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Click here to see a map of Saint Paul's skyway system.
Click here to see a map of Minneapolis's skyway system.

The birthplace of the modern skyway system was in the Twin Cities. When the suburban wave came full circle in the 1950's, Saint Paul and Minneapolis leaders had realized that they were in for the long haul, especially when it came to holding together downtown retailers. A debate exists over which city truly founded the skyway system. Purists claim that when Donaldson's Department Store built an elevated bridge to its parking ramp in 1951, Saint Paul became the birthplace of the skyway. However, Minneapolis was the first city to apply the idea on a large scale. The president of Baker Properties, Leslie Park, is the man credited with inventing the idea of a skyway system. Considered an "imaginative, farseeing guy", he realized before city leaders that downtown was going to face a decline if something wasn't done. Since the early 1950's, Park had been unsuccessfully appealing to the downtown community about building a network of above ground walkways. Les Park's break didn't come until 1959 when the City Planning Department made downtown vacancy a priority. Park explained his ideas to the city. They liked the plan so much, they commissioned Park and partner/architect, Ed Baker, to develop a plan for a skyway system. Planned for Nicollet Mall, the skyways would take people 14 feet above the ground, allowing them to move in between buildings without having to go outside. At the same time, escalators at each street corner would provide easy access to the skyways. Unfortunately, nagging doubts about and street level retail saw this grand plan cancelled, but Les Park was not finished yet. He wanted to prove the idea had merit, so he commissioned Ed Baker to design the Northstar Center, a modern shopping area with offices, restaurants and a parking ramp all wrapped into one. The most innovative part of the design was the adoption of skyways to connect it to other buildings downtown. The building was finished in 1959, and on Augst 27, 1962, Minneapolis' first skyway was open, connecting Northstar Center (specifically the Cargill Building, part of the complex) to Northwestern National Bank (Wells Fargo Center now occupies this site). It was an instant success, becoming a local tourist attraction. The city could no longer deny the results: second floor property increased in value, street level remained constant, and it attracted far more people than before. To continue Northstar Center's success, it built a second skyway to the Roanoke Building (now Baker Center) across 7th Street. Retail demand skyrocketed and foot traffic continued to climb. Les Park showed Minneapolis that skyways could work, and this was just the beginning.

The man credited for bringing the start of the skyway system to Saint Paul is Watson Davidson. The Davidson family once owned a large part of downtown Saint Paul, including the historical Pioneer and Endicott Buildings. After seeing the initial success in Minneapolis, he was convinced that Saint Paul needed to have skyways too. He built one in 1967, linking the Federal Courts Building to the Pioneer Press Building. An urban renewal project mixed in with a historical building made for an interesting combination. The Pioneer Building had to be renovated so they could fit in the new skyway. The big difference here was that the city was supportive from the start and supplied a lot of urban renewal dollars to help with the construction of the skyway. After the city saw the benefits that the skyway had brought to their own downcity, Saint Paul hired Hammel Green and Abrahamson Inc. to develop a skyway story and find a way to link it through the existing downtown buildings. Since the plan applied to downtown as a whole, the skyways would be uniform, paid for by the city and publically maintained like the streets. At the same time, the city was developing the idea of Capital Centre, a collection of office buildings in the heart of the city. Integrating skyways into the development became a priority. However, there were mixed results. The Capital Centre idea went as far as the Fifth Street Center (formerly Wells Fargo) and the current Ecolab Buildings. What was built of the plan was connected to each other with an above ground terrace, a large skyway filled with stores. The even better news was that the skyway system was implemented on other buildings as well. 10 years after the initial skyway was built, 9 skyways were in use (Minneapolis had 10 for comparison). First National Bank, U.S. Bank(formerly American National and Firstar), Kellogg Square Apartments, Daytons, and TCF (where the 401 Building is currently) were all interconnected. The city also faced some criticism with the new system. Since the Capital Centre idea was based on the skyway level, it made the street level seem less interesting and more devoid of shops. Critics called Saint Paul the "blank-wall capitol of the United States", calling their projects cold and inward. Still, nothing could defy the fact that Saint Paul experienced great success with the skyways. With a system now connecting businesses to each other, employees were now more mobile and retail had more incentive to stay. The city looked at their results and was convinced that skyways could revitalize their dying core. A variety of projects began to take shape, just like in Minneapolis...

