The podcast this week is a conversation with Eric Dayton, the founder and chief booster of the Minneapolis Skyway Avoidance Society. Eric Dayton is the owner of two downtown Minneapolis businesses – the Bachelor Farmer restaurant and Askov-Finlayson, a clothing retailer – and, of course, son of Minnesota governor Marc Dayton.
We sat down a few months ago at his North Loop offices to talk about his thoughts on downtown Minneapolis skyways, how Minnesota should think differently about its climate, and how downtown Minneapolis should re-think its approach to retail and street life.
We had a great chat and I hope you enjoy the conversation.
The podcast this week is sponsored by Hourcar.
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Thanks to Hourcar for sponsoring the podcast, and if you would like to sponsor future episodes of the streets.mn podcast, please reach out to me, Bill Lindeke, for more details. The podcast intro music was written and produced by Dan Choma. Thank you so much for listening.
[Rough Transcript Follows]
Q: What is the “skyway avoidance society”?
We call it the skyway avoidance society. It’s something we kicked off through Askov-Finlayson. I’ve been aware of the skyways and the dynamics downtown since probably about 2005. I worked for Target at their downtown headquarters for a couple of years after college. I don’t know why it was important to me even then, but I always walked outside. I liked being outside, being out in the city and probably could not articulate it then, but I just always avoided the skyways.
Since that time, we’ve all seen the series of significant retail closures downtown. A lot of things moving in the wrong direction, and I just became increasingly concerned about a trend and a pattern heading in the wrong way. Not to say there aren’t encouraging indicators downtown, people and businesses moving to the city, a lot of macro trends in Minneapolis’ favor, but I continue to see a slow decline in downtown retail especially.
There were rumors of Macy’s selling their building, and a local writer reporter Ally Kaplan who does retail style reporting for MSP Magazine, about the original Dayton’s building, which has a long connection to my family. It’s an important building in the city’s history and one that I feel a connection to. So she wrote a piece for the magazine saying that the Dayton family should buy that building, that was her idea and her vision and I read it and respond to her.
I said, I’ll make you a deal Ally. You take down the skyways, and I’ll buy that building. And I said that publicly, and it spurred a conversation on Twitter, a conversation that then has spilled over into the press a little bit, a conversation that is important to have about the city that we have now that we want to have and what’s holding us back from getting there.
It was her article that sparked this and something I’d thought about for many years. But it took this latest bit of bad news about downtown to finally make me want to do something about it.
Q: Just what is the problem with skyways anyway?
A lot of people like the skyways and I understand why they do. But it’s impossible not to argue that skyways split foot traffic. That’s what they do: they take a certain percentage of he people and put them put on the second level off the streets. In the summer, you see some people on the streets and others who are up in the skyways just out of habit. You just take the skyways and you are on autopilot a little bit. And in the winter, the percentage in the skyways go up and the street level goes down, and it means that you never have 100% of the people in one place.
And for retail when foot traffic is so essential, I don’t’ know how you decide where you want to be as a retailer. Do you want to be on the skyway level and have softer foot traffic in the summer, or vice versa? Urban experts say that really no city in the world has enough density to support two levels of a city with healthy amounts of foot traffic. By bifurcating our foot traffic, the skyways create two levels of less-than-healthy retail environment instead of one level of fully supported healthy retail landscape, with the foot traffic that retailers need to not just survive but thrive.
Q: What are your thoughts on the recent closure of the Macy’s store downtown?
You look at Macy’s and people say the skyways draw lots of foot traffic to Macy’s. Well I remember cutting through there to get a sandwich on the way to work, but that’s not foot traffic. You can design a store to try to get on both levels, but most smaller retailers can’t. They have to choose one or the other.
I get why people like the skyways. On a cold or rainy day, you give someone a choice between walking outside or inside and they’ll pick the skyways. But what I’ve tried to do is reframe the choice. The question is not “do you like the skyways or not?”, but “do you like the skyways enough to pay the price of what they’re doing to our city?” Does that convenience and comfort benefit outweigh the potential to have a healthy thriving downtown landscape of restaurants and businesses year round?
When that becomes the tradeoff i hope it gives people a reason to pause and think about that.
Q: So are we stuck with them or what do we do?
