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After years of decline, Spokane’s skywalks are getting a boost

Jan. 7, 2018 Updated Tue., Jan. 9, 2018 at 3:37 p.m.

In some minds, the high-water mark for downtown Spokane’s skywalks can be pegged to a frothy, creamy orange drink.

Maybe the warm memories are due to the taste of the sweet beverages provided by Orange Julius on the skywalk level of the Parkade, or the memory of the little booths tucked into the second-story concrete alcoves below the garage’s yellow, scalloped roof. More likely, it was the bustle of the era, when the drink stand stood amid myriad shops in the busy human Habitrails.

Back then, little shops lined the skywalk level through nearly every building downtown. From J.C. Penney to the tobacco store in the Bennett Block to the lingerie shop in the Sherwood Building, the skywalks provided another level of retail above the street, enclosed in glass to fend off the elements.

A lot has changed. Nowadays, second-level pedestrians are more likely to find offices than shops, and the once-futuristic skywalks are now anything but visionary.

“They aren’t as vibrant as they were when originally constructed,” said Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership. “For every person that is in the skywalk, they are not walking on the street. They are not engaging with their neighbor. They’re not part of that energy. That’s not necessarily the best thing from an economic development standpoint.”

Richard, who is supportive of the skywalk system, said the downtown business group is determined to make the second-story downtown environment vibrant once again. With two new skywalks under construction at the former downtown Macy’s at a cost of about $800,000, and a third, iconic skywalk preparing for a transformative face-lift, there’s reason to believe the skywalks have a good future.

But with the imperial rise of Amazon and the attendant threat to the future of traditional retail shopping, not to mention the shift in skywalks to office space, some people wonder if the skywalks still serve a valuable purpose.

“In downtown Spokane, we don’t really have anything on the skywalk level anymore,” said Anthony Gill, an economic development professional in the Puget Sound area who grew up in Spokane and maintains the urbanist blog Spokane Rising. “We can’t even support one level of retail. Do we really want to think about supporting another level?”

A new Spokane

In February 1963, the city’s first skywalk was built, over First Avenue between Howard and Stevens streets connecting the Ridpath Hotel with the Ridpath Motor Inn, which was then under construction on the old Spokane Hotel site.

Though that skywalk never linked to the larger, 16-bridge system that rapidly developed over the following decade, its construction was part of the modern, and unavoidable, effort to save America’s endangered downtowns.

Empowered by the personal automobile, Americans increasingly moved to the city fringes, and the growing economic power of the suburbs drained city cores of their vitality. Efforts to revitalize downtowns became the priority of business owners and boosters.

Spokane was no exception. NorthTown Mall, the city’s first suburban shopping mall, had opened in 1955 and, almost immediately, the city core began to see its retail drain, beginning with Sears, which moved to the new mall.

Like other cities rocked by increased vehicle traffic and the loss of a retail base, Spokane came up with a solution. An enclosed skywalk system would not only mimic the suburban shopping mall experience, but would also separate cars and pedestrians.

When the yellow-topped skywalk spanning Main Avenue at Howard opened in 1967, the first span of a connected skywalk network, the event was dutifully covered by The Spokesman-Review.

In an article headlined “Spokane’s first ‘skybridge’ for shoppers,” the article paraphrased Mayor Neal Fosseen as saying the skywalk “was symbolic of a new Spokane, separating auto traffic and pedestrians.”

“This is going to put our town in the spotlight and make our community well-known throughout the country for its solutions to downtown shopping problems,” Fosseen said at the dedication ceremony led by King Cole, who had been brought to town by Spokane Unlimited to help jump-start the city’s lagging downtown, an effort that would lead to Expo ’74.

The Spokane Daily Chronicle’s story on the dedication quoted Fossen as saying the “skybridge materially improves the aesthetic aspect of downtown.”

Within a year, the idea of skywalks saving downtown had firmly taken hold. Philip Alexander, the manager of Bon Marche and vice president of the Parkade, told the Chronicle in 1967 the skywalks would soon “connect several other major buildings so that it will be possible to park, shop and make business calls in downtown Spokane without even setting foot on the street.”

The final piece of the original skywalk system was put in place in 1974, with River Park Square. When the Chronicle first reported on the mall, it called the new shopping area a “quaint … tree-shaded village square” that was designed to be “a hub in the city’s growing above-street pedestrian-traffic system.”

River Park Square is owned by Centennial Properties, a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which publishes The Spokesman-Review.

The growth of Spokane’s second-level pedestrian system finally caught the nation’s attention in July 1976, when Time magazine published an article called “Downtown is Looking Up,” which examined the “renaissance of city centers.” The story looked at how Spokane’s skywalk system “helps pedestrians avoid the city’s downtown traffic” and allowed Spokane shoppers “to stroll among six city blocks without ever going outside.”

