The Nicollet Walk: A Stairway to the Skyway


The proposed interventions to the Minneapolis Skyway system were a subtle, yet powerful element of the James Corner Field Operations’ proposal for the Nicollet Mall Redesign.  The proposal explicitly included five distinct interventions that while in some cases are relatively superficial, demonstrate a new attitude about interfacing the skyway with the street.  The skyways have been a hobgoblin of many downtowns since they emerged in the 60’s and 70’s as a prescribed remedy for the declining importance of urban downtowns against the growing popularity of indoor shopping malls and white flight. Minneapolis, with its 8+ miles of skyway has had reams of ink written about its history, its pros (shelter, higher rents, architectural landmarks) and its cons (kills street life, ruins retail businesses, is confusing/claustrophobic), and what we should do about them (tear them down, seize them with eminent domain, improve access).    Ambivalence about the future of the skyways has resulted in a strange tension about future investment and development.  Yet, urbanists both international (Jan Gehl) and local (Joe Urban) have advocated for their curtailment or removal.  Mayor R.T. Rybak recently went on the record saying “I don’t think we need any more skyways. I don’t think that they help at all.”  Yet, planned expansions to the system keep popping up to connect new developments and large venues such as Target Field and the new Vikings Stadium.  Based on online surveys and opinion polling, Minneapolitans overwhelmingly support the Skyways.  Most cite the painfully cold weather as the main reason for their support, but people also feel that they enhance the identity and character of the downtown area.  Gehl describes this attitude as being behind the times and counterproductive to the vital street life that he claims differentiates world class cities.  Refreshingly, the Field Operations proposal embraces the skyways and draws from the contemporary urban space playbook to create new landmarks and a more coherent network of public spaces downtown.


While the meat of the design proposal relates to the streetscape interventions and the re-branding of the mall into “Live, Play, and Work” districts, the skyways and their intersections with the street inform the placement of several key space making elements of the plan.  As an aside, the grove plantings of the plan (see above) will be a particularly nice way of adding more life to the streetscape of Nicollet Mall, which currently is a bit too cluttered with stuff.  Anyhow, while some of the proposed interventions are superficial derivations of public art and placemaking strategies that have been prominent features of other projects, these designs would surely be developed further in the implementation process.  The designs, while spatially specific, still feel more like prototypical templates that can be adaptively applied to the skyway system as a whole.

Mirror Cut

The mirror on the bottom of the skyway is reminiscent of the Cloud Gate AKA “The Bean” in Chicago, but not nearly as cool.  Considered as a prototype, this speaks to the opportunity to treat the skyways as living frames for the streetscape, or as armatures for public art.


The Cloud Gate – Courtesy of


Skyway Balcony – Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations

The proposed skyway balcony is reminiscent of the 10th Avenue Overlook on the High Line in NYC, that other Field Operations project you might have seen.


10th Avenue Overlook – Courtesy of  Michael Keenan

This move has the potential to establish individual skyways as destinations, urban stages and places of repose.  The current skyway design standards for Minneapolis keep things pretty demure, but this sets a slightly more adventurous precedent for how the skyways themselves can enliven the streetscape.


The Crystal Stair – Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations

The Crystal Stair, designed by Julie Snow Architects, creates a public landmark that works as both a gathering space and as a direct street access to the skyway.  Likewise, you can see in the rendering a proposed elevator on the opposite side of the street.  This kind of intervention has been promoted in the Downtown 2025 Plan and many architectural design studios at the University of Minnesota.   But the owners of the skyways have traditionally been against creating direct street to skyway connections because of potential security and maintenance concerns.    However, a major advantage is that world class design teams can push the envelope and get people to step out of their comfort zone in the name of design.

Yellow Ribbon

The Yellow Ribbon – Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations

The Yellow Ribbon Wayfinding system seems to be about helping users navigate the maze like skyway and to improve how it relates to the streetscape below.  Even for an experienced user, the skyway can be very disorienting.  To reliably get from one place to another requires either practiced knowledge or a map, and finding an exit can be frustrating to say the least.  When users enter a new building they experience a shift of style that reflects the architecture and design taste of its era and the quality of directional signage is highly variable.  While there is a certain charm and novelty to the disconnected nature of the skyways, the incoherency of the network is problematic.  The proposal advocates for yellow color coding of the carpets or walls of the skyway to help the user stay parallel with Nicollet Avenue and incorporates more regular interfaces with the street.  Like many of the other ideas in this proposal it is not entirely novel or groundbreaking, but it is well synthesized into the plans for Nicollet Mall and downtown as a whole. In addition, this approach would be easy to overlay onto the entire skyway system without necessitating the exercise of eminent domain or major architectural surgery.

