The story behind Cincinnati’s slowly disappearing skywalk system

Over the past few weeks, city crews were busy dismantling another section of downtown Cincinnati’s once extensive skywalk system. The section, an open air walkway over Elm Street and Rusconi Place, was taken down by the city in preparation for the World Choir Games this summer, and the demolition is the latest phase of an ongoing effort to dismantle the city’s once expansive skywalk system.

Developed in the 1960’s as a way for downtown retailers to compete with the enclosed shopping environments found in suburban malls, the city implemented an ambitious plan to construct a series of elevated walkways extending from Fourth and Broadway northwest to the Duke Energy Convention Center.

The skywalks became the preferred connection to places along the route including Fountain Square; Tower Place Mall; department stores such as Shilito’s, Pogue’s, McAlpin’s and LS Ayers; as well as corporate office buildings; Riverfront Stadium; the convention center and its adjoining parking garages.

By the early 2000’s, the skywalk system was stymied by poor way-finding and aggressive pan-handling, and several sections had fallen into disrepair. The system was difficult to control and maintain due to ownership issues surrounding the elevated walkways. But to many urban planners, the biggest issue was that the skywalk system discouraged street-level foot traffic.

Removal and reconfiguration of the skywalk system was proposed as part of the 2002 Center City Plan. The plan found that downtown Cincinnati was declining due to loss of economic activity to the city’s suburbs, and it emphasized the development of places in downtown that highlighted the urban core’s built assets.

Skywalks, the report said, allowed pedestrians to bypass the street which contributed to the perception that downtown was abandoned. To counter those perceptions, the report called for expanding street-level pedestrian activity while also programming pedestrian activity on the street to create economic vibrancy.

“The way you help to build a vital center is to put people on the streets and to enable them to have connectivity on these streets,” city spokesperson Meg Olberding told UrbanCincy.

The city’s actions were even profiled by the New York Times in a 2005 story entitled Rethinking Skyways and Tunnels.

“And now, as cities try to draw residents downtown with loft conversions and tax incentives, several are trying to divert pedestrians back to the street and do away with the walkways.” Patrick O’Gilfoil Healy wrote. “Critics say the walkways are too antiseptic and too controlled and have transformed cities into places to pass through, not live in.”

The skywalk began to come down with the reconfiguration of Fort Washington Way. A piece connecting Riverfront Stadium to the Atrium I and II office towers was demolished in 2002, with other pieces following thereafter. In 2005, the city demolished two sections of the skywalk from the 5/3 Tower to Vine Street and the pedestrian bridge over Fifth Street as part of the $49 million redevelopment of Fountain Square. A second segment that connected Saks Fifth Avenue to the site of a former office tower at Fifth and Race was then dismantled in 2007, and other older sections of the skywalk are likely to be removed in the near future.

Although a considerable amount of the system is still intact today, the biggest improvement from the dismantling thus far can be seen at Fountain Square. Prior to its removal, the Vine Street Skywalk was the busiest skywalk in the city carrying thousands of pedestrians over many street level storefronts and street vendors. The removal of this skywalk helped create today’s vibrant Fountains Square, which is a testament to this policy shift.

As for future plans for the remaining segments of the skywalk, City officials have informed UrbanCincy that the skywalk connecting to Macy’s over Race Street will likely not be utilized in the upcoming dunnhumbyUSA development at Fifth and Race. Oldberding also disclosed that future skywalk demolitions will be decided on a case-by-case basis saying, “We look at how they are contributing to the vitality of the urban center.”

As the skywalk is slowly removed, we have found it necessary to chronicle the once enormous reach of the declining system. UrbanCincy’s research team has developed a map charting the demolished and remaining sections of the skywalk system, as well as the one possible expansion at Great American Tower at Queen City Square. As new sections come down, the map will be updated to reflect those changes.

  • Patrick Down

    I understand the reasons for removing the skywalk but it’s sad.  I found it a nice place to take a stroll downtown when the weather was bad.  

  • Do you think there is anything to be learned from NYC’s skywalk? Totally different circumstances but perhaps sections of the skywalk could beautified and introduced to commercial opportunities themselves? Or does this inhibit human street traffic too much?

    • There are certainly some cases where this may make sense, and in fact, it already exists in the skywalk over Race Street that connects Saks Fifth Avenue with Tower Place Mall.

      I also would doubt that you will ever see the three skywalks connecting Tower Place Mall with surrounding department stores demolished. They’re pretty intensive structures and those skywalks do seem to offer a tangible benefit for the businesses they are serving.

      With that said, I don’t think an enclosed mall is really appropriate in a downtown setting, and would much rather have all of those retailers out at street-level.

    • Zachary Schunn

      “With that said, I don’t think an enclosed mall is really appropriate in a downtown setting, and would much rather have all of those retailers out at street-level.”

      I thought exactly this when reading John’s allusion to Tower Place Mall.  It’s not just in urban settings; it’s everywhere.  Most people don’t go spend 3 or 4 hours at an indoor mall any more.  Often, they want quick, one-stop-shops (either big boxes or commercial strips).  Or if they do go to a “mall,” they want something tying them to the street.  Look at Cincinnati Mall and other regional, dying malls as proof.  Then look at the Premium Outlets in Monroe, or “The Greene” in Dayton.

      If Tower Place wasn’t double-loaded, it could be turned inside out.  Quite the shame as it’s just an outdated design.  Lack of visibility and street-level presence is keeping it largely vacant.

      As for the skywalk:  agreed with the reason for demolishing it, but also agreed on the benefits in cold weather.  I too used the one over Vine (Tower Place to Westin) often and expect it will remain intact for years to come.

