid’s school doesn’t have a name out front for my benefit, but for the benefit of first-time or infrequent visitors.

    Although I’m starting to get it, the system is NOT intuitive to the newcomer. We’re supposedly trying to attract *new people* to the city, right? Also, tourism: thanks to the parks/paths network and Nice Ride, there’s new (small but real) wave of people coming to the Twin Cities to explore car-free. The skyway IS a significant attraction (and once the downtown property owners figure this out, they’ll realize it’s in their interest to work together to fix it). Let’s make it friendly to the visitor instead of insular.