Bridges to nowhere? Nearly 50 years after launch, where does the Skywalk fit in today's Downtown?

Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 07, 2017

Editor's note: This story originally published Feb. 7, 2017.  

CINCINNATI -- There's one particular mile-and-a-half stretch of Downtown walkways that hardly anyone ever sees.

It's hidden in plain sight.

Just stroll around a two- or three-block radius of Fountain Square and, if you look up, you might catch a glimpse of it. Above some of Downtown's most central city streets spans a network of second-story pedestrian bridges. They're part of a once expansive "Skywalk," a mostly indoor pedestrian pathway connecting office buildings and hotels throughout the Central Business District.

The Cincinnati Skywalk still allows pedestrians to connect between some buildings Downtown. Phil Didion | WCPO contributor

Today, those bridges serve as a reminder of the lengths the city was willing to go to combat mid-20th century suburban flight.

They're also disappearing. But, for some, that's a good thing.

PHOTOS: Check out a gallery of photos from throughout the Skywalk as it looks today.

Dreamt up in the late 1950s by city planner Herbert Stevens, the Skywalk at its peak stretched from what is now the Duke Energy Convention Center through the heart of Downtown, past Fountain Square and all the way to Riverfront Stadium, by way of the Atrium buildings at Main and Fourth streets.

Engineers considered the Skywalk complete in 1997, 26 years after the first segment connecting the Convention Center and Fountain Square was finished.

It only took five years after its completion for the city to have a change of heart, leading to the gradual dismantling of portions of the $16 million infrastructure investment.

What remain are two halves of the initial almost three-mile elevated pedestrian corridor, split more or less at the renovated Fountain Square. City officials have not indicated any immediate or specific plans for further demolition.

Cincinnati's 'skybridges'

It's no coincidence that Stevens' proposal to build Cincinnati's "skybridges," as he called them, coincided with the region's first forays into suburban expansion.

More and more residents began buying homes in the city's outlying neighborhoods and surrounding cities and townships. Cities across the country were fighting to compete with their surrounding suburbs, and Cincinnati was no exception.

The Queen City was also no exception when it came to trying elevated or subterranean walkways. Minneapolis, for example, was the model for the Cincinnati Skywalk, and Houston and Atlanta built networks of underground tunnels. Other cities pursued these approaches, too. Due to its climate, Minneapolis has kept some focus on its skywalk system, while other cities have refocused toward street-level development. 

The Skywalk bridges weren't built just to protect pedestrians from auto traffic below. They were also meant to create a space where people working and living in the district could access the goods and services available without being exposed to the elements of the city streets. That's to say, both instances of inclement weather as well as Downtown's growing reputation at the time as a neighborhood defined by crime and urban blight.

In its heyday, the Skywalk boasted access to Pogue's, McAlpin's and Shillito's department stores as well as the surrounding hotels and corporate offices and a two-screen cinema. There were also diners and shops peppered throughout.

In many ways, it resembled an elevated shopping mall, with a serpentine floor plan and a futuristic vibe.

Over the course of three decades, the Skywalk became a well-known Downtown fixture, with the final piece put into place in the late 1990s.

But in 2002, enthusiasm began to flounder. Then-Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken put it in terms of both the economy and public safety.

"The skywalk -- it's ugly, and the space underneath it is dark and yucky," Luken told the New York Times in 2005, when the city moved forward with a plan to begin dismantling a select few of the bridges.

"The whole area is dead too much of the day."

Other challenges beset the Skywalk: There was confusion as to who is supposed to maintain its various portions -- the city or the building owners -- and Downtown's homeless population began using some bridges for shelter or panhandling.

To make the dismantling financially viable, planners and engineers usually attached Skywalk bridge demolition projects to other Downtown construction projects. The first bridge to come down -- the span connecting Riverfront Stadium to the Skywalk -- was part of the massive Fort Washington Way reconfiguration project in the early 2000s, for example.

Today, a sizeable portion of the Skywalk still exists, but now as two disjointed halves. A portion connecting Fifth Third Tower to what is now the Huntington Building at 525 Vine St. was demolished as part of the Fountain Square redesign in 2005.

'A mall where a city used to be'

Beyond the "dark and yucky" argument, critics extended the case for dismantling portions of the Skywalk because the system diluted foot traffic between two levels and thinned out pedestrian traffic. For example, the only entrance to the 525 Vine building was through the Skywalk. Critics said that thinning contributed to the other concern Luken mentioned, that Downtown was perpetually empty, said David Ginsburg, president and CEO of nonprofit Downtown Cincinnati Inc.

It's DCI's mission to develop and promote Downtown as a job center, retail hub and residential neighborhood. Ginsburg began at DCI within a year or two of the Skywalk's completion.

The industry term Ginsburg and others use to describe attempts to focus traffic and amenities on a city's street level is "walkable urbanity." 

"We've learned this in many cities," he said. "Walkable urbanity is just an interesting pedestrian environment where people would be more likely to walk rather than drive. It's where storefronts are interesting. It's where there's a lot of sidewalk seating.

"It's just more eyes and ears and people at the ground level," he said.

Ginsburg also said the splitting of pedestrian traffic between two levels hurt retailers operating on the street level near the Skywalk.

"We have a city that could probably produce enough traffic, enough pedestrian traffic to be good for one level, but not enough to diffuse over two," he said.

This, he said, has also contributed to public perception that some areas of the Skywalk just aren't safe.

"When you're not around a lot of people, people tend to feel less safe," Ginsburg said. "When you have something that's diffusing traffic from one level to two, the there isn't enough traffic on either level and nobody feels safe."

Ultimately, for Ginsburg, there's a disconnect between skywalks and street-level development.

It would seem the proof is in the pudding: The remodel of Fountain Square has seen an explosion in retail and restaurants in the Downtown center, including Via Vite, Boi Na Braza, Palomino's, Potbelly, Mynt, Graeter's and the Booksellers on Fountain Square.

The street level around Fountain Square bustles with retail and restaurants, but there are still some parts of the Skywalk on the second level. Phil Didion | WCPO contributor

"It's like they put a mall where a city used to be," Ginsburg said, referring to the Skywalk's mall-like feel. With the revitalization of Fountain Square, though, "we put a city back where a mall used to be," he said.

A Downtown balancing act

For Ginsburg, the Skywalk is just one piece in Downtown's efforts toward becoming more walkable and pedestrian-friendly. For many, he said, the Skywalk is a part of their everyday routine.

"We have a strong, embedded Skywalk system Downtown right now," Ginsburg said. "To a lot of office workers, they're very important, so we have to have a Downtown that meets the needs of all of our stakeholders."

Michael Moore, director of the city's Department of Transportation and Engineering, agrees but also added that emphasis should remain, for now, on bringing focus down to the ground floor.

"The city Skywalk system is one layer in the pedestrian network for downtown transportation," he told WCPO in an email. "Emphasis continues to be placed on maintaining active retail business frontages downtown, and it is often difficult to spread the number of potential business patrons over two levels and still maintain a critical mass of customers."

Ultimately, though, infrastructure like skywalks will probably always cause some tension in the cities they serve, Ginsburg said.

"Skywalks are always controversial," he said. "There are a lot of interests to be balanced here, but in general... having that aspect of walkable urbanity has proven to be key. The Skywalk is just one element of that."

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).