Building for a Bipolar Climate

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I tend to do most non-lethal things that I’m challenged to do. I refuse to walk my bike up hills despite riding a single speed (when at all physically possible). As an 11-year old, I drank a half bottle of Texas Pete in exchange for $5 after being dared by my loving mother. A year ago, I was living in Seattle and my current Minnesotan girlfriend said something to the effect of “I bet you’re too scared of our winter to move here.” As is obvious by this post, the rest is history.

After living here, I’ve been incredibly impressed by this area’s ability to attract and retain millions of people, most of them seemingly normal. They even resemble the Seattlites I left behind, many of whom see Minneapolitans as cold weather masochists. Despite being among the coldest major cities in the world (I could only find one that was both colder and bigger), people seem to have a really hard time leaving here. Part of this is just a result of the Twin Cities’ golden ratio of lifestyle amenities that need no introduction. Nonetheless, the suburban model to which the majority of this region adheres actually provides an enormous competitive advantage when it comes to door to door climate control and, as a result, relative normalcy. It is for this reason that I begrudgingly respect heated parking garages, our stupifyingly extensive freeway system and yes, skyways.

I’ve never heard a non-urbanist hate on our skyway system. I’ve agreed with folks becrying piecemeal skyways in other warmer cities.  I’ve heard folks tut-tut the under-abundance of ground floor retail and overabundance of enormous 4-5 lane one way streets in Downtown Minneapolis. I’ve heard layperson enthusiasm for nearly everything that urbanists champion… except for dismantling our skyway system. Our current configuration is confusing, inaccessible, and possibly the furthest thing from the traditionally designed narrow storefronts that I love, but there’s no denying the conventional logic that a skyway trip beats a sidewalk trip on any -15 degree day. While I’m absolutely of the opinion that traditional city design needs to be the reference point for the future of our cities, it seems reactionist and narrow-minded to believe that every innovation of the auto era has no value to pedestrian-oriented urbanism going forward.

Anyway, onto my personal recipe for a skyway system that any urbanist can froth over. This is less to defend or ignore the equal access problems the skyways currently have, but to demonstrate how they can be a vital part of an inherently public downtown system that is uniquely effective in our climate.

Montreal did it, why can’t we?

Possibly the biggest factor keeping me from being a complete anti-skyway zealot is Montreal’s underground skyway equivalent, the RESO. In place of second story views, the RESO provides excellent retail and pedestrian connectivity to Montreal’s larger than average subway system. I have grand and unrealistic dreams of Minneapolis developing an equivalent system of elevated trains that interface with our skyways, alas I digress. What would be surprising to most skyway opponents is that the RESO doesn’t noticeably reduce pedestrian traffic on Montreal’s downtown commercial streets. The most likely answer for this is the area’s residential density, which is far higher than in Minneapolis’ downtown.

You can see Montreal’s residential population density peaking at it’s downtown, marked by the dark red. (Source: McGill College)

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…whereas Minneapolis’ downtown has among the city’s lowest residential population density. (Source: Streets.mn)

Additionally, there is actually a comparable amount of retail space on Montreal’s ground floor compared to the RESO. This is one thing that absolutely needs to change in Minneapolis, which doesn’t have anywhere near the critical mass of ground floor retail necessary to maintain a dynamic street scene in any weather. Even if a skyway teardown movement had a broader base, establishing a well-designed ground floor is the absolute first step.

Entrances and Exits

Another thing that the RESO does right is countless well-marked exits and entrances. It also has a distinct brand and has many connections with ground floor retail spaces. Until Minneapolis’ skyway has a similar degree of public access and integration with the street, it will remain a sterile, suburban, street-suffocating network. While expensive, I think this could be easily achieved by a staircase or other obviously marked street connection at every single bridge. Combined with obvious signage on both levels denoting the businesses and services above and below, we could have a truly urban, equitable and toasty system on our hands.

The yellow walkway pictured needs to be on every single skyway (Source: http://archpaper.com/)

Seasonal Modularity

In our current phase of extensive inner-city growth, the Twin Cities are re-defining the unique urban experience that this area is and will be known for. I believe that this experience should not only compete with suburban climate control but also bolster the unique factors that only come with walkable urbanism. This means urbanism that conforms to traditional standards while also remaining as seasonally flexible as possible. I feel like I must be one of the only urbanists who absolutely love Calhoun Square, but you can’t knock how well it provides a dynamic retail experience for both seasonal extremes. We employ the same kind of flexibility when converting winter’s parking lots into summer’s patios, just as Bryant Square Park’s ice rink turns into its summertime ballfield.

While these are great starts, I challenge Twin Cities urbanists to make this kind of seasonal flexibility the cornerstone of our current urban renaissance. Imagine if our skyway system not only had consistent street connections but also removable windows and roofs for the summer! What if every storefront had as bi-seasonal of a park as Northeast’s Crown Center? I’d like to see countless projects like these as well as the overall emergence of built environment that makes as much use of the summer breeze as the winter chill. Let’s just see if we can make such a compelling built environment as to make Los Angelenos jealous of our snow!

Dear Minneapolis: I want to see this repeated into infinity please. (Source http://www.journalmpls.com/)

I don’t think our skyway system should be removed, if only because of the myriad opportunities for improving it. Clearly issues of ambiguous ownership and generally confusing layout would need to be fixed before the system is truly egalitarian. If it is to be removed, lets make sure that we replace it with an innovative solution that makes the winter months a joy.

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11 Responses to Building for a Bipolar Climate

  1. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson June 16, 2014 at 8:20 pm #

    I’m also very pro-skyway-concept, but the city and the architects who design the buildings downtown have really dropped the ball. Skyways have the small store fronts, while the streets have few if any. But you’ve pretty well trend all the areas skyways could be made into a stellar asset.