  • Anonymous

    Queen City Discovery did a feature on the skywalks in 2009. Pretty interesting story with it.

    • John Yung

      It’s a really good photo tour that I was going to link to in the article but it pops up as a dangerous site. 

    • Anonymous

      I’m not really sure why it does that. I know he has been having problems (I think Chrome is the culprit) with the site being identified as dangerous. He has been trying to get that fixed for a long time, but it never seems to go away. I think it is safe. I go to the site all of the time, but I guess go at your own risk because I don’t know much about this kind of stuff…

  • Matt Jacob

    I started working downtown about a year ago and the learning curve to figure out how to use the skywalk seems to be getting higher with every section they take out. The way-finding maps are terribly inaccurate. That being said, they are very convenient on a rainy or coldy, windy day and people will continue to use them. 

    I believe that it would be unwise for Cincinnati to completely dismantle the entire system anytime soon. Fountain Square is the poster child for why we should keep the system and use it more wisely. What happens when you have a bunch of termites marching down the termite tube and then break the tube? You’ve got termites everywhere! The skywalk effectively lined up all the pedestrians and then broke the tube; dumping activity onto FS. 

    The skywalk system needs to be designed and built around activity areas like what FS has become. Encourage the skywalks in most (office) areas and require them to end in others that force pedestrians to the street in these activity areas. Use zoning to control the uses so that the retail can cluster at these activity areas. You’d probably have to spread them fairly far apart, but it could work. That’s my theory anyway… 

    •  The problem with that analogy is that termites everywhere are bad and pedestrians everywhere are good.

      The only place the tubes could possibly have a place in cinci is immediately adjacent to fountain square (and that is arguable), and connecting the old above-ground garage to Music Hall (lots of generally older people crossing a 6 lane. this could potentially be a non-issue with the Wash Park garage coming online).

      The only city I’ve personally visited that could justify multiple elevations of pedestrian connectivity is Hong Kong, where the astronomical density floods all levels with vital levels of people. I’ve also heard good things about MPL’s tubes n’ tunnels but I understand that a number of them are programmed and they also have a considerably harsher climate than ours.

    • I also don’t understand your comment. It sounds like you’re saying that tearing town the skywalks around Fountain Square was a failure because it resulted in additional pedestrian traffic on and around Fountain Square. In reality, FS is a success because of all of this pedestrian traffic.

  • I use the section that goes from the Carew Tower over to the Westin/US Bank/Mercantile Library very often, especially when the weather’s bad. It’s a huge convenience – you don’t have to put on a coat, boots, etc. On nice days, I’ll walk all over the place, but the skywalk actually encourages me to go out to lunch when otherwise it wouldn’t be worth the aggravation. I hope they never tear it down.

    • I tend to think that this is one of the skywalks that will never go away. It seems to be structurally significant to both structures, and does serve a purpose without having a major negative impact on street life below.

  • I’m all for growing Downtown, but it seems terribly wasteful to destroy perfectly functional (and convenient) structure just to force people down to the street level to persuade them to buy stuff.  Surely, there are other ways to accomplish this (such as everything 3CDC is doing), because I think it’s a neat system, and though I don’t work in CBD, I would think it has strong support from the businesses (I mean corporations) connected by it.

    I just feel losing the system is something we’d regret, perhaps decades from now, when downtown foot traffic is so heavy that the benefits of a skyway as a rainy-day alternative are even greater (it could provide covered access to places the streetcar doesn’t go), and we’d be kicking ourselves the way we are with the inclines and buried streetcar lines.

    I just think they’re neat.

    • Well, I’m happy to share that there is a lot more to it than just wanting people to buy stuff.

      People on the street mean a more active and dynamic street, it also means a safer street. A desolate street can be a scary place, both because of people with ill intentions and the more people on the street the slower adjacent traffic travels. Now with a lot of people on the street, the street that used to be docile at best and intimidating at worst, is now safe and vibrant.

      There are a lot of other variables at play here involving the street width to building height ratios, ‘permeability’ and frequency of storefronts, and scaling and detailing of architecture (to name a few). But, assuming you have those things right, which blessedly Cincinnati does downtown, all those people down there have created an environment where even more people want to be.

      Increased retail sales are only a side-effect of the cause. Retail wants to be there because that’s where the bodies are, business wants to be there because that’s where other businesses are, and people want to be there because they’re close to work and shopping and lots of other people (and people, btw, are way more interesting than TV).

      So vitality begets vitality, and the skywalks suck up and throttle that vitality. They ARE more convenient, no doubt, but at what cost? I would say, and it seems the city would agree, that the cost is too great.

      I mentioned elsewhere in this thread that the only city I have visited that not only can justify but seems to have an actual ‘need’ for multiple elevation pedestrian paths is Hong Kong. Cincinnati sidewalk space is simply nowhere near its carrying capacity let alone so overcrowded that it needs relief.

      I understand your statement about wanting them 10 years down the road, but ironically I would say the only way we could reach enough CBD pedestrians to warrant our extensive tubes is to have the sort of pedestrian-friendly environment we are creating in part by tearing the tubes down.

      More simply, tearing down the skywalks is one part of a larger plan to return downtown/OtR to something that functions as a city functions, a working urbanism.  Skywalks were an anti-urban fad during an anti-urban era, and they are at directly cross purposes to what Cincinnati is and is becoming.

      Hope that didn’t come off as a rant, it’s just more complex than it might seem, and I thought worth fleshing out.

    • Matt Allen

      Thanks for sharing. I believe in this city too.

  • Georgia Peaches

    remember in the 80s when folks got tossed off the skywalk? Being robbed, beaten, some tossed off?