I reject that idea. That’s been the prevailing mindset: we’re stuck with them. But I just flat out reject that idea. At the very least, I think bringing down the skyway system belongs on the table as one of the options that we should consider was we’re thinking about what to do about the system. Everyone seems to understand and accept that they are hurting downtown and having a damaging impact, and we built the system, we created it, why the same people can’t take the bold step and have the vision to say we created this system, we did it at a time when a lot of trends were moving away from our city…
There were a lot of worrying trends for the city and the leaders of the city at that time, like my great uncle Donald Dayton, they said we have got a real problem here and they decided to try and combat that problem with skyways. It was a well intended decision at the time, and a lot of people make the argument that they saved the city. So I don’t second guess that decision. I think it was, at the time, using the best information they had, with the right intentions… but here we are 50 years after and a lot of those tends are coming back our direction to benefit the city. And yet we’re stuck with infrastructure that reflects 60-year-old urban design thinking. And we have the benefit of seeing what those skyways did long term and seeing that that impact’s negative.
If we all accept that they’re bad, I don’t want to just make them a little less bad, not to tweak around the edges with better wayfinding. If they’re bad let’s take it on and do something about it, and have the courage of our conviction. I strongly believe that should be on the table as one of the options we’re considering.
Q: How do you see the connection between skyways and downtown Minneapolis retail today?
When I’m walking downtown, I see people outside their building smoking and it just reminds you if it’s important to you if you care about it you’ll endure a little bit of cold to do it. If you’re a smoker that might mean smoking for you, but for me it means having a healthy thriving city and for me its walking outside and this whole idea that we nee the skyways, that we have to have them that they’re essential. I don’t buy it. You saw the people tailgating before the Vikings game the other day in below zero, and they’re outside. We know how to handle the cold. We’re Minnesotans. We grew up with it, we have the clothes for it. People do need to dress appropriately, but we know how to handle the cold.
Q: Tell me about your push to re-connect Minneotans with winter?
If you look at a high level we’re not getting older we’re getting milder the really cold days are fewer and fewer in between. That’s another thing that I’m not happy about, but that’s the reality, and so whatever argument there was for needing the skyways in the past, that argument is getting weaker and weaker every year.
I did a talk for TEDxMinneapolis about the idea that embracing who we are, where we are, this is Minnesota. We’re in the north of the US. It’s not a marketing or branding gimmick, it’s just the geography of where we’re located, having four distinct seasons, including a cold winter, which I love. Its about celebrating that, embracing that, and not apologizing for it, and getting outside all four seasons, year-round. Celebrating where we are, who we are, and having a positive mindset about our winters, about our state. That’s important, not just for those of us who live here, but you start to look at the economic impact of the opportunity to drive more tourism here in the winter, the need of our companies to attract talent here.
We have to start with ourselves. If someone’s thinking about moving to Minnesota and they notice that Minnesotans, the people who live here, are griping about where they live half the year, they see that example. If this is a great place to live year around each season has its challenges but it’s a great place to be all four seasons.
Q: How do you view the future of retail in downtown?
The Star Tribune has been sharing some old archive photos of Nicollet Mall downtown. I look at those pictures and I think, that’s the city I want to live in. That looks like a thriving bustling downtown.
But we’ve lost that. It’s not just the skyways. That’s not the silver bullet. We’ve got to look at downtown architecture, buildings that are structurally inward-facing. They reflect a “mall mentality”, and it’s going to require some investment, but we’ve got to figure out how to pop those buildings inside-out and get those buildings facing the street.
We can’t “out-mall” the malls, nor should we really want to. Instead of trying to compete with the malls and lose, let’s be the alternative to the malls. Let’s be the authentic outdoor walking shop to shop …
That’s what we’re seeing in the North Loop. This neighborhood is the perfect argument to anyone who says that downtown has to have skyways. You should have been here for the “black Friday” weekend. The foot traffic around this neighborhood, people walking store to store, stopping into a coffee shops, it had a great energy year-round.
That’s not the reason that the North Loop has a lot of energy. It’s not in spite of not having skyways, its because of not having skyways. Downtown could be benefiting from some of the same trends and downtown could be benefitting just like that. its about flipping an inward facing downtown culture and popping it outward.
Q: What would you do with Nicollet Mall?
We’re just on the tail end of making this huge investment in our city with the Nicollet mall redesign a huge period of disruption and so we’ve made this big investment of time, money, disruption, energy. Let’s really figure out how to maximize the “return on investment” of all of that. Ff we think we can put just a consistent overhaul on Nicollet, and that will change everything… Let’s go all-in. If we’re going to do the new designs, let’s go deeper than that and think about, can we put the uses somewhere else? Can that help? How do the skyways factor into that? Downtown property owners, how can we re-position our property so that the energy is outward? These things need to be done in concert so that it can have the impact we want.