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On hotels and sky-bridges: Look past the hype, Pt. 2 (Updated)

One of the apparent non-negotiables of this hotel deal is the $5 million pedestrian bridge that is supposed to connect the proposed Marriott to the Peoria Civic Center. We are told that this will help the Civic Center draw bigger conventions to Peoria because what’s been holding us back is the lack of high-quality hotel space adjacent/connected to the Civic Center. In order for the Civic Center to consider the Pere/Marriott its official convention-center hotel, it wants to have it physically connected.

I buy the lack of high-quality hotel space — our hotels definitely need to be upgraded. But I’m not sold on the physical connectedness being essential. No objective study that I’m aware of has quantified how much more business we would get by having a physically-attached hotel.

Indeed, in a 24 March 2006 memo to the City Council, the Civic Center Authority itself said, “We believe [the expanded Civic Center] can be successful without an attached hotel [emphasis mine] but more and larger regional opportunities will be possible if more and better downtown hotel rooms are available.” Note their main concern is quality and quantity of rooms. The C. H. Johnson Master Plan Analysis said, “To effectively service a convention center and add value to the convention sales effort a hotel property must typically must be located within ten blocks (or reasonable walking distance) [emphasis mine] of a center, the property must be willing to commit approximately 60 percent of its room inventory to the convention center room block, and the hotel must offer a quality room product.” The Pere Marquette and the proposed addition is within one block. Here’s another quote:

The Peoria Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau tracks “lost” convention and meeting business. These are groups that that looked at the city, but ultimately decided to stage their events in another market because the PCC was either too small, the hotel room inventory in downtown Peoria was insufficient or not of the quality preferred by meeting planners, or other factors.

Again, the quality and quantity of rooms was most important according to the Civic Center’s own study. Connectivity was not a major factor.

I’m not saying that having an adjacent or connected hotel would not be an additional advantage for convention sales. I’m saying that (a) it’s not the most pressing problem holding back convention business, and (b) there’s no quantifiable data showing that building a $5 million sky-bridge is going to give the Civic Center a sufficient additional bump in convention sales to justify its cost. How many years (decades?) would it take for the city, private investors, etc., to see a return on that investment? To put it another way, evidence from the Civic Center and their consultant indicates increasing the number and improving the quality of rooms will provide a sufficient boost to convention sales; the additional amenity of a sky-bridge does not appear to provide a $5 million added value. The only “evidence” I’ve heard in support of a sky-bridge as a way to bring in more convention business has been anecdotal or, at best, inconclusive.

Another problem with the sky-bridge plan is this: the hotel plan includes street-level retail around the parking deck, which is a good thing if you’re trying to activate the street. But these shops are going to be below the sky-bridge. The people most likely to patronize those shops — the hundreds of guests staying at the hotel during a convention and walking back and forth to the Civic Center — are going to be directed to the sky-bridge to access the Civic Center. And the shops will be inaccessible from the sky-bridge. Has anyone thought about the self-defeating nature of this plan? Who is going to be on the street to patronize these businesses?

Mayor Ardis is quoted in the paper as saying, “In addition to improving the ability of the Civic Center, it will help us revitalize Downtown Peoria on the business side.” With all due respect to the Mayor, downtown is not going to be revitalized by taking more people off the streets and funneling them through sky-bridges. Plenty of other cities have proven it.

Generally, sky-bridges are a thing of the past. Cities that have them are removing them. They’re outdated and cause more problems than they solve. We should be learning from the mistakes of other cities instead of making the same mistakes ourselves. That’s the thesis of a report by Kathleen Hill, written while she was getting her Master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Utah.