In this respect, The Field Operations proposal struck the right chord between high level design intervention and a fundamental respect for the form of Minneapolis’s Downtown.  The skyways can be viewed as a vestigial organ designed to protect downtown against suburban competition that no longer serves its purpose. However, I see it as more of a conjoined twin to the streetscape.  It grew and evolved organically based on its inherent appeal and functionality into one of the world’s premier examples of the “layered city” phenomenon.  Naturally, the success of this approach is highly dependent upon the ability of the city to double the residential population of downtown by 2025 (see the plan link above).   The overarching goal should be to not view the two networks as separate beings competing for resources, but to make strategic interventions that will blur the lines between them by creating coherent nodes and landmarks that will anchor both systems.  This approach, demonstrated in the Field Operations proposal, begins to re-interpret the skyways in ways that will help make Downtown Minneapolis someplace really unique.

26 thoughts on “The Nicollet Walk: A Stairway to the Skyway

  1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    As someone who has advocated for the removal of skyways, and someone who has visited the Crystal Court for 35 years (I used to talk my grandfather in to buying Matchbox cars for me at Woolworths), the Crystal Stairs is intriguing.

    In principle, the Crystal Stairs is a great opportunity to connect sidewalk to skyway. I question whether the incline of the steps can work to actually reach the skyway level, and I wonder whether they’ll need to be closed for the winter. I already point to skyways as an unnecessary expense ($1 million-plus each – the high cost of free skyways), so I question how much more we’ll need to spend to make them function better.

    Lastly, being unique isn’t necessarily a good thing. It just means different from all others, and with our extensive skyway system, we already are unique.

    I do like the idea of fire poles and slides so people can quickly escape the skyways! I’d put some Kickstarter money to that.

  2. Jeff Klein

    The problem with convincing people the skyways are not a good thing is that you’re arguming against something concrete that people understand (“it’s cold out there”) vs. something subtle and qualitative that’s only understood by urban design dorks (“it will improve the street life”). Even if I’d like to see them gone it’s pretty hard to imagine.

    It seems to me what you want is tons and tons of access points – stairs *every* place the skyways cross a sidewalk. This will make them easier to navigate because it connects them to the streets, which have a coherent grid. Add in some garage-door windows on the skyways that are open in the summer. Now you have more of a two-tiered streetscape instead of two entirely seprate spaces.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

      As a proud urban design dork I wholeheartedly believe that good street life is something understood at a very deep human level. It’s not something imagined. The great cities around the world prove this out.

    2. Terry

      I think what Minneapolis has done is great!

      What the “dorks” don’t get (other that the weather) is that the streetscapes are on the inside of Minneapolis’ city blocks–and they are attractive and well used for the most part, including landscaping. That doesn’t prevent people from walking on the sidewalks, it is just a different way of creating place–inside, not outside.

      It’s especially better in January!

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post. I like the comparisons.

    I tend to agree with Jeff on trying to create more of a two-tiered streetscape and tie the two levels together and encourage building owners to keep retail on the street level (or if skyway, only on outside corners by skyway entrances and directly by stairs down to the street, instead of completely inside and hidden from the street). Getting between the two now can be so convoluted and hidden—people can’t see the way from one to the other or see a connection between these two insular worlds.

    I don’t see the skyways ever going away or not continuing to grow because people really appreciate them when it’s below zero and most building owners will want to amenity. We need to make it easier and more desirable to to use the street the other 300 days per year.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

      Doesn’t work that way. Retailers locate on the skyway level because of foot traffic. Retailers go where the traffic is, and after a while buildings were built with zero ground floor sidewalk presence – US Bank Plaza is a good example. If all the skyways disappeared retail would relocate to the ground floor where foot traffic is.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        I agree, however… They can’t locate on the skyway level if the building mgmt doesn’t allow that. Whether they would do that or not is a big question that may hinge on the ability to convince them that an active street life is more important to their bottom line than the higher profit of retail vs office rent on the skyway level. Or perhaps an appeal to their sense of community.

        Better yet though, make the street more inviting to the retailers and pedestrians. If the skyways only have higher traffic during really bad weather and all other times the traffic is on the street, they’ll want to be on the street.

  4. Cedar

    Despite being a dedicated “urban design dork,” I admit that I love the skyway system. Just last weekend my son and I headed downtown just to enjoy the opportunity to do some skyway exploring on a wet day. I agree that signage and connections need to be better, although perhaps ironically it’s exactly that element that I like best. It’s a maze up there, quite different from the orderly grid street down below. Don’t get me wrong — I love the street, too. But I do enjoy the opportunity to wander above the car traffic and enjoy the frequently twisting and turning internal skyway-level passages, with its hodge-podge of businesses and types of spaces.