Not Minneapolis or Mumbai

These early successes also led to some myths that still circulate around Spokane: that the city has one of the biggest skywalk systems in the country, and that they’re the result of some sort of urban experiment foisted on the city due the influence of Tom Foley, the powerful Democratic member of Congress who represented Eastern Washington for 30 years.

Neither of these are true, even if they fit into the notion that “every skyway project seems to have its own origin story, the legend of a visionary hero or partnership of developers and bureaucrats who willed it into existence,” as a lengthy article in Places Journal called “The Multilevel Metropolis” said.

Instead, Spokane’s skywalk system is just one of 17 similar systems built in the U.S. and Canada beginning in the 1960s, including Des Moines, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Winnipeg.

Ours is not the biggest. The Minneapolis Skyway continues to grow. With 69 blocks and 8 miles, it is the world’s largest contiguous system.

Even this may be surpassed someday. Over the last 10 years, Mumbai has built 40 skywalks in its crowded city of 20 million people. And Hong Kong has a vast network connecting transit stations, malls and office buildings.

Another myth persists, one with a more recent vintage. The Cincinnati skywalk suffered under the Midwestern city’s economic troubles and has largely been dismantled. But Spokane’s are far from dead.

Bustle is gone, offices are here

Look at old photos of downtown Spokane, and you may confuse the black-and-white city with a real metropolis with real people.

The sidewalks are crowded with men and women, and a dense stand of buildings lines their path on both sides of a busy street. Nowadays, it can feel like Spokane, South Dakota, isn’t the only ghost town named Spokane.

Richard, with the downtown group, knows this is a problem but chalks it up to oblivious visitors.

“They look out and say, ‘Where is everybody?’ ” he said. “I tell people a lot of them are in the skywalk system.”

Stephen Pohl, a retail sales and leasing specialist with NAI Black, agreed with Richard’s assessment, comparing Spokane’s quiet sidewalks to downtown Houston, where he worked for nearly 30 years.

“The majority of the buildings in downtown Houston are all connected below ground,” Pohl said of the Texas city’s tunnels. “It’s hot in Houston, so people transgress through them downtown. I’d hear people say, ‘Gosh, I went to downtown and I didn’t see any people on the street.’ That’s because they’re all underground.”

It’s a bit of a stretch to say the hustle of Spokane has simply moved up a floor, but Pohl said a recent retail market survey of the city core shows there’s life up there yet.

Every year, Valbridge Property Advisors examines downtown retail space, tallying the number of occupied and vacant spaces. In the past couple of years, both street- and skywalk-level retail vacancy rates dropped. On the street, unoccupied space dropped from 12 percent in 2016 to 10.2 percent last year.

On the skywalk level, vacancies fell from 15 percent to 11 percent, Pohl said.

“While there are still opportunities, the market is getting tighter,” Pohl said. “First of all, for downtown retailing, there’s very little space in the core on Main Street. That’s starting to spill onto Riverside and Sprague. There’s just more demand for retail space.”

Beside a positive turn in fortunes for downtown, part of the reason for this is that some retail space has been converted to office space or, in the case of the old Macy’s building, into residential units. Just look at the second floor of the Bennett Block, the Crescent Court building and the Sherwood Building. Offices and executive suites occupy what once were shops.

Still, it’s a vast improvement over the skywalk situation in 2005, when a similar retail survey found that more than 40 percent of the spaces in the skywalk system were vacant.

A 2005 Spokane Journal of Business article, titled “Empty spaces plague skywalk,” said the skywalks used to be “a big deal” but the shifting fortunes of downtown had taken their vitality. The article quoted building and business owners’ predictions that the space would be converted to offices in coming years.

The second floor of the Crescent Court building is a good example. In 1999, the year River Park Square opened in its current incarnation, the Crescent had a popular food court. By 2005, its six restaurants had dwindled to two. Now, the quiet top of the escalator leads to some Umpqua Bank offices and some racks for free publications.

Spokane’s original skywalk between the former Ridpath Hotel and the Ridpath annex appears unlikely to survive years of neglect when the hotel was vacant. Last year, Washington Trust Bank, which owns the skywalk and Ridpath annex, applied for a permit to demolish the skywalk. The city is reviewing the proposal.

Sidewalks are public, skywalks aren’t

In 2016, as Centennial Properties began its plans to remake the former Macy’s building into residences and extend its reach farther east, Gill clamored for a moratorium on skywalk building on his blog, Spokane Rising.

They sit with “minimal use,” he wrote, and “harm downtown vitality.” They increase inequity in the core by separating “well-heeled professionals and shoppers from the urban poor, the homeless, and the lower class.” Finally, after laying out a case against skywalks, he wrote, “It’s time for them to be removed.”

Eighteen months later, Gill said he’s softened his stance on the issue, though he still stands by his arguments.

“People in Spokane are very protective of them,” he said. “Even people who would normally agree with things I write about on my blog are very pro-skywalk.”

