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Urban skywalk concept brought down to earth

CINCINNATI -- Sunlight is replacing the shadows where elevated walkways spanning streets around Cincinnati's downtown square have been torn down. Similar open spaces are appearing in other cities where planners once hoped skywalks would energize their downtowns.

''More cities are realizing that skywalks are not what they were cut out to be," said Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that helps communities create and sustain public places. ''Instead of drawing additional people and retail to a second level, skywalks have left streets lifeless, presenting a cold and alienating environment."

While skywalks remain popular in some cold-weather cities such as Des Moines, an increasing number of cities have started tearing down some of theirs or would like to remove them. Planners and others in cities such as Cincinnati; Baltimore; Charlotte, N.C.; Hartford; and Kansas City, Mo.; now believe that increasing street-level pedestrian traffic will lead to more downtown homes, shops, and entertainment.

''Having people on the streets sends the message that downtown is a safe and fun place to be," said Marya Morris, senior research associate with the American Planning Association. ''It's difficult to create the type of energy that attracts housing and other activity when there is no one on the streets after 5 p.m."

Skywalks vary from enclosed, climate-controlled corridors with windows to open bridges with and without roofs. The pedestrian walkways connect second stories of buildings and often are part of large networks that wind through downtown, with shops and services located in sections that pass through buildings.

Planners estimate that between 20 and 30 cities across the United States at one time embraced the design concept. The mostly glass-and-steel skywalks that were constructed beginning in the 1960s and '70s were intended to insulate pedestrians from weather and street crime and to compete with suburban malls.

But tourists often have trouble navigating skywalks, where access is often inside hotels and office buildings. Workers now make up most skywalk users, but with offices also fleeing downtowns, even that traffic has dwindled.

Cincinnati city architect Michael Moore said the difference is striking around Fountain Square since two of the city's original 22 skywalk bridges were removed as part of a renovation to make the square a more welcoming, downtown center.

Many skywalks were built with public and private money, making it difficult to get rid of the sections that run through office buildings where executives and workers want to keep them for convenience. Cost also is a factor.

Mayor Eddie A. Perez of Hartford is glad that his city's experiment with skywalks was only about 30 percent or 40 percent complete before officials realized it was a mistake.

''Even though we have snow and cold, we have now adopted a walkable-city kind of notion and implemented a downtown shuttle system that doesn't take people off the street level," he said.

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