    Back to this post, I love the creativity in some of these designs, and appreciate how they envision a better connection between the indoors and the out. It’s unlikely that our skyway system is going anywhere, so why not fully embrace it and make it better?

  5. Steve Gjerdingen

    In Duluth, there is a cool skyway that is very long and runs from Canal Park all the way to downtown. Maybe I like this skyway better because it crosses a very wide freeway, but it definitely adds to the Duluth experience.

  6. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    I agree with Sam – adding expensive (both initial capital investments and ongoing maintenance) entrances, stairways, etc to the skyway system only increases the cost of continuing to separate traffic to a different area that is really no more viable than the street-level. If this proposal is only for NIcollet Mall, and the skyways stay there as part of a public space/art, I could understand. But will the city make similar investments to the rest of the city? (and again, why spend millions more when so many sidewalks downtown are in desperate need of some love?)

    Yes, we have inclement weather. So do Ottawa, Toronto, and any other number of cold cities without skyway systems. Seattle and Vancouver are rainy. Washington DC is hotter and more humid in the summer. Boston, NYC, Chicago, etc are also cold, and while they don’t receive *as much* snow or get *as cold*, the marginal difference in temperature is not enough to justify such a major, inequitable, car-dependent (skyways leading right from ramps) investment. For 300 days a year we don’t dip below the lowest temperatures places like Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Madison,and other major cities without skyways. I will also point out hat many of our most successful urban neighborhoods within our own cities (Uptown, Summit/Grand, etc) don’t have a single skyway and still attract people year-round.

    I also agree with Sam that people know, on a base instinct level, what makes an area have good urban design. They vote with their feet. People don’t spend much time in Downtown East. They’ll stop at a bench under a sidewalk tree to grab a bite to eat, or just simply go out for a walk where the street is inviting. There’s a reason people flock to live and visit the places with successful urbanism all over the world.

    1. David

      i wouldn’t site Toronto as cold weather city example of not supporting Skyways with its “PATH – Toronto’s underground walkway (tunnels) linking 28 kilometres of shopping, services and entertainment and subway – in weatherproof comfort.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      I agree, however… I don’t think the skyways will go away nor will developers stop building more. There are tens of thousands of folks who work downtown who like the convenience of them too much.

      I think the ticket is to make street level much more appealing for retailers and customers so that the street is the primary ‘street’ with all of the retail and people going places and the skyway becomes only the alternative avenue for going to and fro when the weather is really bad.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        Would developers build as many of them without public subsidy to do so? How much of the network was built at least partially with public money (or connecting publicly-owned parking garages)? This is an easy example of something the city can do to stop spending for things that are “nice to have” (mostly for non-Minneapolis residents) vs the necessities like bike infrastructure, etc.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

          I’m pretty sure most skyways are privately-built (they are mostly privately-owned between buildings), although I’m sure some are publicly-funded. But, like parking, someone pays for them through building rents, etc. The idea of skyways have so much inertia it is now assumed you need to be connected in order to have competitive office space.

          I’d suggest, as cool as some people think the Crystal Staircase is, that the skyway between the Crystal Court and Macy’s be removed instead.

  7. Faith

    A better streetscape is nice, but it doesn’t provide a reason to walk at street level instead of at skyway level. Where are you going if you’re walking on the street? A bench, a tree or a piece of art is not a destination, although they make the journey much more inviting.

    Toronto has ‘the underground’ which is similar to our skyway system and only used during the work week. Yet their streets are still teaming with people and their first floor retail space is full. They also have a lot more people living downtown and much higher number of people using transit & walking to work, thus providing a stronger market for first floor retail space.

      1. Jim

        Toronto’s PATH has lots of retail underground. Feels like a large suburban shopping mall built underneath the city.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

      Faith, what IS the solution, then? What does Toronto do that makes people walk on the streets? I’ll speculate that an additional 35,000 downtown residents will help, but more importantly we simply need to ensure ground floor retail/restaurant space exists.

      I think a lot of attention was paid to the ground floor design of the US Bank and Target store/HQ buildings between 800 and 1000 Nicollet when they were built 12 years ago to ensure good retail space and street life. That has created good results, whereas less attention was paid to City Center and that certainly has been less successful. And so it will be critical that Xcel and CenterPoint have quality ground floor uses, not insular.

      If we keep our eyes on the ball and prioritize well-designed sidewalks and buildings with good access and ground floor space, we’ll be in pretty good shape.