Minneapolis and Saint Paul had each given rise to their own skyway system and so with each new development, the requirement came that it had to take part in the innovative feature. In Minneapolis, companies are actually responsible for the building and maintaince of their skyways. The city states that the skyway system is actually a private entity, but is intended for public use. Businesses downtown find that skyways are beneficial because traffic to their buildings increase and at the same time, they have the opportunity to make money off of retail space. IDS (Investors Diversified Services, A.K.A. American Express) Tower was the first corporate tower that actually incorporated a retail core built around the skyways. By building the Marquette Hotel and the Crystal Court into the complex, and establishing itself as the central node in the system, the owners have made millions of dollars in retail clients and the attention it has brought with the cultural events that also take place in this public square. Saint Paul businesses have the luxury of skyways provided for them. The city builds them of a uniform design as a way to identify their system as a public system. Businesses benefit from the skyway connections, but they must provide paths for people to follow, and security to patrol the system (just like Minneapolis). The businesses in Saint Paul are responsible for the upkeep of the connections as well, but the city does do some maintaince work on the connections as well. Because of these two different paths to making a skyway system, each of the cities offer a unique experience. People note Minneapolis' system as being more impressive since the skyways have taken on a variety of different styles, all planned out by the companies that build them. For example, the IDS Center has skyways nearly 30 feet wide (about twice the width of a Saint Paul skyway) and have glass plated roofs so people can also look up at the towers around them. Meanwhile, the skyway connected Gaviidae Common and City Center takes a different approach, having a diamond pattern built into the glass walls of the skyway to produce visual stimulation and a greater incentive for people to continue through rather than to take in the view.

Each of the two cities have developed a town center, a place where the most heavy concentration of retail lies. Minneapolis has done a better job integrating their town center, Nicollet Mall, into a bi-level shopping area. The three largest retail centers (Crystal Court, Gaviidae Common, and City Center) all border Nicollet Mall, which has managed to maintain street vendors. The city used Nicollet Mall as a starting point to maintain its retail dominance and the skyways have become the perfect compliment. City leaders were excited, but still cautious when work began in the late 50's. A dozen blocks of Nicollet Ave. was converted into a shopping street, blocking out traffic and attempting to keep street life alive. After the IDS Tower fronted on the street, it has successfully added to the street without stealing the outdoor stores. Continuing to expand, developers began erecting the city's tallest buildings along this corridor, integrating skyway level shops and using the street and mass transit as draws for downtown visitors. In fact, Nicollet Mall has become successful enough to warrant a new Target store that will open in late 2001/early 2002. All of Minneapolis' major downtown stores (Daytons, Barnes & Noble, Officemax, Saks) all sit on this vital artery to the downtown market. A four block section of downtown including IDS, Wells Fargo, City Center, and Baker Center all contain nearly 400 stores, the fifth highest density of retail in the country. Saint Paul has not had the luck that Minneapolis has had. Ever since its first skyway, Saint Paul has been loosing street level shops. Rapidly expanding its skyway system to keep up with Minneapolis meant it could retain many stores (and even gain a few), but they continued to demand exclusively second-level space. Saint Paul began to use the term "superblock" to refer to projects that would take up huge lots in downtown, including Wells Fargo, Dayton's (and later the World Trade Center), Firstar, and the Capital Center Plaza (now Ecolab). The biggest addition to the skyway system was Town Square, planned to be a central node in the skyway system. It was a major success. In 1984, a couple short years after opening, it's occupancy was 100% and it had the largest public indoor park in the world. The city paid a price for this valuable property; killing the street level market. New projects turned everything indoors and had earned the city a very bad reputation. The city also faced great difficulty after the addition of Galtier Plaza and the World Trade Center to the downtown area. While the office and living space managed to stay afloat, there was a pure over-saturation of retail space, and soon, stores began to flee. Parking became more expensive, and less pedestrians were coming downtown every year, preferring a more easily-accessible suburban mall. Town Square, along with its fellow superblock projects were tossed from owner to owner. Downtown properties fell in value, and the retail vacancy hit 50%. Now the city is recovering from a long string of difficulty. Saint Paul has just began to revitalize the street level, starting at Wabasha, the only main street that retained retail through the years. The retail center of downtown is now concentrated in the oldest superblock projects. Without much diversity, the small volume of downtown stores is strongest along Wasbaha, between 4th and 7th Streets and extends through Daytons, the hub of downtown, into Wells Fargo and Firstar, two central nodes in the downtown skyway system. There is roughly a 80/20 proportion of skyway retail to street retail.

