Skywalks past and future
After more than 50 years, Des Moines’ skywalk system is at a crossroads, again.
Unlike previous crises caused by growth and occasional falling glass, this moment of truth is the result of maturity. The talk today is about pulling back to make the 4.2-mile system of walkways more manageable.
Des Moines’ skywalk concept dates to 1960 when the Chamber of Commerce hired Harland Bartholomew and Associates of St. Louis to create a new plan for downtown.
Bartholomew recommended creating a ring of parking garages around the city center and linking office workers to the garages with open-air, elevated walkways that would allow pedestrians to cross streets without interfering with traffic.
The plan was initially judged too ambitious and shelved.
But beginning in the 1970s, and through the end of the century, various pieces came to fruition, including a proposal for a central park, a Rockefeller Center-like collection of tall buildings, a pedestrian mall in the East Village and elevated walkways.
The first skywalk in 1971 was a single bridge across Fifth Avenue connecting a new parking ramp and with a new J.C. Penney store.
Plans for a more expansive system surfaced a few years later while the 35-story Ruan Center and 25-story Financial Center were under construction.
The inspiration was a field trip to Minneapolis to study that city’s burgeoning skywalk network. John Fitzgibbon, president of Iowa Des Moines National Bank at the time, said the field trip persuaded local business leaders to deviate from the Minneapolis plan, which ran skywalks through the center of buildings and resulted in shutting down the system when businesses closed.
Instead, the Des Moines plan positioned skywalks along the outer walls of downtown buildings, so the walkways could continue to be used after individual businesses closed for the day.
Construction began in the mid-1970s but developed slowly because, in addition to new parking ramps, other new structures were also being built, including the Marriott Hotel, 801 Grand, the Kaleidoscope and Hub Tower, which would become key connectors for pedestrian bridges.
By 1983, enough links were in place to attract “skywalkers,” office workers who paced the elevated hallways at noon for exercise. Skywalkable space at that time amounted to about three-quarters of a mile.
After the opening of the Hub Tower, Kaleidoscope Mall and Capital Square in 1985, the skywalk footprint more than doubled with new connecting links that did not require as much doubling back for office workers seeking exercise.
The launching of an annual Skywalk Open indoor golf tournament in 1986 brought new people downtown, as did the Ruan Grand Prix in 1989, with skywalks providing unusual vantage points for watching races on cordoned-off downtown streets. The flood of 1993 ended Grand Prix racing in Des Moines, but the indoor golf tournament continued through 2011.
During the first decade of the new century, skywalk links moved west to accommodate new headquarters for Nationwide Insurance and Wells Fargo Financial, and they pushed north to the Iowa Events Center. During those years, skywalk bridges became longer and hallways more interesting; the ceiling in a skywalk through the Wells Fargo building on Walnut is seven stories tall.
The Younkers fire in 2014 temporarily removed a key link at Seventh and Walnut streets, and another well-traveled section through the Kaleidoscope Mall was closed last month in anticipation of new construction that could take years to complete.
Skywalks today connect roughly 40 downtown city blocks. The system includes few straight lines as it winds along Walnut Street from Nationwide parking garages on 12th Street to the Polk County Office Building on Court Avenue near the river. The northern terminus is the Iowa Events Center, with connections along Grand Avenue to the YMCA and 801 Grand.
A recent Future Forward plan by the Greater Des Moines Partnership suggests focusing on key segments of the skywalk system to create an urban trail similar to linear parks in New York and Chicago that were created from abandoned elevated train lines.
It’s an interesting idea, although at this point it’s unclear how it would work.