It’s that time of year again when skywalks flex their usefulness.
And Spokane has plenty to show. Or does it?
Downtown Spokane has a network of 16 skywalks crisscrossing its retail and business core, making it one of the most notable above-the-street pedestrian pathways in the United States.
It’s not on par with Minneapolis, the world’s largest with 8 miles of skywalks to give Minnesotans a break from frigid winters. Nor is it similar to Houston, with its 6 miles of tunnels.
But the skywalk system here has survived and sometimes thrived since the first one was built in 1963 linking the Ridpath Hotel with the Ridpath Motor Inn, according to Spokesman-Review archives.
Skywalk construction then began in earnest over the next two decades, though the new walkways didn’t connect with the Ridpath. It has been hailed as a respite and a destination especially when Spokane weather turns cold and wet.
Akin to the fortunes of retailers and restaurants, the use and appreciation of Spokane’s skywalk system has ebbed and flowed.
Perhaps at its best, the skywalk system of the early 1980s allowed shoppers to walk inside between four of downtown Spokane’s four retail heavyweights: Nordstrom, The Bon Marché, The Crescent and J.C. Penney.
By 2000 the skywalk system fed the lunch crowd. Crescent Court was packed with restaurants and hungry office workers.
But the food court didn’t last and by 2005 the Spokane Journal of Business reported that the skywalk vacancy rate had climbed to 40%.
Much of that space was eventually absorbed by offices as downtown Spokane underwent an economic turnaround.
The decline of the bustling skywalk system dovetailed with the focus of refilling downtown with people and businesses starting on the street.
What’s followed has been introspection about the skywalk system and whether it remains an asset to a renergized downtown with its numerous retailers, restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues.
Three years ago The Spokesman-Review published two columns with differing views on the skywalk system.
Anthony Gill, whose urban living blog is called Spokane Rising, posited that it perhaps was time for Spokane to leave its skywalks in the past and fully recognize that today’s growing numbers of downtown shoppers want vibrant street-level shops.
Mark Richard, president and CEO of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, acknowledged concerns about online shopping and the need to keep shoppers on the streets, but he also noted how the skywalks offered benefits to the thousands of workers in downtown office buildings, many of whom appreciate the convenience.
It remains to be seen how the skywalks and businesses tied to them fared the pandemic.
But today the skywalk system, which connects the second floor of office buildings such as the U.S. Bank Building and the Bennett Block, to and the Parkade Plaza Parking Garage for example, is largely quiet outside of the second floor of the River Park Square shopping mall.
And those second-story businesses a skywalk link away from the mall cater to the bankers-hours downtown crowd. On Black Friday afternoon, for example, when there were more shoppers than usual, most restaurants, retailers and service providers along the skywalk system were closed for the holiday break along with many offices.
But there remains belief in the usefulness of the skywalk system. Three years ago two skywalks connecting the old Macy’s building to the network were replaced at a reported cost of $800,000, according to news reports at the time.
And there have been new restaurants giving it a go on the skywalk level, including Spokanewich and Tio’s Taqueria.
The Spokane Public Library is usually linked by skywalk via Nordstrom. So when the library’s flagship location began undergoing its big renovation, it found temporary space on the second floor of the STA Plaza, which is linked to the skywalk system.
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