So what have the skyways done for downtown Saint Paul and Minneapolis? Here are some positive results:

  • It has improved the mobility of the downtown workforce. Studies done in the 1980's shown that the average downtown worker spends over twice as much money downtown as they did when skyways were non-existant. This means that the downtown area generates more retail profits since workers have easy accessibility to other buildings downtown.
  • It has improved the traffic situation to a degree. Outer edge parking lots have had more customers since the skyways came into use because people can use skyways to get from the edge of downtown to a central location where their work may be located. In fact, in recent years, transit has increased in both downtown areas. Currently, 37% of Minneapolis downtown workers take the bus to get downtown and nearly 18% of Saint Paul workers do the same (Source: Skyway News, 3/26/2001). Since the buses have easy access to all parts of downtown, workers found it much easier (and cheaper) to use mass transit to get downtown and use the skyways to walk to work.
  • It slowed down and rebounded the loss of retail clients. Minneapolis' retail base experienced a decline and a complete comeback when the skyway system came into use. Now, projects are underway to expand the retail market, including Block E, an entertainment center fully integrated into the skyways. Saint Paul's record has faced a quick comeback, a long decline, and is now beginning to rebound once again. Skyways have given retail clients better business then ever before. The most valuable space in both downtown cores are now second-floor properties.
  • Corporations are now becoming more public in the downtown areas. American Express, U.S. Bank, Pillsbury, Target, Wells Fargo, and even the U.S. Government have all welcomed the foot traffic. Since skyways have become implemented, corporate towers have incorporated lobbies to welcome visitors and even take in on some shopping opportunities. Pillsbury is a notable example, dedicating their first two floors to have a shopping concourse, complete with public art and transit stops. Before the days of skyways, most corporate buildings were employees only. Not all companies downtown (Quest, most noticably) have adapted to the community generated by the connections, but downtown has become a much more integrated and close community.
  • Downtown has become a more multi-purpose attraction. Instead of focusing on sports or culture exclusively, both cities have pushed their business districts as entertainment corridors. Many people are happy to find that skyways connect several different types of attractions together. In Minneapolis, one can get to the Target Center and Orchestra Hall through the skyways. In Saint Paul, an underground tunnel is under construction so people can head to the X-Cel Energy Center and the Rice Park area via skyways. Even hospitals are incorporated into the skyway systems, so downtown had successfully connected a variety of uses into one system of transportation.
  • Protection from the weather and elements. Minnesota has very cold winters and hot summers. The skyways are climate controlled and as a result, drastically improve transportation at different times of the year. People continue to smirk when they can use skyways to walk right over the packed streets at rush hour.

Skyways are not always complete blessing to downtown areas. They do have their disadvantages:

  • First, the most obvious complaint is the attack on street level retail. Saint Paul has experienced this to a very serious degree. About 80% of their retail market is concentrated in the skyways. Misguided urban renewal projects have made the streets of both cores less inviting and more bland. Most development has turned their aesthetic appeal within and shuts out the world through blank designs. Only recently has city leaders really understood the importance of attractive streets. Lawson Commons in Saint Paul and Retek on the Mall in Minneapolis both use more traditional facades with street side retail to make their environment a little more inviting. At the same time, they remain connected to the skyways, creating a mix that better incorporates the two bottom floors.
  • Skyways are costly. In Minneapolis, the cost of a skyway can easily run over a million dollars. The costs for designing and building one continue to climb every year. Many corporations find it less expensive to pick a suburban location since building skyways when downtown is almost a requirement.
  • Aesthetics. In Saint Paul, the uniform design for the skyways have had critics, complaining that the design is unappealing and further damage the character of downtown streets. Skyways in Saint Paul are functional, designed in simple brown with large glass windows. While it may seem acceptable to many, others believe the city could have improved the design. In Minneapolis, the unique character of each skyway has drawn praise, but then each different skyway has their critics as well.
  • Rising costs of second-floor space. Retail stores find it nearly twice as expensive to have a skyway-level shop. Some retail development has given up on downtown and decided on cheaper suburban malls, though overall, it is not a serious problem. Most businesses find the increased traffic to upset the higher costs.
  • Incurred costs by the building tenants. Extra security and maintaince funds have been created in order to accomidate skyways. In both downtown cores, the tenants (and even residents) have had to pay for to upkeep of skyways, and with the hours that these buildings are open to the public (6AM-2AM in Saint Paul), extra security and janitorial positions have had to be created.

