Sure our skyways could be like Venice, if you mean the one in Las Vegas

I love the debate over skyways because it points to one of the most entrenched and subtle urban issues: what exactly people mean when they say “public space.” In particular, the skyways focus attention on the relationship between architecture and public space, how design works to both include and exclude certain kinds of people, to allow or disallow certain kinds of behavior. Architecture always shapes a public.

And what kind of public do the skyways create downtown? Some of the folks on this website have been discussing the future of the skyways for the past week or so, and I was pleased to discover that the story was picked up by the Star Tribune (in a column that featured Streets.mn’s own Sam Newberg). Then, this weekend, there was an interesting op-ed about the skyway system, written by a landscape architect at the U of MN, pointing to how the skyway’s bridges formed a visual rhyme with the bridges of Venice.

Here’s the main point of Sykes’ piece:

Most important, the pedestrian streets and bridges of Venice are publicly owned and maintained. Minneapolis should embark on a program to achieve the same.

Skyway streets and bridges can be owned separately, in a way similar to condominium apartments. Acquire them through eminent domain as rights-of-way, easements or possibly 99-year leases. Good real-estate lawyers could figure this out.

The city would then have much better capacity to control skyways and access to them. This would help solve many of the problems that are now addressed poorly through policy and negotiation. Future accessibility to the skyways would be assured.

I’m not sure if Sykes is arguing that the skyways can be redeemed. Or maybe he’s suggesting that, because they’re not going anywhere, we should do our best to improve them. Either way, I’m skeptical. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we can turn the downtown skyways into a public space like the streets of Venice. It’s just not possible. Short of flooding the downtown, the only Venice that the Minneapolis skyway system will ever resemble is the Venice-themed casino in Las Vegas.

In fact, there are lots of parallels between the Vegas strip and downtown Minneapolis. Just like the skyway system, many of the sidewalks along Las Vegas Boulevard are privately owned. And, much like the skyway system, the sidewalks of the strip are a bit of a labyrinth, designed like a shopping mall to get pedestrians to spend money. And, if the folks pushing the Block E casino get their way, maybe soon you’ll be able to walk through the skyways and hear the vapid cacophony of video slots permeating the air like a horde of bees.

I wrote a term paper on the Vegas strip a little while back, after a reluctant visit to sin city, and had this to say:

The proliferation of privately owned and controlled sidewalk spaces results in a disparate and disjointed public space landscape, where the flow of pedestrians along the boulevard is frequently pushed into second storey retail. The sidewalk flows up and down private escalators, onto bridges over the busy roadway, along separated and controlled sidewalk spaces, and even occasionally into the interiors of casinos and shopping malls. As privatized public spaces, these sidewalks have their own security guards and occupy an ambivalent legal position where rights of free speech and public assembly are continually being negotiated (Fox 2005 57). The ambiguity over the control, limits, and access to public space along these sidewalks has resulted in a series of contentious battles over rights to assembly and speech along these spaces (Offgang 2001, Packer 1999).

You can say the same things verbatim about the Minneapolis skyway system. As St. Paul’s publically owned system proves, the issue isn’t whether or not the skyways are technically public or private. Either way, they’re still going to be designed so that the people who feel welcome are people going to work or spending money. Because they go right through the middle of privately owned office buildings (with very powerful owners), they’ll always be “private.” They’ll always be places that serve the interests of private property. They’ll always be the Mall of America underneath lots of offices.

[The fountain at the The Venetian Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas] 

Take a look at this photo. This might look like Venice on the surface, but it’s not. This might look like a public space, but it’s not.* It’s privately owned, and because it’s privately owned, it’s been consciously and subtly designed to get people to spend money at casinos.

Granted, Venice itself has become something of a Baudrilliard-ian simulation, a copy of itself. From what I hear, there’s no real “city” there any more. It’s basically for tourism and movie sets. But still, the difference between Venice Italy and Venice Las Vegas is like the difference between Led Zeppin and Dread Zepplin.

Maybe you like Las Vegas. A lot of people do! But downtown Minneapolis should be a very different place, open to all whether or not they have a credit card. Downtown Minneapolis should be a place filled with diversity, with small and large businesses and restaurants of all types and price ranges. It should be the one place where all the different parts of our city cross paths. It should be a place for protestors and policemen, bankers and bums, people who ride the #698 out to Eden Prairie and the people who ride the #5 up Fremont Avenue.

That kind of city just cannot happen in the skyways, no matter how much lipstick you put on them. Because of the way they’re designed and tacitly controlled, the skyways will always be more of a shopping mall than a pedestrian mall, more of an office park than a city park. A real street requires a real public, and no matter how cold it is outside, I don’t think that can happen anywhere that’s not out in the beautiful Minnesota sunshine.**


 

* I should mention that the Venice casino, along with the Bellagio, is pretty much the best public space on the Vegas strip. But that’s a bit like saying, “Wow, that’s the healthiest food at White Castle” or “There goes a talkative mime! “
** To my mind, the notable exception is a well-used subway system. Those seem like decent public spaces to me, that pretty much include everybody most of the time. (Though that is changing, too!)

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2 Responses to Sure our skyways could be like Venice, if you mean the one in Las Vegas

  1. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg (Joe Urb January 27, 2012 at 8:08 am #

    The biggest problem with Skyes's argument is the public takeover of the skyway system, which is unlikely even through conventional negotiation. Eminent domain is already nearly impossible to accomplish even for the most deserving projects. He says "good real estate lawyers can figure this out." I'm here to say they can't, so this idea is dead in the water. Second, it would be horrendously expensive to publicly take over the system.

    If we're to keep the skyways around, then I suggest that for every dollar, private or public, that is spent on them, there is an equal amount from the same source set aside for improvements to the public realm at the sidewalk level.

  2. Spencer Agnew
    Spencer Agnew January 29, 2012 at 5:35 am #

    "Downtown Minneapolis should be a place filled with diversity, with small and large businesses and restaurants of all types and price ranges."

    Keep in mind that there are a lot of small businesses operating in the skyway that would never be able to afford street front retail space downtown. I think without skyways you would have significantly less diversity of retail businesses downtown.

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