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 17, 2014 at 6:04 am #

    “…most of them seemingly normal”; this is the main part you got wrong.

    Well, actually there’s a lot more. I think you’re right that if we’re ever going to fix the skyways, the way to do it is with large residential densities downtown.

    But almost all of the buildings in both downtowns that were constructed around skyways (as opposed to ‘retrofit’) create massive blank wall fortifications on the sidewalk level. (E.g., see these examples from Saint Paul: http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2014/05/blank-walls-of-saint-paul-1.html)

    The architecture of these buildings treats transit riders, pedestrians, people of color, and poor people like lepers (often the same people BTW). Theory be damned; these are not public spaces. Skyways are the functional equivalent of shopping malls, and have all the same benefits and problems of a shopping malls as public spaces. They are intentionally designed to minimize certain kinds of social interaction (e.g. loitering, sitting, not buying things) and maximize retail profits. It’s not an accident that the connections to the street are confusing. To suggest so is naive.

    (It’s really similar to this excellent article on plaza design in New York, where “public” plazas are often designed by developers on purpose to function poorly as public space: http://uar.sagepub.com/content/43/3/325.abstract [subscription required, alas])

    Maybe this can change? For example, see what’s happening to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Saint Paul. They’re adding a street café, windows and entrances in what had been car parking spaces and blank walls. But that’s a relatively redeemable building; most of our mega-block late 20th century skyway-addled office buildings will pose larger challenges.

    Certainly it will take eons…

    PS re: Eric’s comment. I wouldn’t blame the city or the architects too much. For the most part, they know the value of focusing on the street. The main problem are the building owners and developers who insist on certain anti-public, pro-car design specifications at the street level. A while back Sam Newburg told a great story to this very point about the design of the Block E building, about how someone in charge of the project had insisted that the design be focused on the interior skyways rather than the street level, and the architects shrugged and said something like, “OK, if you say so, but it’s a bad idea.” 2o years later, they’re putting lipstick on that pig.

    • Cameron Conway
      Cameron Conway June 17, 2014 at 8:36 am #

      I definitely understand all of the ways that skyways are terrible now and I think they really only deserve to stay if tons of changes are made. And really, who am I kidding, I’m being very optimistic when I assume that Wells Fargo would to turn a 180 on their initial design purpose. I just see the ways that the Montreal system embodies the changes I’d like to see here which makes it tough to give up. The interactions between underground and ground floor make for some really compelling nontraditional urbanism, which makes me think ‘how much does the suburban status quo inhibit or collective urban ambition?’ How would we be thinking differently if we had full reign over planning policy? I’m really in favor of designing a PUBLIC city that is uniquely prepared for our seasonal extremes and I think skyways could play a great role in that, if only serious changes were made. I’m also seriously into finding pro urban adaptive re use silver linings in awful suburban design. Tear down the skyways if we can’t completely democratize them… But who says we absolutely cant?

      • Rosa June 18, 2014 at 11:33 am #

        Better signage – including signage saying what street you are currently crossing – would go a long way to making the skyways better, and wouldn’t cost much. I understand the downtown grid pretty well but get terribly lost in the skyways.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller June 17, 2014 at 9:43 am #

      My initial reaction when reading this was, “good, now I don’t need to write a skyway post,” because I largely agree with Cameron. But Bill’s comment raises important issues that may perhaps motivate me to a longer response, starting with what I believe is the political reality that skyways aren’t going away any time soon.

      As for Block E, yeah, I read that story, and I’m sorry, I doesn’t generate any sympathy for the architects in me at all. The skyway integration that they came up with provided very little connection between the ground floor retail and the skyways or even much ability to tell from the skyway what was down on the ground floor. Its one of the worst examples of design in the post-skyway era, in my lay opinion.

      Anyway, I took a bunch of pictures on my way to the office and will probably take some more on the way home. We’ll see if I can get a coherent post of out them.

  3. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell June 17, 2014 at 8:53 am #

    Montreal works better because RESO is not a very inviting area (though hugely better than NYC or even WDC subways). You only go down there if you have to to catch a train, find a shop that’s not on the street, or because it is so bitter weather outside that you’re willing to use the RESO subway tunnels instead of the street.

    Our skyways on the other hand are comparatively quite inviting. You’re sort of a hamster out in the open, not down in a tunnel like a rat.

    If we had a subway system (tunnels, not necessarily trains) rather than a skyway system then I think we’d have the best of both worlds—good vibrant streets and an alternative for the most extreme of weather.

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten June 23, 2014 at 12:54 am #

      Could we make our skyways more utilitarian by other means? Say, restricting all skyways to 8′ wide? This would cause congestion, and naturally force people onto the streets in good weather, while still providing basic access in bad weather.

  4. Evan Roberts
    Evan June 17, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    The city has some power in that the skyways cross public right-of-ways which presumably require the city’s consent. They could use that power to insist on greater public connections.

    I think this post gets it right that greater density downtown will redeem some of the problems with the skyway system, and that retrofits to existing skyways could improve them significantly by adding connections to the street. Did we need to pay millions to a NY design firm to tell us that? Probably not.

  5. Zach June 17, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    I think the IDS center has the best outdoor/indoor interaction of any building in downtown, imo. While admittedly, it doesn’t directly have storefronts on the outside of the building, it is very easy to go inside from street level and either access the skyways or stay on ground level, and it has a very inviting indoor plaza. If only the stores had doors accessing both the indoor plaza and the street.

  6. Tony Hunt
    Tony Hunt June 19, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

    I appreciate your alternative view on skyways. Fwiw, I rarely go downtown unless I have to. When I do I find the skyways confusing and intimidating. But it’s not feeling safe on the streets that keeps me from downtown more than anything.

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