I’d love to quote the whole darn thing, but it’s 43 pages long. So let me quote just this one passage that deals with the most common justification for sky-bridges I hear:

And for those who argue that protection from the elements is necessary, consider the following write-up (People of the Skyway, November 2004) specifically addressing skywalks in the winter cities,

“Why doesn’t Chicago or New York or any of dozens of other cold-climate urban centers have skyways? After all, the main difference between winters in the Twin Cities and in other places is the outlier months, November and March, which tend to be colder and snowier here. The answer is simple to urban architects and planners like Ken Greenberg, head of Toronto-based Greenberg Consultants: Skyways are a bad idea. “The skyway network is a prime example of a highly focused, oversimplified solution to one problem—exposure to climate—that in turn creates others,” he says. “Climate protection is achieved but at a great cost. Street life virtually disappears; retail is moribund, functioning at best for weekday noon hours but not on weekends or in the evening.” That criticism hits its mark in both downtowns, but particularly in St. Paul, which practically ceases to exist outside regular office hours. As one fellow bus-rider remarked to another the other day, heading from downtown toward Lowertown, “This really is a ghost town after five.”

A primary mover behind the downtown development blueprint St. Paul has been following since 1996, “The Saint Paul on the Mississippi Development Framework,” Greenberg points out that retail and street life can and do thrive in similar, very cold urban areas without skyways—even in places just outside downtown. “A good example is Grand Avenue in St. Paul,” he says. And downtown St. Paul itself, before the skyways. “Where skyway solutions have been employed in other cities like Toronto, Calgary, and Edmonton,” Greenberg adds, “the results have been similar.”

For evidence, Greenberg points to an April 11, 2004, editorial in the Hartford Courant, in which urban planner Toni Gold delights in the demise of that city’s twenty-year-old skyways (which they called “skywalks”). Gold, who works at a New York City nonprofit called Project for Public Spaces, begins her commentary: “Hartford’s skywalks are coming down, with barely a whimper of protest from their one-time proponents, or even a hurray from their one-time opponents. Well, hurray, I say. Two cheers for city sidewalks. It’s now become obvious and widely acknowledged that cities should reinforce their sidewalks, not compete with them.”

Incidentally, the report goes on to state that Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak “refus[ed] to build a large hotel adjacent to the Minneapolis Convention Center, precisely because ‘people wouldn’t get out on the streets enough’.” I’ll bet they still get more conventions than we do, even without an attached hotel.

UPDATE: When I wrote this post, I was unable to access the entire C. H. Johnson study because the Civic Center’s link to it had been removed, so I was relying on incomplete information. Never a good idea. I have since been able to obtain a copy of the full report (now available here on my site), and it does, in fact, propose a sky-bridge to connect the Pere Marquette to the Civic Center:

With the recommended expanded and renovated facilities, Peoria will need a larger, higher-quality hotel package. In order to not only be competitive, but to accommodate more and larger groups, Peoria should consider:

  • Connecting the Hotel Pere Marquette to the Peoria Civic Center via walkway, as is the case in many cities in the US. One recent example is the 257-room Radisson Hotel in Lansing, Michigan, which is connected to the Lansing Center via a heated sky bridge over the Grand River.

That correction made, however, my larger point still stands. The report does, in fact, focus primarily on the number and quality of rooms available within close proximity. The additional boost that physical attachment would give is not quantified. And, I’m sorry, but I just don’t see Fulton Street as the same kind of physical barrier as the Grand River in Lansing.

31 comments to On hotels and sky-bridges: Look past the hype, Pt. 2 (Updated)

  • peoriafan

    This is ONE skywalk we are talking about. If we were talking about the whole downtown then I would by your statements. This is a selling point to the Civic Center and the conventions they are trying to attract.
    CJ, are you sure you are not Sandburg in disguise?

  • clayton

    I’m guessing you’ve never been an exhibitor and had to take materials back and forth from your hotel room to the expo hall.  It doesn’t take much wind or rain before you say “**** it, I’m not coming back here next year.”

  • Mahkno

    Over the couple years, my spouse attended a couple big meetings held in convention centers in other cities, who had these sorts of enclosed connections.   She really loved it because she was fortunate enough to have gotten a room in the attached hotels.   Other fellow travelers were not so fortunate.  It was nice because she didn’t have to lug around coats and other seasonal clutter as she plodded from lecture to lecture.   And.. when there was an interlude, she could go to her room for a short break or even a nap.

