Cities' enthusiasm for skywalks fades
CINCINNATI --Sunlight is replacing shadows where elevated walkways spanning streets around Cincinnati's downtown square have been torn down. Similar open spaces are appearing in other cities where planners once hoped skywalks would energize their downtowns.
"More cities are realizing that skywalks are not what they were cut out to be," said Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that helps communities create and sustain public places. "Instead of drawing additional people and retail to a second level, skywalks have left streets lifeless, presenting a cold and alienating environment."
While skywalks remain popular in some cold-weather cities such as Des Moines, Iowa, an increasing number of cities have started tearing down some of their walkways or would like to remove them. Planners and others in cities such as Cincinnati, Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Hartford, Conn., and Kansas City, Mo., now believe increasing street-level pedestrian traffic will lead to more downtown homes, shops and entertainment.
"Having people on the streets sends the message that downtown is a safe and fun place to be," said Marya Morris, senior research associate with the American Planning Association. "It's difficult to create the type of energy that attracts housing and other activity when there is no one on the streets after 5 p.m."
Skywalks vary from enclosed, climate-controlled corridors with windows to open bridges with and without roofs. The pedestrian walkways connect second stories of buildings and often are part of large networks that wind through downtown, with shops and services located in sections that pass through buildings.
Planners estimate that between 20 and 30 cities across the United States at one time embraced the design concept. The mostly glass-and-steel skywalks that were constructed beginning in the 1960s and '70s were intended to insulate pedestrians from weather and street crime and compete with suburban malls.
But tourists often have trouble navigating skywalks, where access is often inside hotels and office buildings. Workers now make up most skywalk users, but with offices also fleeing downtowns, even that traffic has dwindled.
Cincinnati City Architect Michael Moore said the difference is striking around Fountain Square since two of the city's original 22 skywalk bridges were removed as part of a renovation to make the square a more welcoming, downtown center.
"Even though the square still resembles a war zone with the ongoing reconstruction, it looks so much larger and brighter," he said.
Other skywalks link office buildings and are popular with workers.
"I think they are neat, and I hate to see some of them coming down," said Cincinnati office worker Cheryl Borkowski, 45, of Florence, Ky. "On cold and rainy days, you can take the skywalk everywhere you need to go. For me, it's a matter of time and convenience."
Baltimore has pulled down two of its nine skywalks and more may come down as the city directs development efforts toward the ground level, especially around the Inner Harbor district, said Jim Hall, a city planner. The ring of shops, hotels, restaurants, parks and other attractions around the city's harbor has become a major downtown tourist destination.
"All of the excitement now is at the base of buildings where people can stroll through attractive public spaces and walk along promenades," Hall said. "I don't see us constructing any more skywalks."
Many skywalks were built with public and private money, making it difficult to get rid of the sections that run through office buildings where executives and workers want to keep them for convenience. Cost also is a factor.
In Cincinnati, it cost about $100,000 to tear down a section that was not enclosed and did not have heat or air conditioning, Moore said.
Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez is glad that his city's experiment with skywalks was only about 30 percent or 40 percent complete before the city realized it was a mistake.
"Even though we have snow and cold, we have now adopted a walkable-city kind of notion and implemented a downtown shuttle system that doesn't take people off the street level," he said.
Some cold-weather cities still consider their skywalks indispensable.
"You need skywalks in cities like ours, where it can get to 40 below zero to 110 degrees," said Mike Berry, traffic facilities administrator with Des Moines.
The Des Moines' system, constructed at a cost of more than $40 million in private and public funding over the years, consists of nearly four miles of skywalks connecting entertainment venues, civic centers, parking garages, a federal building and condominiums. Officials acknowledge that critics blame the skywalks for taking retail and pedestrian activity off Des Moines streets, but the city is encouraging more street-level activity with a planned river walk and other ground-level facilities.
"We think we can continue to have a successful skywalk system and restore activity to the street," said Gary Fox, city traffic engineer.
Dallas was one of a few cities that went the other way and constructed a tunnel system, but city officials are unhappy with their empty sidewalks.
Mayor Laura Miller would like to close the tunnels but can't because they are owned by businesses above them. The city has offered incentives to get the mostly small businesses underground to move to the streets.
"So far, we've had no takers," Miller said.
On the Net:
Project for Public Spaces: http://www.pps.org
American Planning Association: http://www.planning.org