Sunday, June 1, 2003

Downtown skywalk falls into disfavor

'Great cities are about ... the street'

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati's skywalk once was touted as a bold new way to create a better downtown.

Enclosed, above-ground walkways would link 15 blocks of stores, restaurants, hotels and office space. Tens of thousands of shoppers and workers would stroll above the cars and grime on busy streets below. The skywalk would keep people warm in winter and cool in summer - enticing more and more visitors to come downtown.

But three decades after it opened, the skywalk faces a crucial survival test.

The skywalk comes to a sudden end over Race Street, perplexing pedestrians and provoking critics who complain it's an eyesore.
Urban analysts hired by the city and downtown business leaders want to tear down chunks of the elevated passageways. Citing empty shops and shadows below, they say the skywalk deadens downtown streets that should be vibrant.

The analysts and some merchants say people are confused by skywalk links that abruptly come to an end. The isolated walkways also can seem threatening, hurting downtown stores as they struggle to compete against successful suburban malls.

Rather than develop the riverfront, two New York consultants say the city should polish the eight blocks around Fountain Square. The symbolic heart of the city needs a new mix of shops and restaurants - and less of the ugly skywalk, they say.

"Great cities are about the life, energy and vitality of what happens on the street," says John Alschuler, one of the consultants who is crafting what could be a $20 million downtown redevelopment plan with the design firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners.

"When we think about these places, we think about their parks and squares. Very few people have fond memories of walking in the skywalk."

'Extend it or tear it down'

The gist of the critics' argument is that skywalks kill the streets - which drove pedestrians to the skywalk in the first place.

Cincinnati's then-director of planning, Herbert W. Stevens, introduced the notion of "elevated skywalks" in 1957 to keep people out of the paths of cars.

City Council rejected the idea three times before the federal government offered urban-renewal funds for a skywalk. In 1971, the first link connected the Cincinnati Convention Center (now Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center) to Fountain Square. Through the 1970s and '80s, more links were added to form a 1.3-mile system from Elm to Main streets and Fourth to Sixth streets. Total cost was more than $16 million.

Redevelopment projects over the past decade have eliminated part of the original skywalk. Sections were left jutting over Race and Fifth streets when an office tower at that corner was demolished and its skywalk connections were severed.

"It's such an eyesore," says Lisa Haller, chief executive officer of the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Either extend it or tear it down."

The dangling skywalks and other confusing links befuddle tourists and conventioneers. It's difficult to find out where the system begins or ends, and poor signage offers little help in navigating it, Haller says.

Some of downtown's newest attractions from the riverfront to the Backstage District aren't even connected. Among venues excluded: The Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, the Aronoff Center for the Arts and Great American Ball Park.

"It was originally designed to be an asset for our community," Haller says. "But our skywalk system overall has become a liability."

Although Alschuler and Cooper, Robertson have yet to reveal specific details about their plan, several downtown property owners confirm that talk has centered on removing skywalk links bridging Vine and Fifth streets to Fountain Square.

The consultants and downtown property owners haven't said when a final plan will be submitted to City Council. But already, some council members agree Fountain Square needs fixing.

"We haven't used that space in a way that would capture somebody's imagination," Councilman David Pepper says.

Alschuler thinks that eliminating the skywalk links will boost the number of pedestrians on Fountain Square, attracting a new mix of shops and restaurants there. The square's new vitality will ripple south to the stalled riverfront development called the Banks and north to Over-the-Rhine, he says.

Other cities have followed this model. Walkways and overpasses were eliminated at Baltimore's Charles Center with little impact on pedestrians or vehicles. The downtown area thrived and pumped life into that city's much-praised riverfront development, Inner Harbor.

In Cincinnati, even businesses that benefit directly from the skywalk are open to the idea of bringing parts of it down.

The skywalk over Vine Street leads to Palomino's restaurant, where sales jump 15 percent on snowy and rainy days. Yet general manager Jerry Hill says he'd favor tearing down the skywalk if it spurred a larger overhaul of the Fountain Square retail district.

"We would all benefit from better retail development," Hill says.

Panhandlers, unruly teens

Chief among complaints from downtown shopkeepers and property owners are the skywalk's safety and maintenance.

The city signed 40-plus agreements with various private-property owners for upkeep, according to city architect Bob Richardson. That makes it confusing to pinpoint who's responsible for repairing a leak or providing security. And merchants notice.

"Safety in the skywalks is important," Hill says. Criminals are "up in the skywalk and police aren't."

• The public is invited Wednesday to hear New York consultant John Alschuler's ideas for reviving Fountain Square.
• The forum, hosted by the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati, will be 5:30 p.m., Mercantile Library Building, 414 Walnut St. Cost is $7.
• For reservations, call 621-0717.
Several merchants consistently complain about aggressive panhandlers and unruly teens who congregate inside the enclosed walkways, which remain open even when stores are closed.

"We should have zero tolerance for this," Haller says.

Cincinnati police don't keep statistics on crimes committed in the skywalks, but police commanders say they aren't aware of any violent crimes there in recent months.

Lt. Doug Wiesman heads a 19-officer unit that patrols Fountain Square and surrounding blocks. He says his officers routinely walk downtown - including the skywalks - during daytime hours. Police patrols are less frequent at night, but private groups have pitched in.

Downtown Cincinnati Inc. dispatches 16 uniformed "downtown ambassadors" who pick up trash and notify police of problems. Also, private security forces at Tower Place, Carew Tower and Fountain Place have tuned radios to a single frequency to report potential trouble to each one another.

"The crime problem is a combination of reality and perception," says Arn Bortz, a downtown developer and former Cincinnati mayor. "Even though reality has improved, sometimes it takes time for perception to catch up."

Some people question whether taking down skywalk links is the most important first step for a rejuvenated downtown.

"You have to deal with the issues of safety and cleanliness first," says Mary Hopple, who runs M. Hopple & Co. gift shop on Fifth Street across from the square. "It just feels like there's nobody around, and nobody responds."

Some like the walk

Not everyone is willing to lose even part of the skywalk.

Ria Farrell Schalnat, a lawyer who works at a building at Fifth and Main, says she wouldn't think of walking more than a block or two for lunch without the skywalk.

"You shouldn't penalize people who want restaurants that are available by skywalk," Schalnat says. "In the winter, it's snowing or raining and in the summer it's so hot outside that you feel you're going to melt."

Many developers and urban planners point to Minneapolis as an example of a thriving skywalk system. At nearly 7 miles, that city's system has 75 bridges that connect shops, offices, restaurants and a convention center. Minneapolis boosters credit the skywalk for helping trigger last year's development of an entertainment block that includes a Hard Rock Cafe, GameWorks and other attractions.

Others say Cincinnati, too, can achieve similar success if the skywalk adds links and better signs. The skywalk is especially valuable to out-of-town visitors, says Michel Scheer, who heads the Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel.

Alschuler, however, contends the Minneapolis system works because it has a denser collection of workers and downtown residents. That city also has a much harsher winter than Cincinnati.

He acknowledges that it may be "hard to realize a world without" skywalks. But tearing down the links to Fountain Square is vital for downtown's well-being, he says.

"It degrades the quality of the retail space by hiding it under a covered walkway, and it takes away the vast majority of people who are crossing Fountain Square."


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