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Skywalks: The winter beaters of Des Moines

February 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Des Moines, about 30 miles south of Ames, has an impressive downtown business district. A bunch of tall buildings packed together. It’s not Manhattan, okay, but for the middle of Iowa, it’s significant.

One striking feature of downtown Des Moines is the vast matrix of skywalks connecting the high-rise buildings and parking garages. It’s not just a couple of them: Altogether, there are about four miles’ worth of skywalks. The first stretch of skywalk opened in 1969 but it’s not part of the four-mile system that got under way in 1982.

The skywalks have two obvious reasons to exist: 1) to allow workers to walk from one building to another with the greatest of ease and 2) to do so without having to suffer the discomforts of winter and, I suppose, the more modest discomforts of summer. It’s a cool thing. It’s new to me, but I realize it’s not unique to Des Moines.

It’s not all good news. Apparently things once were more vibrant in parts of the skywalks than they are today. The big insurance companies Wellmark and Aviva left the downtown area in 2010, dramatically cutting pedestrian traffic in parts of the skywalk system. Some skywalk-level restaurants closed.

“Instead of the skywalks teeming with activity, parts of the system had begun to look like a rundown shopping mall with empty store fronts,” wrote David Elbert for the Des Moines Register, which, by the way, is located in a downtown high-rise and is served by the skywalk system.

Elbert wrote about the skywalks this week because they recently benefited from a $15,000 makeover in advance of the Iowa caucus.

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