View Full Version : Skyways & Tunnels

August 3rd, 2005, 10:36 AM
August 3, 2005
Rethinking Skyways and Tunnels
Like many failed ideas, the skywalks in Cincinnati were built with only the best intentions.

They were dreamed up in a fit of 1960's urban renewal - a development guru's idea for making downtown Cincinnati easier to navigate and easier to enjoy. The city erected a small network of second-story bridges that spanned the streets and linked offices and hotels, allowing people to stroll through downtown without stepping onto the sidewalk.

Two dozen cities across the country pursued similar plans over the last 30 years, building skywalks and underground retail catacombs to keep businesses and stores from fleeing to suburbs and shopping malls. They ensconced shoppers and office workers in well-lighted, climate-controlled environments and insulated them from crime, cold and urban blight.

But now, many of these cities are gripped with builders' remorse. They say the skyways and tunnels have choked off pedestrian traffic, hurt street-level retailers and limited development in the city core.

"The skywalks were not the best-developed scheme in recent history and have not served us all that well," said Jim Tarbell, a Cincinnati councilman.

And now, as cities try to draw residents downtown with loft conversions and tax incentives, several are trying to divert pedestrians back to the street and do away with the walkways. Critics say the walkways are too antiseptic and too controlled and have transformed cities into places to pass through, not live in.

"If I could take a cement mixer and pour cement in and clog up the tunnels, I would do it today," said Laura Miller, the mayor of Dallas, referring to the city's tunnels. "It was the worst urban planning decision that Dallas has ever made. They thought it was hip and groovy to create an underground community, but it was a death knell."

This attitude shift shows that city planners and officials now see the pulse of their downtown not in its office towers and 9-to-5 workers, but in street cafes and restaurants, sidewalks and pedestrian traffic during the day, after work and on weekends.

"At the time they were built, they were seen as a way of competing with the suburbs," said Dave Feehan, director of the International Downtown Association, a collection of city-center groups. "Remember the fear of crime people had 20 years ago? Downtowns were seen as unsafe places and places people didn't want to be."

But now?

"People are saying, if we had it to do all over again, we wouldn't do it," Mr. Feehan said.

Dallas has considered offering retailers $2.5 million in incentives if they relocate from the tunnels to the street. Des Moines has limited the expansion of its skywalks. Cincinnati has gone the furthest and approved a plan to tear down pieces of its 30-year-old skywalk system.

Still, skywalks and tunnels have become crucial arteries of city life in cold-weather places like Fargo, N.D., and Minneapolis, St. Paul and Rochester in Minnesota.

Other cities and downtown associations that have soured on their skywalks have no choice but to live with them. Many were built with a mix of public and private money and are now owned, maintained and guarded by the office towers through which they run.

In Hartford, plans to demolish the Asylum Street skybridge, widely ridiculed as a civic embarrassment, stalled last year over objections from the tenants and leaseholder in the office building on one end of the bridge. Developers who are building a huge residential tower across Asylum Street still hope to tear down the skywalk, but legal disputes could keep it intact for another two years.

Not so in Cincinnati. In the 1960's, the city asked its director of development, Peter Kory, to build skybridges that would join commercial towers to hotels to a convention center downtown.

Mr. Tarbell, the Cincinnati councilman, said the city modeled its skywalks after those in Minneapolis.

The skywalks loom over Fountain Square, Cincinnati's central civic plaza, cutting off views and strangling retailers and restaurants on the ground floor. One office building on Vine Street with a skywalk link does not even have a lobby on the street level.

"The skywalk - it's ugly, and the space underneath it is dark and yucky," said Charlie Luken, the mayor of Cincinnati. "The whole area is dead too much of the day."

The skywalks deteriorated over the years and were used mostly by office workers looking for cigarette breaks, city officials said. The city paid to build the skywalks, and now pays to maintain them.

And so, the City Council in June approved a $42 million plan to renovate Fountain Square, which would finance destruction of several pieces of the skywalk, keeping one leg that connects to the Cincinnati Convention Center. Demolition is set to start in August, but not everyone is happy.

"It's a very controversial issue because people are used to the thing," Mr. Luken said. "When it rains or snows, they're used to using it."

But for what? Exceptions abide, but the businesses that fill skywalks and tunnels mainly serve office workers on lunch breaks, small-bore shoppers and residents seeking relief from the heat, cold or rain. There are copy centers, office-suppliers, diners, candy and coffee shops and a smattering of salons and gift stores, but few high-end restaurants or retailers.

"If you come here, people would think we have no retail at all," said Cheryl Myers, a senior vice president of Charlotte Center City Planners in North Carolina.

In the 1970's, the city began building its Overstreet Mall, a series of retail shops on the second floor of office buildings, connected by skywalks. Today, the skywalks connect 30 downtown blocks, Ms. Myers said. "Everyone knows it's a mistake," she said.

