From skywalk to artwalk

Justin MandelbaumPrincipal of Mandelbaum Properties; Founder and President of Mainframe Studios

The Idea: End the skywalk system as we know it and transform it via art into a 3-mile, vibrant, not-to-be-missed art experience.

The downtown skywalk system has generated its fair share of controversy over the years, but if there’s one thing even its most ardent supporters can agree on, it’s that the skywalks are not attractive.

I think it’s safe to say that, with 52 buildings connected at an initial cost of $79 million in today’s dollars, the skywalks are here to stay. And why not? I’m sure you’ve used them for protection from the cold Iowa winters.

But it seems like the skywalks have been ignored during downtown’s renaissance over the past 20 years. That’s a shame, because it reflects poorly on Des Moines and is damaging to downtown businesses. Imagine what goes through an out-of-town recruit’s mind when walking through the skywalk system to your company’s job interview.

What if we could transform the skywalks from being the dreariest part of people’s commute to the most exciting? And I’m talking about more than adding a Starbucks here.

With the Art Center, Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Arts Festival, Civic Center, Mainframe Studios, Bravo and all the organizations it supports, and no shortage of artists, arts and culture, Des Moines is gaining national attention and momentum.

Let’s capitalize on this momentum by transforming the 3-plus miles of dreary skywalks – both inside and out – into an invigorating, not-to-be-missed art experience that would rank among every “must see” list for those visiting Des Moines.

Exposing people to thought-provoking, inspiring contemporary art as part of the everyday commute can transform what is typically the worst part of the day into one of the best. At Mandelbaum Properties’ development at Fifth and Walnut, we’ve started this already by commissioning three murals inside our temporary skywalk. And it had an impact – shortly after completion it was the No. 1 trending topic in its category on Reddit!

Transforming the skywalks into an engaging art experience would improve the quality of life for all those who live, work or visit downtown. It would make downtown a more desirable place for new businesses, talent and conventions. It would bolster skywalk retail, building occupancies, and ultimately building values – and therefore city tax revenues. It would give exposure to local artists and help attract the creative class. And it would add another tourist destination to our growing city.

This is a low-cost, high-impact project. Here’s how we could do it. Given 52 buildings connected to the skywalk system and assuming an average of $20,000 of art per building, it would cost just over $1 million to create a 3-plus-mile art experience. Spread among 33 building owners (including many of the city’s biggest landlords), arts donors, the city and potentially grant providers, this is achievable. So how can we get there?

Building owners should take the lead for their own buildings. If they need guidance, the Public Art Foundation is a great resource. The Skywalk Association could provide a forum for coordination.

  1. Let’s focus on up-and-coming local artists. This will help artists make a name for themselves and help keep costs down. Des Moines has plenty of young talent – check out Mainframe Studios, Grandview or Drake.
  2. Those who are inclined to donate funds could get naming recognition from building owners. I bet some artists would also choose to join the effort and donate services in exchange for recognition.
  3. The city should help with the skywalk bridges. Maybe the city incentivizes building owners to pay for art inside their buildings in exchange for the city dressing up the adjacent bridges.
  4. The Public Art Foundation could provide guidance and help make this look like a coordinated effort with signage strategy, guidelines and standards so each piece could have a museum-style description.
  5. When skywalk signage and maps become digital, an art tour could be easily accessible for first-time visitors.

If we want to be known as a city for the arts, we can’t rest on our laurels. Transforming the skywalks should be our next big push. It’s high time to end the skywalk as we know it. >