$400m Doesn't Buy Pedestrian Access

Dubuque Skywalk: Skywalk between the Grand River Center and the adjacent hotel in Dubuque, Iowa.Dubuque Skywalk: Skywalk between the Grand River Center and the adjacent hotel in Dubuque, Iowa.It might appear at first glance that I am anti-skywalk. And you would be right in most cases. I just found another egregious example in Dubuque, Iowa, of all places.

More about this later. First a little background. I am in Dubuque for a lead paint "visual risk assessor/sampling technician" training. After class today, I decided to take advantage of the beautiful spring weather and go for a self-guided tour of the downtown area. Downtown Dubuque is bordered on the west by the Mississippi River bluffs and on the east by Highway 61, which cuts between downtown and the industrial/recreational areas adjacent to the Mississippi River.

The historic downtown is fabulous, and quite a bit larger than I anticipated. In general, the streets are quite pedestrian-friendly, with trees, wide sidewalks, and relatively dense development. Despite the obligatory gas station and drug store teardowns, much of the historic building fabric remains, running the full range from row houses to 6-story mixed-use walk-ups. Most of the storefronts appear to be occupied, though by the time I got there I was relegated to peering in windows.

While I may look this up on Wikipedia later to confirm, my gut tells me that Dubuque's historic relationship with the river was one of commerce and transportation rather than entertainment and tourism. I would guess that the city developed on the commerce relating to transfer between river and rail; multiple tracks (that appear to pre-date Highway 61) run directly through the industrial warehouse district. In any case, it is just as clear that the city is trying to redevelop the river area as a tourist and entertainment district.

The Port of Dubuque

Enter the Port of Dubuque, a $400 million redevelopment project that "celebrates the historical, environmental, educational and recreational majesty of the Mississippi". The Port of Dubuque houses two casinos, several private company headquarters, a hotel, the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, several restaurants, a convention center, and a hotel.

The development is protected from the Mississippi River by a levee. The top of the levee is a well-designed pedestrian walk which affords breathtaking views of the river.

Mississippi River Vista in DubuqueMississippi River Vista in Dubuque

The walk to the levee? Not so much....

My Pedestrian Experience

Not knowing any better (and not having a map), I started my walk to the river on 6th Avenue, which I could see connected under the highway to the place I assumed the river to be.

Walking Under Highway 61 in DubuqueWalking Under Highway 61 in Dubuque

Note that the sidewalk on my side of the street ends on the other side of the highway. Not a huge deal, because there is no traffic. However, with a wide curving street and no crosswalk, the stage is set for a car-pedestrian accident.

As a pedestrian walking to an entertainment and cultural district, I expect the street environment to be engaging and vibrant. Instead, I walk by parking lots, parking structures, and grassy fields - there are some renderings of future planned buildings on various web sites, but the general plan for the area is plainly the "building in a sea (river) of parking" typology.

Walk to the Levee, Port of DubuqueWalk to the Levee, Port of Dubuque

There is no signage for the pedestrian and very little indication of what lies ahead, though I do know I am heading in the general direction of the river. To the right is the butt end of the casino parking structure. I briefly consider popping in to take a look, but the fading light convinces me to keep on my search for the river.

Just under the skywalk, 6th Avenue ends at the levee. I expect a grand stairway up to the top - the terminal end of a grand boulevard. No such luck.

Levee Access, Port of DubuqueLevee Access, Port of Dubuque

My grand staircase is pushed off to the left, tucked against the Convention Center behind the parking access. Without having been a party to the site planning, I can still say with quite a bit of certainty, that even a first year graduate student of planning would probably have designed a pedestrian plaza between the hotel and the convention center, with a staircase leading up to the top of the levee as the focal point.

In protest, I climbed up the levee where I thought the stair should be. At the top, I was amazed to see the following vista.

Top of the Levee, Port of DubuqueTop of the Levee, Port of Dubuque

I'm a sucker for rivers and bridges. I'm also a sucker for historic downtowns, so of course, after admiring the view for a few minutes, I turned around to look from whence I came.

Oh No You Didn't!

This is what I saw:

Dubuque Skywalk Part DeuxDubuque Skywalk Part Deux

No effing WAY! Not only did they build a skywalk between buildings less than 100 feet apart, they built it at the perfect height to block a view of downtown and the river bluffs.

I sadly made my way south on the levee towards the docks. At the end of the levee was a wonderful little plaza with stairs down to the water and a little beach (posted "No Wading").

Plaza at the End of the Levee, Port of DubuquePlaza at the End of the Levee, Port of Dubuque

End of the Tour

Ok, time to head back and look for dinner. Across the parking lot....

Casino Parking Lot, Port of DubuqueCasino Parking Lot, Port of Dubuque

... to complete the loop via the 3rd Avenue bridge.

3rd Avenue Bridge, Port of Dubuque3rd Avenue Bridge, Port of Dubuque

In the middle of the moderately oppressive walk across the bridge (a 4-foot walkway separated from traffic by "Jersey barrier" style concrete), was a slight reprieve: the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium is a quite well-designed building.

Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in DubuqueMississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque

The shape evokes the industrial warehouse typology of the historic riverfront, but the design is clearly contemporary with glass, steel, and stone. I would like to see the inside sometime.

In Conclusion

The Port of Dubuque loses sight of the forest for the trees: clearly a lot of money, time and effort were devoted to the "pedestrian experience". There were benches, historic style street lighting, trees (young ones, but still trees), and wide sidewalks among other things. But the big picture items were simply glossed over:

  • Connection to the historic downtown - The walk to the Port of Dubuque was pretty bad.
  • Wayfinding - I was well into the district before I found a map.
  • Activating the sidewalk experience - Fundamentally, a mixed-use entertainment and cultural district like this should not be planned using suburban typologies (buildings surrounded by parking). It should be planned more like either an Italian piazza or a pedestrian-oriented urban street.
  • Clear sight lines to and from the river - The river is the reason this district exists. There should be better, more "permeable", connection across the buildings to the river. for example, 6th Avenue terminating against a vertical grass wall should absolutely not exist.

Granted, there are two casinos in this district. The casino business depends on keeping people inside and spending money, so it is to their advantage to create a poor pedestrian experience: they don't want people to leave and walk around! And yet, there are also museums and a convention center, which would benefit from pedestrian cross-pollination. In any case, four hundred million dollars should have bought a more complete pedestrian experience.