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Clean Machine
Apr. 03, 2017 #34-92 a2z
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Skyways: bridge to downtown vitality

Andrew Setterholm
asetterholm@postbulletin.com

A Rochester visitor walking the city's downtown on an evening or weekend in the mid 1980s was as likely to have the solitary company of their own shadow as they were to encounter another person — or so it seemed to the city's businessmen and aldermen.

In 1988, after more than a decade of discussions and planning, construction began on a solution to the dullness of Rochester's downtown: skyway bridges.

Five connections jumpstarted Rochester's skyway system. They connected two hotels to the city's newest shopping center, the Galleria Plaza, located boldly in the core of downtown amid a trend of retailers moving to climate-controlled malls in suburban neighborhoods.

Today, the Rochester skyway system crisscrosses a 16-block section of the city's downtown business district. It is trafficked daily by the city's high concentration of downtown employees, by patients of Mayo Clinic and by visitors to the city.

The city of Rochester, at the will of its city council and by the design of its staff, set out in 1988 to return vitality to the downtown area. Nearly three decades later, that mission has been, in many regards, a success, said Assistant City Administrator Gary Neumann.

"In my mind, (the original goals) have been met. I think we have a much more active downtown," said Neumann, who in the '80s was one of a few city staff who toured skyways in St. Paul and Minneapolis and talked with economic development leaders of those cities.

The city had only a few priorities in considering publicly funded skyways, Neumann said, and each stemmed from a desire to return retail options to downtown: to reactivate the historic heart of downtown; to provide a convenience to patients and visitors, who were concentrated downtown; and to make Rochester more attractive to potential job-seekers —Mayo Clinic and others — thereby growing the city's job base.

The city used a tax-increment financing district centered on the core of the city to pay for half of the first five skyway construction costs. The other half of construction costs were shared by the building owners on either side of the skyway bridges. In the Galleria development, those owners were Gus Chafoulias and Bill Maddox.

The city has since partnered with other developers to grow the skyway system, using tax-increment financing in most cases to pay its 50 percent share. There are now 13 skyway bridges totaling 1,595 feet in length.

​Including the public easements the city has secured in skyway funding agreements, the skyway system now includes about 5,200 non-linear feet of walkable space. It connects eight hotels, eight parking ramps and parking lots with retail shopping, casual dining and, since 2007, the University of Minnesota-Rochester campus in the third and fourth floors of University Square.

The university also has student housing in the 318 Commons building attached to the skyway. While the skyway was not a deciding factor in locating the campus downtown, it does serve one of the university's main objectives, according to Jay Hesley, UMR chief of staff.

Centering the UMR campus downtown was an intentional move, and one that fully took advantage of the city's existing skyway system. It places the university's students shoulder to shoulder with the city's professionals, creating an environment full of "creative collisions," Hesley said.

"(It's) the idea that students are in and working and moving along with the professionals that they one day aspire to be, and that just by being in those places there's going to be connections that are going to be made — and they are," Hesley said.

Mayo Clinic — its patients and employees — is a primary user of the skyway system. The skyway links in several places to Mayo's subways, which date back as far as the 1920s, and creates an even larger network of comfortable connections.

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