It’s time to put a moratorium on new skywalk construction

SpokaneSkywalks

Spokane’s skywalk system was once the second-largest in the United States. It served its purpose for almost fifty years, but recently their presence has been more of a hindrance to the success of downtown than a benefit. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)

Spokane’s venerable skywalk system has served the city and the region for almost fifty years, allowing pedestrians the ability to cross between buildings without braving the elements. At one point, the system was the second-largest in the United States. Today, it features around sixteen of the above-street passageways. But while the system once received significant use (one 1984 study found 43,200 crossings in a single July day) and allowed small businesses to thrive in the second floor of downtown buildings, the skywalks today sit with minimal use.

Moreover, the skywalks harm downtown vitality, because they pluck pedestrians from the street, where they would improve the sidewalk environment. There are two major issues with this. First, more eyes on the street tends to lead to less crime and certainly less perception of crime. If you talk to some people, crime is the number one issue they refuse to go downtown. Second, because access to the skywalk system is controlled largely by the owners of the buildings that they connect, the skywalks at a certain level may separate well-heeled professionals and shoppers from the urban poor, the homeless, and the lower class. This creates a perception of vagrancy on the street level, and of course, it’s a huge ethical and social justice concern. The magic of the sidewalk is that it encourages social mixing, creating a public sphere which allows for interaction, communication, and learning.

But here’s the thing: we’re still expanding the skywalk system, despite the fact that it’s outlived its usefulness. Walt Worthy and the Public Facilities District in 2014 constructed a new skywalk to link the Davenport Grand and the Convention Center. And now, Cowles Company, the owner of the Spokesman-Review, KHQ, and River Park Square, intends to replace two sets of skywalks in the Macy’s Building, which it recently purchased. The second-floor skywalks to River Park Square and to the Parkade Building will be removed and replaced on the third-floor.

Why?

It’s great that Cowles Company intends to expand the downtown Spokane commercial district to the east, but we need to have a conversation about the skywalks. Especially in this case, they irreparably damage the beauty of a historic structure with many decades of history in Spokane. They harm downtown vitality. And especially in the case of the Parkade skywalks, which are not air conditioned or heated, offer no additional utility to pedestrians. It’s time for them to be removed.

So let’s have a conversation. Let’s issue a one-year moratorium on skywalk construction. During that time, we’ll have a long-term discussion about the future of the system. Will they be gradually removed over time? Will some of the skywalks, such as the skywalk from River Park Square to the Macy’s Building, or from River Park Square to the Crescent Court, be retained? Is there anything we can do to enliven the skywalks, or alternatively, encourage people to explore the street level?

We hope to see this conversation, but it’s only going to happen with swift action. Contact your City Councilmembers and ask them to consider a temporary skywalk construction moratorium.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Do you think we need to have a long-term discussion about the future of Spokane’s skywalk system? Do you use the skywalks? Do you think there’s a way to retain the skywalks but also improve downtown vitality on the sidewalks? And what do you think about the ethical and social justice implications? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments below, or in person. We love to hear from you!

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13 thoughts on “It’s time to put a moratorium on new skywalk construction

  1. Spokane once had a prominent trolley and transportation system however, people thought it sould be torn down.

    Use creative and useful ideas to use the Skywalk system instead of removing it.

  2. I don’t consider the sky bridge linking The Grand to the convention center as part of the skywalk system since the closest skywalk is several blocks away. It also serves a very useful purpose in inclement weather. All that would be served in it not being there is having to walk across the street where there are no businesses anyway.

    With regards to the skywalk system itself, I have mixed feelings. I work downtown and only tend to use it in bad weather (raining and winter). I prefer walking on the street and feeling the sense of people around me and it seems like that’s pretty common unless it’s a quick jaunt between adjoining buildings. I don’t think it needs to be expanded and I don’t consider the renovations being done as an expansion, just a renovation.

  3. I use the skywalks almost every day, I love them. Just like the 1984 Spokesman article says, I am willing to walk further, which means (to the detriment of my wallet) that I eat lunch out a little more often because I can avoid the temperature extremes and wind. I love hiking, but not when I’m dressed for work. And where did you find a Jacket & Tie Required sky bridge? My desk is right next to a window to the 2nd floor hallway which skywalks connects to, and I watch a very mixed crowd pass by. There’s no guard to stop the homeless guy who limped by this afternoon carrying all his worldly belongings in two Hefty bags. Later this week my mother is coming up for a visit, and I’m going to take her out for lunch. We’ll use the skywalks because I worry about tripping hazards with her, and I don’t want her to feel rushed to cross Riverside before the light changes.

    I’m surprised I haven’t seen mention yet that the skywalks allow a pedestrian to move around and get to their destination much quicker. On a lunch break I can get and eat my lunch, drop off books at the library, visit my credit union, and maybe even fit in a fourth errand like picking up scotch tape at Rite Aid. But only because I don’t have to wait a couple minutes to cross every single street. This time differential really comes into play when it’s really hot, cold, windy, or wet. I wouldn’t mind an unenclosed skywalk because it only take 10-20 seconds to cross the street. But it would take a couple minutes on the ground due to waiting on traffic to cross. Multiply that by maybe 8 crossings for a round-trip, and that’s an extra 10-15 minutes of mostly just standing around in the elements.