    But there are some truths;

    One, she never had to leave the complex.  So what was outside was unknown.  It is kind of like going to an amusement park, with a the captive market.  Prices are higher in lieu of the convenience.  There were restaurant choices in the complex which were ‘ok’ but you paid for the convenience.

    Two, the attached hotel is much more likely to sell out and the prices for the rooms were significantly higher.   This was sort of anti-competitive.   The convenience advantage is so great, it hurt other hotels.  The other hotels got business from the convention but they couldn’t charge the same premium and might not have been able to sell out nearly so fast, if at all.

    Having the attached hotel is nice for the convention goers but if you are hoping that these convention goers are going to get out and see the town and spend money there en masse, you might be very disappointed.

  • Chase Ingersoll


    With the economy down, construction labor and material cost should be down.  But could you look into how the “public financing portion”…I assume millons of bonds… going to be achieved in today’s markets.

  • Peoriafan — This is not the first skywalk downtown (Cat alone has two).  Minneapolis didn’t wake up one day and decide to put up twenty skywalks.  They always happen one project at a time.  And I’m still waiting for a rational justification for this $5 million “selling point.”  Or are we just handing out money based on anecdotal evidence now?

    And thanks for the compliment.  Carl Sandburg is one of my favorite poets.

  • Mahkno

    Cincinnati has an entire skywalk network covering their downtown area.   Almost every building is connected and you never have to step outside.  It has been there so long that shops have opened up along the route, several stories up.   The skywalk is heavily used.   In contrast, the outside sidewalks are noticeably less traveled despite all the businesses downtown.   

    Cincinnati’s downtown is dysfunctional overall.   People go to work there but it is utterly dead, a ghost town, after 5p and on weekends.   Peoria’s downtown is bustling by comparison.    We were there for a couple weeks, staying at a downtown hotel.  We thought this would have been convenient because the place that was training us was located downtown.    There were almost no restaurants open after 5p or on the weekend.   Even the one in the hotel was closed on the weekend.

    And… next to downtown was the most crowded run down ghetto I have ever seen.   The contrast was black and white litterally.    One side of the road there were well kept skyscrapers, accross the street.. nothing like it here.   There is a lot of crime in that area, which spills into the downtown area.   This seemed to us to be a contributing factor in the skyway’s existence and the utter emptiness after business hours.   It was a bubble.

  • peoriafan

    I don’t think the CAT skywalks count as they were put in between their own buildings. The one over Washington was as much for safety as anything.
    The skywalks at the hospitals are there again between their own buildings also.

  • clayton

    “Why doesn’t Chicago or New York or any of dozens of other cold-climate urban centers have skyways?”

    Has Kathleen Hill never been to the McCormick Place?

  • kcdad

    “I’m guessing you’ve never been an exhibitor”…

    Waah. Go someplace else, then. I am really gonna miss those widget and whatsis events.

  • Clayton — You’re right, of course, that they do have a skywalk there, but I’d submit that McCormick Place and the highways around it are hardly analogous to the Civic Center and Fulton Street. 

  • Ben

    Chicago also has a pedway, underground that connects several blocks of businesses.  The Rosemont Convention Center also has skywalks connecting ot to nearby hotels.

  • Ben

    Keep in mind that at McCormick Place, MP 2 is used more often then the original MP.  There are no highways between MP2 and the hotel that it is all linked to.

  • clayton

    kcdad, the company I was at sold industrial machining tools.  Being that Peoria is an area that depends on machining, it seems kinda important.  Unfortunately, there was never a show in Peoria to show off our new products.  So designers and programmers in the Peoria area have to make the trip to other cities to see all the new tools at one place.

  • Sterling

    If cash is an issue, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the skyway itself won’t be an architectural jewel, so I’m sure the powers that be will turn it into a billboard of some sort, or have one of those electronic message boards to alert the street traffic of upcoming civic events.

    Or sell the naming rights to the skyway.  How much do you think Caterpillar would pay to have thousands of people refer to the “CATwalk”?

  • Sterling — Adding another reason to avoid the street.  Who would want to be visually assaulted by something like you describe?  It’s going to be unsightly enough without drawing attention to it with billboards or message boards.