Gill says some skywalks are probably necessary near the mall, but others serve little point. He’s troubled that they’re privately owned and operated, which allows businesses to “control who can get into the skywalk system.”

“What does it say when people who can use the sidewalk aren’t allowed to use the skywalk?” he said. “Is the skywalk a public space? No. They are bridges between private developments.”

Gill’s prime concern is one he shares with Richard: the loss of pedestrian activity on the sidewalk due to skywalks.

“We want people on the street. There’s all kinds of studies that show we want more pedestrian activity,” Gill said. “It gets more eyes on the street, it gives it additional vitality that it wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Gill said getting more people walking downtown is a good way to decrease not only potential crimes but also the perception that downtown Spokane is somehow a dangerous place.

“People say the most ridiculous things about downtown Spokane if they don’t go down there a whole lot,” he said. “We want more people to be on the street, those things are less of an issue.”

Where the skywalk ends

Begin in the lively world of River Park Square, with the views of its escalators crisscrossing up and down in front of the wall of glass, surrounded by myriad shops and shoppers.

Cross to the quiet Crescent Court and then to the Chase Bank building, by the newly arrived and rarely open vintage shop, Genie’s Lamp, with its Lego kits and frightening blond mannequin lying on the ground. Get your shoes shined at the Lincoln Barber Shop. Why not? There’s still a ways to go.

On to the cold, tiled breezeway of the Parkade, by the old Orange Julius that’s now a watch repair shop and to the recently refurbished Sherwood Building, with its fancy new offices and Thomas Hammer coffee shop.

Then to the Old National Bank Building, the quiet skywalk hallway interrupted briefly by the lively Coffee Cup Cafe. One more skywalk and the reach of the second level is exhausted; its terminus is at the stately Paulsen Center.

This particular urban exploration ends at the Daily Grind, a lunch and breakfast spot on the second floor of the Paulsen, the tiered, art deco skyscraper at Washington and Riverside.

“This is where it ends,” said Cody Miller, who bought the restaurant with his wife, Danielle, six years ago, even though it’s been there since 2000.

Miller said he was worried at first about being on the second level, stricken with the fears of the second story’s lack of customers, but he now believes he’s “fortunate.”

“We have a captive audience up here,” he said, noting that he serves about 200 people a day. “If we were closer to River Park Square, it might be better on the ground floor. But the further out you are, the better it is to be up here.”

Gateway to the future

Drusilla Hieber doesn’t necessarily agree. She owns the Bennett Block, the historic conglomeration of three buildings that has been in her family since 1909. She’s also the president of Parkade Inc. and thinks being close to the mall is great and having skywalks is really great.

Hieber recently did a remodel of the buildings beginning in 2014, and she has since filled every available space. Carhartt and Chronic Tacos are on the street level. Upstairs, with the skywalks, there’s office space, primarily for, the Seattle-based pet sitting and dog walking service that recently opened its 8,500-square-foot Spokane location.

But Hieber has more plans. The iconic skywalk connecting her building to the Parkade will be completely redone starting this March. Gone will be the “Pringle potato chip” topping, as she calls it. It will be replaced by a glassy, streamlined corridor with a “design that is complementary” to the new look of the former Macy’s building, which is now called The M.

Though the base of the original skywalk will remain, due largely to foundation issues in the sidewalk, Hieber’s skywalk project will cost $500,000.

“People say I’m nuts. My husband says I’m nuts to spend that much,” Hieber said. “But guess what? It’s the gateway to the future.”

When it comes to the future, Hieber can be convincing. When The M is complete and its 114 apartments are filled, the number of skywalkers will greatly increase: not just apartment dwellers headed to their cars in the Parkade, but shoppers traversing from the mall to the new Nike store to the Bennett Block, where they’ll encounter another Hieber project on the skywalk level.

She calls it the Sky Bar, and it’s sitting there right now. It’s just a massive blond wood box, but soon enough its sides will come down every day, and the “pod” will host Indaba Coffee Roasters and Method Juice, two local companies. A hallway with windows facing Howard will be lined with a bar and stools, allowing people a place to sip on their beverages for a brief recharge.

Hieber envisions the skywalks brimming once again with life, something “like a European square, with meat markets, juice bars, florists.”

“Maybe we could do a wine bar. Why can’t we do that?” she said. “We should give people the opportunity of choice. A place where they can gather.”

Hieber’s ideas echo those of Richard. He’s started talking to people at the city to loosen the regulations that govern skywalks. Where now skywalks are just bridges, Richard sees them as prime pieces of property.

“I have this crazy idea. I think we ought to use our skywalks as real estate,” he said. He envisions new uses and activities on the skywalks, but currently city rules don’t allow anything but unobstructed mobility.

“Imagine grabbing a cocktail at a pop-up bar on a skywalk. Or it doesn’t have to be a bar. It can be a skywalk cafe,” he said. “We can really view these skywalks as vistas, not just for us to look out over the world, but for the world to look up at us.”

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