    We could improve what we have, instead of eliminating a useful option (There’s a parade? Skywalk. 3-car pile up? Skywalk. Macklemore? Skywalk.). Frequent stairs down to the sidewalk outdoors would get me down to the first floor retailers sooner, and solve some of the annoyance of buildings that lock their doors promptly at 5:10. Open-air (but keep the yellow roofs, they’re distinctly Spokane. Call it placemaking.) would let people on sidewalks and skywalks see each other and still provide increased speed and a modicum of protection from the sun & rain.

    • They were originally yellow canvas (open air). They enclosed them and kept the look in the late 70s…i hope they keep them as they were the original ones and they look cool. just fix them up!

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  6. I use the skywalk system when down town because much like the rest of the city people tend to view the lights for foot traffic (AKA Pedestrians) more as suggestions then the law, also the sky walk helps me avoid those who walk so slowly snails pass them, I like to take my time at times as well, but when there is a group of 4-5 people who walk the width of the side walk and do so slowly(Even when they look and see there are others behind them trying to get around them) that gets a bit annoying. Also on that note, Just because the sidewalk, aisle or what have you is wide enough for four-five people does not mean you have to fill it in with your large group, please be aware of those around you and stick to single file, so others can pass you if need be

  7. Leave them! They are a distinctive part of our city and especially appealing for visitors in bad weather. People will always use the sidewalks and taking them out to reduce crime is a poor excuse for not handling the crime in the first place. I wonder how our sidewalks compare to somewhere like Seattle that doesn’t have these skywalks. It would be an interesting study and probably the most informative way to make the decision.

  8. The skywalks are great, and we need to upgrade and expand them! Seriously.

    You see… I live downtown, and for the most part, I love it. On nice days, I prefer to be on the street level, watching people and interacting with them. I enjoy watching the area grow and change before our eyes. I’m looking forward to the near future when both parts of the old Wall Street are refurbished, when all the construction and road work is done, when more downtown housing is available and when Riverfront Park is fully upgraded. All of these things will add to the beauty and foot traffic of downtown Spokane, making the street level a great way to explore the city.

    However, I’m also a quadriplegic who has to use a power chair to get around. As a result of my disability, I don’t do very well in extreme temperatures. Although I can handle the heat a little better than the cold, the skywalks become a great way to avoid temperatures that my body can’t compensate for naturally, as well as the rain, as much as possible. You may not realize it but a person sitting in a chair gets soaked by rain really fast.

    That’s not the worst of it either… The real hindrance to going from building to building on the street level is the snow. If I had an archenemy, it would be a snow villain. I hate the snow. There are no plows, shovels or snow blowers that can keep up with a winter of steady snowfall. And none of them get rid of the snow. They just move it, piling it up along the edges of the sidewalks and blocking corner cutouts. There are even many sections of sidewalks that don’t get shoveled all winter long. This is the time of year when most people confined to a wheelchair become mostly shut in, including me. It’s also the time of year I love our enclosed skywalk system.

    If I can get a ride the half a mile distance from my apartment to River Park Square in the winter, I use the heck out of the skywalks. It’s the only way I can get from building to building and the only way I want to in the cold. This is the time of year I wish I was wealthy enough to live in 809 Lofts. How awesome would it be to leave your home and go see the winter blockbusters at the AMC, or go to the Nordstrom coffee bar for a hot chai, or go eat breakfast at Reflections, or stop by the Rite Aid pharmacy, etc., without having to go outside? I often wonder what it would be like if the city had planned better for a larger skywalk system. I think we would be better prepared to be a city of the future. As Spokane continues to grow and the more downtown thrives, I think there will be plenty of people to fill the sidewalks and the skywalks at the same time.

    There are some important things that should be changed if the skywalks were ever updated or expanded though. To start with, they should be an isolated system so they don’t lead directly into any one business. That would allow all the skywalks to be open at the same time during the day all week long. Also, as well as being temperature controlled, all the doors in the skywalk system need to be updated with accessible power buttons. I can’t really use most of the skywalks on my own because I need someone else to open the doors for me.

    All that to say, I’m grateful for the skywalks and wish we had more.

  9. Excellent post. I had not previously considered the negative impact that skywalks can have on our downtown environment. I would certainly support, and participate in, a discussion on the value of these elevated people movers in Spokane’s future.

  10. I like and use the skywalks during inclement weather. It’s cold in Spokane for several months out of the year, that’s a condition we cannot change. Secondly, I don’t like smelling cigarette smoke or car exhaust and will avoid if possible. Is it possible to make the skywalks only available during fall, winter, spring and force people outside during the summer? Probably, but I doubt the public reaction would be as planned. It could have adverse impacts to pedestrian traffic during the summer months. The other thing that should be included in this discussion is the recognition that all of these sky walks have been part of many years of development. Would removing them adversely impact egress and life safety? Would removing them adversely impact planned pedestrian flow? There were many highly capable professionals who contributed to the development of our downtown, I suspect they put some thought into these details when then designed them to begin with.

  11. I’m a bit late to the discussion but I just stumbled on this post and found it quite interesting. I personally love the look of the skywalks downtown but had never really considered the impacts of them on our downtown environment. It’s quite true that this creates a separation between professionals and the homeless, likely leading to people being reluctant to walk on our streets downtown. Thanks for the read, it really changed my perspective on our skywalks.

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