  • MJJ

    This makes it sound like the streets downtown are bustling with activity… which they’re not. Downtown is already no mans land after 5 pm, whats the difference? Many convention centers have the hotels attached by walkways of some sort.

  • MJJ says, “Downtown is already no mans land after 5 pm, whats the difference?”

    Well, if you want to keep the streets empty, then by all means, the skywalk is the way to do it.  I guess I thought we were trying to revitalize downtown.

  • General Parker

    MJJ says, “Downtown is already no mans land after 5 pm, whats the difference?”

    MJJ, if it’s not going to make a difference, then why spend the 5 million?

  • mdd!

    Compare the issue of skywalks with Dallas and Houston – no skywalks, but they have gone the opposite direction.  Their version is underground tunnels connecting all of the downtown area and they are filled with little stores, coffee shops, restaurants, etc.  Just like almost every other big city, no one is there past 5pm.   During the daytime, the tunnels are jammed with people!  If you wonder why, maybe it is because neither of those cities allow pushcarts for food?  The people gather where the food is…

  • peoriafan

    good point.
    The pushcarts are a big reason we don’t have more restaurants downtown. They steel all the lunch traffic during the week.
    We should only allow hot dog type food carts like they have in NYC.
    If people want more than that then they can go into a real restuarant.

  • mdd!

    Pushcarts are what allows all of those people to be out and about on the streets in the first place. Without them, most of those people would bring their lunch and sit in their little cubicle or company lunch room instead of going outside. They would not be going to restaurants every day as they are too expensive.

    Without the pushcarts, there would be no “brown bag” events (the people are buying food from pushcarts) and many of the people at the “brown bag” events come from farther away than 1-2 blocks from the Courthouse location.

  • […] Merle Widmer takes a lok at the numbers here and here, while C.J. looks at the hype here and here. RSS 2.0 Comments Feed | Leave a Response | […]

  • As one who has ran events, there are good and bad things about connected hotels and sky bridges.

    In cases of bad weather it is nice to have a covered escape.

    If the convention/civic center has poor storage and poor access set aside for the convention/event planners and vendors it allows one to use the hotel as a storage facility. (IMHO This problem would be better solved by fixing the design problem of the civic center if this is the case though.)

    It steals away possible business from street level shops and vendors and in the long run drives down the rent-ability of street level commercial space in the area.

    It discourages attendees of events from exploring the town and spending more money to support other food or entertainment venues in the area. While the hotel may like having this captive market, it does little for the area as a whole.

    It gives the hotel attached to the event center an unfair advantage over other nearby hotels and discourages the building of competing hotels unless you give them a sky-way too.

    Can the Civic center survive without a sky-way? Well the Seattle convention center seems to do just fine without a connected hotel, so I would have to say no, it is not needed.

  • shay

    Lots of good posts…

    Wow, William W., Seattle gets tons of rain & (maybe cold too?) Who woulda thunk they could deal with it?

    C. J.: We just briefly said hello at last blogger bash, but I’d not seen your site yet. I must compliment you on your body of work, your audience, and your humor (Carl Sandberg.)

    First I thought: open & shut case, do it, done deal. But this skyway discussion has layers like an onion.

    I was approaching it from a customer service standpoint. You are too, but you are looking from a perspective of urban development and a vision of decades down the road…YOU’VE GOT ME THINKING.

    I was thinking of the skyway customer, or the Marriott/Civic Center customer. I was thinking, “Have more people not heard of listening to customers and respecting their wants?” “Can we respect that a Marriott/Civic Center customer is savvy enough to discern what is important to him?”

    I don’t have any quantitative data to back me up, but I’ve attended a few conventions along with our industry’s customers at venues such as Marriott Marquis in Times Square, and C. J., a Marriott customer gets spoiled. And we get to spoil OUR customers. We tell our convention site selection committee that we expect climate control to & from room to event hall.

