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Skywalk S. 12th Street

Lincoln's downtown skywalks, including this one across South 12th Street between O and N, have become a source of legal uncertainty as the original contracts covering their maintenance and public access have expired.

Paige Namuth can remember the Lincoln skywalk system in its glory days, a wide walkway between dozens of stores, linking several blocks in the heart of downtown.

Namuth bought books at Waldenbooks, got her daughter a wonderful little swim cover-up at Joy and Company, enjoyed a cookie from her cousin’s cookie shop.

News stories in the late 1970s, when the more than $1 million skywalk system was being planned and built, said shoppers would be able to patronize 115 to 120 businesses without stepping outside.

Forty years later, the vision for that downtown shopping mall is dead, moved to the suburbs. And the future of the original skywalk system is a mystery.

Contracts covering construction, continued maintenance and public access within the original skywalk system have ended or soon will end. And building owners and city staff are discussing how the skywalks should be handled in the future, according to Chris Connolly, chief assistant city attorney. 

Among the issues: Do property owners want to continue the system? If they do, who is going to maintain it?

On a more general level, city staff is looking at broader questions, he said: "Is this a useful system for us to maintain going forward? And are we getting benefits out of it?"

Gerry Finnegan has used the skywalks for decades to get from his parking space at 10th and O streets to his office in the Magee's Building two blocks away, or to appointments farther south.   

There is no cold and ice. No heat in summer. No crossing lights. 

Finnegan remembers the days when boutique stores surrounded the skywalk through what was then the Centrum, now home to Southeast Community College's downtown campus.

The stores slowly went away. Now he sees familiar faces every day — others who work or study in the adjacent buildings, "like old friends but I do not know their names."

The original skywalk system, built in the late 1970s and early '80s, connected five blocks in the core of downtown, providing an indoor path from the Brandeis building (now the Gold’s building) at 11th and O through the Centrum (now called Education Square), to the Miller and Paine building (now owned by Nelnet), then south across N and M streets to the Cornhusker Hotel.

The core downtown system, and a later walkway over O Street, connects seven blocks and five garages, with walkways over six streets and one alley.

Two additional walkways, added in about 2000, connect the Embassy Suites with nearby city garages and are not part of the current legal conversation.  

Now, the stores are gone, and just three small restaurants offer lunches within the skywalks. But people, mostly workers from the connected buildings, still move freely through the skywalks, their access imperiled by the ongoing legal discussions.

Attorneys representing some of the buildings along the skywalk system don’t want to talk publicly about the issue.

Ben Kiser, with Nelnet, said in an email that the two companies that own skywalk-connected buildings along O Street, Nelnet and Speedway "don't have any comment to offer at this time regarding skywalk ownership or hearsay.”

According to the agreements that created the original skywalks, private building owners paid for the construction, including walkways over public streets, and were responsible for internal maintenance. However, the city was required to carry insurance and to repair walkways damaged by fire or other casualties.

Building owners also granted public access through their buildings and the city granted public access on the walkways over public streets.

"This was really more of a private project, done over city property with city facilitation," said Connolly, the attorney for the city.

One of the current problems involves the owner of the narrow building between Speedway and Nelnet, along O Street between 12th and 13th streets, with a vacant storefront on O Street.

That owner, Tom Inbody, reportedly is balking at renewing the contract, which allows people to use the indoor skywalk past his building. That skywalk property is at an important intersection that allows people to turn south and continue across N and M to the Cornhusker Marriott.

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Inbody did not return several phone calls seeking information about the skywalk issue.

“There have been discussions with this property owner and other property owners around this building. The city has been involved. I don’t know where that is going to end,” said Connolly. 

Several people involved in the discussions have said privately that much of the focus has been on determining who is responsible for walkways that cross city streets.

The city contends private building owners are responsible, since they paid for the original construction and internal maintenance, per the agreements. The building owners disagree.

There is some obvious wear and tear on the skywalks — faded carpet in some areas, flaking ceilings elsewhere. But for the most part, the skywalks are clean, well-maintained and used during the day, particularly midday. 

However, in some areas, it is unclear how welcome the public might be.  

No-trespassing signs have been posted on every entry to the SCC building, and until recently, similar signs were placed at either end of the second-floor walkway through SCC.

Bev Cummins, downtown Lincoln campus director, said she thinks the signs were posted by previous building owners. 

SCC’s mission is to be open and accessible to everyone: “We want people walking through. There is no question about that."

At the other end of the skywalk system, there are no-trespassing signs posted at the entry to the Cornhusker Marriott, asking walkers doing laps not to use the Cornhusker for exercise.

As the agreements end, property owners and city are sorting through what the new rules should be. 

"We are not sure what the property owners want to do and we are trying to assess what we want to do," Connolly said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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