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Rochester's skyway system: Does it have a viable future?

Rochester Business Journal
July 20, 2012

Rochester has reached a crossroads regarding the future of its skyway system. There are differing opinions about whether and how the system might be continued. Some people argue that it should be dismantled, while others believe it is vitally important. The debate is about people, the pattern of their activities and what it means for the health of our city.
 
Rochester is one of about 25 cities across the U.S. and Canada with an extensive interconnected skyway system, a network of passages within buildings and bridges above street level that connect major urban venues. The majority of these are in relatively harsh cold-weather climates, but Southern cities like Atlanta and Houston also have extensive systems allowing pedestrians to escape extreme heat and humidity.
 
Most of these pedestrian walkways were constructed in the mid- to late 1900s and were part of an effort to stem a nationwide shift of retail and office occupancy to suburban areas. Skyways were originally hailed as key investments in retaining downtown tenancy. Businesses cooperated in dedicating spaces that could be connected, drawing office workers through and between their buildings.
 
More recently skyways have begun to fall out of favor with city planners and administrators. In looking for ways to revitalize downtowns, the focus has turned to improving the quality and character of the streetscape. Skyways are seen as taking away the foot traffic and energy from these elemental urban spaces.
 
Over the last several years, business and community leaders have been considering the role our skyway system should play in the future of our center city. This was recently brought to a head with the proposed demolition of several bridges connecting some of Rochester's most prominent buildings. The debate involved whether the skyway system was a critically important part of a hoped-for renaissance of the center city or whether instead it inhibited the kind of redevelopment that would lead to a more vibrant, economically successful city.
 
There are two basic schools of thought regarding skyway systems. The first holds that skyway systems are valuable in that they attract and retain business occupancy in urban areas. Many of the owners, managers and tenants of downtown's taller buildings subscribe to this thinking. They value the convenience of all-weather access to other buildings and services and find it to be a key feature in competing for tenancy with suburban office parks.
 
The second says that skyways draw the life away from city streets and make the prospects for street-level retail businesses very dim. This point was reinforced in a 2005 study by the Urban Land Institute, which was critical of the skyway's effect on pedestrian activity. There is little doubt that the majority of planning professionals see the skyway system as an inhibiting factor in the recovery of our downtown street life.
 
So what caused Rochester's skyway network to develop in the first place?
 
Part of the answer lies in the premise for Midtown Plaza: an enclosed shopping mall connected to convenient underground parking. Upon completion, Midtown became the retail core of the center city. Buildings like Chase Tower and Sibley's and Xerox made their connection to Midtown a priority and marketed the convenience to prospective tenants.
 
Almost immediately, city planners and business leaders began imagining the further extension of the system to other buildings.They looked to other national models like the city of Minneapolis for guidance. Its skyway system was already well-established and has since grown into the largest continuous network of skyways in the country, spanning more than 8 miles and connecting 69 city blocks.
 
Support for Rochester's skyway system has never been unanimous. From the beginning, concerns were expressed that separating office dwellers and professionals from public streets creates a stratification of activity running counter to community goals of fairness and inclusiveness.
 
Despite these reservations, Rochester's skyway system expanded through the 1980s and 1990s. Eventually it reached from the Washington Square Garage and the Frontier Communications building north to Midtown, west through the buildings on the south side of Main Street to the Convention Center and across Main Street to the Radisson hotel. Along the way, taxes have paid for major pieces of the skyway. The last significant expenditure was $4 million in 1993 to pay for the tunnel connecting Bausch & Lomb to Xerox and Midtown.
 
Despite the commitment of both public and private money to support this expanding system of pedestrian ways, the fortunes of both Midtown Plaza and its surrounding streets continued to decline through the 1990s and beyond.
 
This culminated with the demolition of Midtown and the bridges that formed the skyway system's hub. With the removal of these key links, the system has been severed roughly in half. Without Midtown, there is no indoor pedestrian connection from the southern to the northern part of the system.
 
Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, Frontier and the Rundel Memorial Library are now disconnected from Main Street, Chase Tower, Sibley Centre, the Riverside Convention Center, the Hyatt and the Radisson. Development of the new buildings on the rest of the Midtown site will require new connections if the system is to be re-established. That will depend on future buildings' scale, their intended use and the willingness of the landowners to provide access for skyways.
 
While no decision has been made yet about the future of the second-story walkways that connect downtown buildings, recent city policy decisions have favored the discontinuance of public investment in them. The city administration already has signaled its intent, stating that it will not contribute funding toward future connections that do not fit the planned vision for Rochester's public realm.
 
The quality and character of our street life will continue to define our city and, by extension, our community. This is vitally important and worth thinking about carefully.
 
Few would argue whether enclosed connections between buildings (and parking structures in particular) enhance their economic viability. The question is more one of striking the right balance.
 
Are Rochester winters enough of a reason to have indoor connections between downtown buildings? Time will tell whether Rochester's skyway system will survive or whether the push to force pedestrian activity back to the streets will win the day.
 
Jim Durfee is vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates. An architect and past president of American Institute of Architects-Rochester, he can be reached at (585) 232-5135 or at jdurfee@bergmannpc.com.7/20/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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