The first 25 skyways in Minneapolis
1. Northwestern National Bank to Cargill Building 1962
2. Northstar Center to Baker Block 1963
3. LaSalle Court [replaced by U.S. Bancorp] to Dayton's 1969
4. Marquette Bank to 1st Bank Concourse (now One Financial Plaza) 1969
5. IDS Center to Midwest Plaza 1973
6. IDS Center to Baker Block 1973
7. IDS Building to Wells Fargo Center (which was still in planning) 1973
8. TCF Bank to Baker Center 1974
9. Powers Department Store to JCPenney [replaced by Dain Rauscher] 1976
10. Orchestra Hall to its parking ramp 1977
11. Midland Bank Building to Northwestern Bell (now Quest) 1981
12. Northwestern Bell (now Quest) to Pillsbury Center 1981
13. 1st. National Bank (now One Financial Plaza) to Pillsbury Center 1981
14. Galaxy Building [replaced by Towle Building] to Midland Square 1982
15. Galaxy Building [replaced by Towle Building] to Crossing Condoniniums 1982
16. Crossings Condoniniums to 100 Washington Square 1982
17. Star Tribune (connecting two of their buildings) 1982
18. Crossings Condoniniums to Wells Fargo Operations Center 1983
19. Plymouth Building to City Center 1983
20. Hennepin County Govt. Center to Pillsbury Center 1983
21. Riverplace Pinnacle to Riverplace 1984
22. Wells Fargo Operations Center to Gateway Municipal Parking Ramp 1984
23. TCF Bank to International Center 1984
24. Hennepin County Govt. Center to its parking ramp 1984
25. JCPenney to F&M (now Renaissance Square?) 1963*
*The date is listed as 1963, but I'm unsure as to why. It may have been replaced with a new skyway with the original date given.

The first 25 skyways in Saint Paul
1. Federal Courts Building to Pioneer Press Building 1967
2. Fifth Street Center (superblock project that extends over Cedar Street) 1970
3. First National Bank Building to Pioneer Press Building 1971
4. Northern Federal (now Ecolab University Center) to Daytons 1971
5. Midwest Federal (now Bremier) to Fifth Street Center 1972
6. Kellogg Square Apartments to First National Bank Building 1972
7. Fifth Street Center to American National Bank (now U.S. Bank Center) 1974
8. First National Bank Building to American National Bank (now U.S. Bank Center) 1974
9. American National Bank (now U.S. Bank Center) to TCF Bank [replaced by 401 Building] 1974
10. Science Museum (now Minnesota Business Academy) to Arts and Sciences Building 1978
11. Wabasha Court to Daytons 1978
12. Bremer Building [replaced by 401 Building] to Donaldsons Department Store (now the Golden Rule Building) 1979
13. Metro Square Building to Donaldsons Department Store (now the Golden Rule Building) 1979
14. Park Square Court to Mears Park Place (and Apartments) 1979
15. St. Joesph's Hospital to Gallery Medical Building 1979
16. University Athletic Club to Pioneer Press Building 1980
17. Fifth Street Center to Town Square 1980
18. Town Square to Bremer Building [replaced by 401 Building] 1980
19. Dayton's (integrated into World Trade Center) to Town Square 1980
20. Degree of Honor Building to Pioneer Press Building 1980
21. Degree of Honor Building to Radisson Hotel 1980
22. American National Bank (now U.S. Bank Center) to Farm Credit Services (or Agrabank) 1981
23. TCF Bank [replaced by 401 Building] to MN Life 1982
24. MN life to Mears Park Place (and Apartments) 1982
25. City Walk Condoniniums to Town Square (via North Central Life Tower) 1983

Source: The Skyway Cities, Sam Kaufman, Skyway News, 1985.

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