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Cities face new urban problem: their own skywalks

Scott McFetridge
Associated Press

Des Moines, Iowa — In a city where cranes and construction barriers mark a surge in new downtown apartments, hotels and offices, the sidewalks in Des Moines’ core can be strangely quiet.

The reason is about 20 feet overhead, where bridges link a climate-controlled skywalk system that snakes through nearly 4 miles of downtown. When the skywalk was built in the 1970s, the idea was to protect office workers from the frigid winters in Iowa’s largest city and encourage businesses to resist the pull to suburban office parks. It was an instant success.

But one era’s brainstorm has become the next generation’s headache as cities are now desperate to add life to downtown. For them, the question is how to create lively streets when no one walks outside anymore.

Across the country, a debate is growing over what to do with the cozy corridors, bridges and tunnels that have helped create urban ghost towns. Cincinnati decided to dismantle half its 1-mile-plus system and Baltimore has taken down seven bridges, with plans to remove two more, to push people back onto the streets. Minneapolis, which is spending $50 million to overhaul its glitzy Nicollet Mall downtown, is being urged by some residents to do the same.

It’s an excruciating choice, giving up on something because it’s become too effective.

“I’d get rid of them if we could, but we could never do it,” said Erin Olson-Douglas, a city planner in Des Moines, which wants a vibrant center city to keep its young workers from moving somewhere livelier.

Skywalks have joined pedestrian malls, downtown parking garages and new traffic patterns as the latest downtown experiment to achieve mixed results.

While cities were flailing with new strategies, young people and baby boomers suddenly rediscovered urban living and provided new hope — but mostly for places with a lively atmosphere.

Tom Murphy, an urban revitalization expert and former mayor of Pittsburgh, said holding onto those young workers is essential because they’re highly sought by employers.

“For our history, it was always that people went where the jobs were,” Murphy said. “For the first time, we are now watching as jobs go where the people are.”

Minneapolis is the most vivid example of one city project apparently contradicting another.

With its brutal winters, Minneapolis was among the first cities to build so-called skyways in the 1960s and recently added paths to connect its new football stadium, bringing the system to about 9 miles. But Minneapolis urban blogger Sam Newberg insists the city should be tearing them down — he suggests taking out one bridge a year.

“It just breaks my heart to see so many people in the skyways even when it’s nice weather,” Newberg said, while the downtown Nicollet Mall below often has few pedestrians for its restaurants and stores.