  8. Samuel GeerSamuel Geer Post author

    I think that people are drawn to hubs and nodes. I think about when I lived in the Prague and the subway station / tram stop interfaces were always hopping at all hours and therefore the retail naturally clustered around those spots. The transportation reinforced this, but similarly, the addition of a streetcar system would begin to do the same thing here.

    I think much of the skyway retail space in odd locations could easily revert back to office space, but by consolidating the access points to the skyway and making them destinations you could create hubs of groundfloor and second floor retail that would be vertically stacked. That would be pretty cool.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

      Oooh, be careful hoping a streetcar system will add more potential people to street life or customers to stores that don’t already exist. Subways with up to eight cars can carry hundreds of passengers, and being underground they funnel passengers in much greater numbers through tunnels and exits, etc. Two to three minute headways don’t hurt, either. Thus, you often you see convenience retail inside stations themselves, like on a mezzanine level, because of the huge captive market. At-grade bus or streetcar stops handle a fraction of the people. That’s not to say that well-located convenience retail won’t work along Nicollet Mall or wherever, but the numbers are less.

      To your second point, the Crystal Court does an excellent job of vertical integration and has a high-grade streetscape on all four sides. I’ll concede the IDS block overall makes skyways palatable.

      1. Leo

        Minneapolis has plenty of street real estate to fill with high quality, high intensity transit before any sort of subways need be considered at all. Let alone three minute headway eight car giants! You’d have to come up with two, three, four Minneapolises to fill that sort of trains with bustling traffic.

        Answer the needs of present today, leave the future for tomorrow. Plus, while the funneling nature of underground stations is great for hotspots of activity, they also create dead zones between the stations. Walkability involves a continuous state of walkability, not just subway station malls every half a mile.

  9. Jeb Hagan

    Personally, I find the skyways to be an interesting and welcoming place for all kinds of people, year round. I think they make a valuable *addition* to downtown street life without replacing it. If anyone sees Nicollet Mall and still thinks downtown street life is somehow deficient, there are plenty of other regulatory and real estate issues to address first. And for those who want to get rid of skyways, I would ask: would downtown still be a desirable place to work if employees had to trudge through 2 feet of snow to get lunch, or pick up their cleaning, or go to the bank?

  10. Mike

    This is a great idea.
    But I think people blame the skyways way too much for the lack of life in downtown Minneapolis.
    The skyways contrary to opinion, did not kill downtown retail, downtown street life, or make downtown a place people avoid.

    Over expansion of suburban retail options which were not needed, coupled with other issues relating to decentralization of workplaces, has led to the poor performance of downtown Minneapolis as a destination for shopping, strolling, and spending a day out in the city.

    There are cities with very healthy downtown street life and underground passages or skyways. These cities do not suffer, because they have downtowns that are still metropolitan wide attractions, which offer things on street level people want to travel to and visit.

    So yes make better linkages between street and skyway. But that is not going to make downtown what it should be, until the region as a whole addresses the true issues for downtown Minneapolis’ poor performance.

  11. Mike

    As a Toronto resident, I will chime in on the PATH (our downtown underground walkway system).

    The PATH connects many parts of downtown and has over 1500 shops and services. Many of these places are only open weekdays. However some of the shops do also open on weekends now as well.
    Even on weekends, the PATH is used by people coming into downtown, and is often used by suburbanites walking from the main train station to the retail and theatre attractions, if the weather is cold.

    Downtown residents are not responsible for the downtown retail or busy streets.

    Toronto’s downtown streets are busy, because the downtown area is still the primary place in the region for shopping, dining, entertainment, and culture. It offers the best variety of retail, dining, entertainment, and people watching.

    On a Saturday, it is the streets that are packed, because that is where major shopping, restaurants, and entertainment venues are located. That is where you will find the interesting funky places that make downtown so much fun.
    The PATH itself also has some nice restaurants and retail offerings. During the weekday, the PATH and the streets are both packed. Again, the streets have stuff you just can’t get in the PATH.
    If you are going downtown on say a Friday evening, you are going downtown to stroll down say Yonge Street, enjoy a drink, go walk by Dundas Square and hear a live band, etc.You can’t get that in a tunnel.

    If you want busy streets, you gotta give people a reason to still come downtown. And that means downtown has to offer the best the region has to offer, all in a pedestrian friendly, unique setting.

    I also want to add the PATH probably helps rather than hinders downtown street vitality. People tend to use both PATH and the streets. And on days when the weather is really bad, PATH can be the reason people still decide to go downtown for something.

    I know in really cold weather, it is PATH that helps me get to streetfront retail, by allowing me to walk halfway underground, and then scoot aboveground to the street for a block or two to a store I want to go to. Works great in on those really really frigid days, or in a surprise rainstorm :).

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