When walkways bloomed from Dallas to Des Moines, Minneapolis to Tampa, in the 1970's and early 80's, it appeared that White Plains in Westchester County would join the party. The White Plains Mall had sucked retailers and clothing stores from downtown, and vacancy rates were at 30 percent.

But after planning to build the system, the city cooled on the idea, finally abandoning it in 1998, said Paul Wood, the executive officer for White Plains. It instead supported projects like a sculpture walk, plazas and a farmer's market designed to keep people on the streets.

"The skyways really didn't work," Mr. Wood said. "If you're up in a skywalk, you might as well be driving your car."

Des Moines began building its three miles of skywalks in 1982, arguing at the time that the $10 million program would save the city. Twenty-three years later, city officials blame the skywalks for the ghostly still sidewalks and ground-floor vacancy rates of 60 percent.

The city has no plans to rip down its skywalks, but the City Council has passed resolutions limiting their presence to a central Skywalk District downtown. Two years ago, a $50 million entertainment development proposed by AMC Theaters fell apart because the city refused to allow a skywalk to be built over Court Avenue, city officials said.

"We negotiated a million ways, but we said, 'You're not going to get it,' " said Chris Coleman, a Des Moines councilman.

Inside the Dallas Underground, a two-mile tunnel system that supports 90 businesses, the corridors are sometimes bustling, but sometimes deserted and melancholy. Despite the mayor's desire to plug the tunnels and lure businesses away, owners say they are happy to be down below, ready to serve the thousands of people who work above.

Others miss the urban rush. One afternoon, George Baum sat in a half-empty dining corridor in the basement of the Renaissance Towers, finishing lunch before he returned to the 19th floor and his job at Nieman Marcus.

"There's stuff going on all around downtown, but you don't see it here," Mr. Baum said. "I should get out more."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

August 3rd, 2005, 10:52 AM
Rochester, NY has a lovely skyway connecting lots of vacant office space.

August 3rd, 2005, 11:55 AM
New York was included in this urban "dream."

I can't remember the nickname for the project, something like the twenty foot plan, indicating the average height of the skyways.

Two pedestrian bridges bridges were built in Lower Manhattan, both from the upper plaza at 130 Liberty (Deutsche Bank). One spanned Greenwich St to the roof of the firehouse. The other crossed Liberty St to the WTC plaza.

The pedestrian bridge over West St from the WFC has a blunt end at the stairway down to the street. The intent was to connect the bridge to any commercial building developed on the parking lot (where St Nicholas church was), and that would span Washington St to 130 Liberty.

August 3rd, 2005, 12:14 PM
It all depends on the neighborhood.

In certain areas of NYC it would be fine to have these hamster-like skyways, so long as they were done right.

Tunnels would be kind of depressing and morbid. We have a few underground malls as it is and they are rather, well, DEPRESSING AND MORBID!!!

Anyway, I think they made the mistake of making these things too internal and with little option to interact with the surrounding neighborhood.

Who is to say that if they had made these bridges open, like the second story on a mall, that they would be seen as such isolating edifices?

Just a thought.

August 3rd, 2005, 10:59 PM
If you live in a horrid place (say like Houston -- sorry, Houstonites, but let's be honest) all those enclosed tunnels & walkways to keep the folks removed from the humidity are one of the few things that make living / working there bearable for many months of the year.

But they kill the street life.

For a civilized city they should be kept to an absolute minimum, if built at all.

August 3rd, 2005, 11:29 PM
Another bad idea of Corbusier's.

Twentieth Century's most influential architect.

* * *

Have you seen "Boozy"? Is it still playing?

August 4th, 2005, 02:54 AM
I like them, in a way. The tunnels under Lincoln Center are a godsend when it's raining, even if they are depressing and not very pretty. Years ago I was in Pittsburgh for work in January and I was very grateful to find a way to get halfway to the job from the hotel without being in the below zero temperature. I have a feeling that some of the underground systems were built with an eye for bomb shelters during the Cold War.

August 4th, 2005, 10:04 AM
I think what they are avoiding is making these tunnels more like the malls in NJ.

I know that sounds weird, but go take a look. 3/4 of the ones I have been in have HIGH CEILINGS and SKYLIGHTS.

If they want to make it look like an underground mall, you cant keep the ceiling height at 7-8 feet and have nothing but artificial lighting!!

August 4th, 2005, 10:45 PM
Have you seen "Boozy"? Is it still playing?

Boozy was fantastic! A lot of fun. Unfortunately it had a limited run and has been gone for a while now. There was some talk recently of it trying to be brought to Broadway, I hope it's true as I have a few urban fans who would love to see it.