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Can skyways co-exist with urban street design?

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Skyway connecting the First Street Parking Ramp and Civic Center Parking Ramp in downtown Rochester.
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Conversations to implement a skyway bridge system connecting downtown buildings began in earnest in Rochester in the mid 1970s.

In parallel to the skyways above, a second conversation has existed at the street level – a discussion of whether urban street design and off-street travel can work in unison.

Business interests propelled the creation of Rochester's skyway system. The city of Rochester created a tax increment financing district to fund 50 percent of construction costs while adjacent building owners on either side of the bridges paid the other 50 percent.

Agreements like those that led to construction of the first five skyway connections in 1988 and 1989 have reoccured with similar terms through 2010, the most recent connection added to the system. The system has, according to business owners, produced positive results.

"We've always been very happy with the traffic, with people on the level we are," said Svaar Vinje, owner of Knight's Chamber Clothiersl at the Shops at University Square. "People in the wintertime pretty much solely use (the skyway) so it increases our traffic during the winter, where a store that's outside is going to be a little slower in the wintertime."

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Knight's Chamber opened in 1990, shortly after the opening of the Galleria Plaza, now the site of the Shops at University Square. The skyway is critical to the business, but on a larger scale, Vinje worried that Rochester visitors might not come if not for the climate-controlled passages that span the downtown.

It should be a consideration in public spending on skyways, Vinje said, that the weather could be a deterrent to visitors from warmer parts of the globe.

"We have a lot of cultures from climates that are very warm. If they feel like they can be comfortable here year-round, I think that encourages them to come here," he said.

Another consideration is that investment of public money on off-street connections — skyways and subways — can come at the cost of improvement at the street level, said Andy Masterpole, a landscape architect and urban designer who has practiced in Rochester for the past 20 years.

"You're also just taking people off of the street by going into a skyway or a subway," Masterpole said, which detracts from street-level experiences and business opportunities.

Weather-protected connections in Rochester's climate are "almost inevitable," Masterpole conceded, but that does not mean urban design priorities can be ignored.

"I think the focus should be on the outdoor spaces, and then maybe you give people the option to stay indoors if they want, but maybe that option isn't the most convenient way. Maybe it's not the most direct way," he said.

Investment at the street level should include widening of sidewalks and the addition of amenities like street furniture, bicycle facilities, trees, planters and other features that encourage engagement between pedestrians, Masterpole said.

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"It's really about the social aspect, making a place where people feel comfortable talking and meeting other people," he said.

Finding a balance between urban design and off-street connections can be delicate, particularly in new areas of the city. Developers and established business owners near Mayo Clinic Hospital-St. Marys Campus have called for more off-street connections, but Masterpole and a neighborhood group have countered that request with a concern that too many off-street utilities will lead to an unfriendly environment for pedestrians.

Businesses and developers in the downtown area hope to see the skyway network continue to grow. Gus Chafoulias, of Titan Development and Investments, has had more influence over skyway connections in the city than any other single developer — he has had a stake in 12 of the 13 current skyway bridges, he said — and he has plans to add to the skyway system.

"I have developed and invested in skyways throughout the years because I want downtown Rochester to be a comfortable place to navigate for visitors and employees even when it is cold, too hot or rainy," Chafoulias said.

Looking ahead to future developments, Chafoulias said, "I am proud to live in a city with such a wonderful downtown area that is easy to get around and I am excited to be involved in some projects that will enhance our downtown area further."

The decision of whether to add more off-street connections ultimately rests with the Rochester City Council, as virtually all skyway and subway connections require approval to cross the public right-of-way, said Gary Neumann, assistant city administrator.

The council has several upcoming decisions, including a request for funding assistance to add a subway connection near the Saint Marys campus, and a private proposal to add a skyway connection over an alley between 318 Commons and the 309 South Broadway building.

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Knight's Chamber Clothiers owner Svar Vinje says that the foot traffic provided by the skyways is essential to his business in the Shops at University Square.

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