    Why? I wouldn’t want my customer’s wives, who are used to Marriott’s plushness, to have to deal with an overcoat, umbrella, boots, bag containing her formal shoes, along with a purse, while wearing one of those silk granny scarves over her hair to combat the wind. Then spend 15 minutes in a nice huge civic center bathroom putting herself back together in front of everyone. Add 5 minutes if she’s sans umbrella and the pigeons hit her.

    These people want to arrive at their events looking their Sunday best with every hair in place. Salespeople might even run into potential customers en route who will be forming judgements about them & their product or service.

    With the $55 million expansion of the Civic Center & Marriott’s business model, I believe we will have a ‘Cadillac’ quality venue. You don’t want your ‘Geo’ tires blowing out on your Cadillac.

    Marriott knows their customers have been spoiled by ‘Cadillac’ climate-control, and won’t want to come to some cow town where they’re outlawed as a first option.

    I will say you have me thinking,though.

    Thinking as far as revitalizing downtown business, Jim’s Steakhouse, Eamen Patrick, Cat giftshop will benefit perhaps. I betcha It’ll help Hoops Pub & Pizza & Uncle Als. Maybe Segway rentals will provide window shopping opportunities in the coming decades.

    My souvenirs over the years have always been small enough to fit in my carry-on luggage.

    I heard sidewalk cafes in that part of town won’t happen because tables & chairs, along with those planters can sometimes block foot traffic. I like the New Orleans vibe going on by the post office. I miss those benyiegh? french donuts like things.

    A sidewalk portrait artist might eke out a few bucks in the summer.

    Good luck with your Christmas program, C. J.
    Take care & thanks,

  • kcdad

    … and maybe the homeless and hookers will get an extra buck or two.

    I really don’t give a crap about some exhibitor’s wife getting wet walking across a street. Waah. They don’t like this cowtown they can go back to the big city of Dubuque.

  • shay

    Hello, KDAD, (btw…I went K-4 at Keller East & 5-8 at Keller Central, so I’m sure we could share some stories) We’ve already bought the Cadillac, got the keys, and its been 3 days so no returns.

    The question is ‘Will we believe our customers when they say they don’t want ‘Geo’ tires on their Cadillac?’ or are we just gonna slap ’em on anyway?

  • kcdad

    There are not too many people in this town that can say that… and get away with it. Kellar Kellar hats off to you! James K.  and the evil eyeball, Orthography notebooks and touch football… ahhhh the good ole days.

    Is the hotel a dung… I mean done deal? Or is it just that we are supposed to believe it is a done deal?

    One thing about Peoria… the city hasn’t grown in 35 years… why do our politicians think all of a sudden it is going to explode with activity?

  • shay

    KC, like Johnny Cash said, “I hear that train a-comin. Its rollin down the tracks.” Nobody wants to get in the way of thia one.

    Why do have the feeling that there’s been no growth? I remember barreling down Pioneer Parkway toward Barnaby’s Pizza & Pleasure Island in a 1974 Caprice station wagon & it was scary how narrow the little two lane road was.

    Remember Reverend R L Lockerbie at KC? The eighth grade fieldtrip to Washington DC?
    Keller East has to be one of the nicest looking schools in the world. We were so lucky.

  • kcdad

    well… population of Peoria in 1973 was 112000 and today it is 113000? 1000 in 35 years? I saw a site that said county population for Peoria has gone down from 200,000 to 180,000 since 1973.  Yeah the roads are wider to accommodate traffic from the white flight areas of Brimfield, Dunlap and across the river (mainly from across the river, apparently). Ahhh Barnaby’s… my first real job. making sandwiches, pizzas, drinking beer from the taps after closing…
    As for “The Reverend”, that is exactly why I mentioned Orthography. I preferred Joyce Van De Voorde and Paul Head myself. I was only at East for one year… two at West and 3 at Central.

  • kcdad

    Wait a minute… 8th grade trip to Washington??? I think we went to Chicago to stupid Cubs -Phillies game.

  • […] in Peoria regrettably, will only hurt downtown commerce, not help it. Studies I’ve quoted in a previous post tell the story. Here’s a quote from Kathleen Hill (May 2006): Skywalk design in North America […]