Access woes as skyway changes eyed

In Minnesota, skyways provide protection from the elements and access in downtown areas for residents, workers and business patrons. In […]

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In Minnesota, skyways provide protection from the elements and access in downtown areas for residents, workers and business patrons. In St. Paul, a fight over skyway access and nuisance behavior is worrisome to people with disabilities.

Changes are proposed to the city’s skyway governance ordinance, including allowing a midnight shutdown instead of the current closing between 2-6 a.m.

That change in hours concerns Kari Sheldon, a St. Paul resident and a member of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities. After attending a recent press conference on skyway issues, Sheldon said any changes to skyway operations need to be carefully vetted by the committee and others organizations that advocate with and for people with disabilities.

“Changing the hours and making other changes could affect many people,” she said. “A lot of people with disabilities live and work downtown, especially at CHS Field and Xcel Energy Center.”

Changes will be heard at a City Council public hearing this summer. Minnesota cities use different measures to operate and regulate their skyways. St. Paul’s system is described as a public-private partnership between the city and building owners. Building owners are required to provide skyway security, be it cameras, security staff or a combination of both. The city provides police protection but some building owners contend that isn’t enough.

Skyway scrutiny in the capital city is being triggered by ongoing behavior issues. A fight among youth last winter resulted in a chaotic meeting of angry downtown property owners and residents demanding action.

As Access Press went to press the St. Paul City Council was to decide whether the historic Railroader Printing Building on Mears Park could close its doors at 8 p.m.

Council members in May heard graphic descriptions of homeless people using the building skyway as a place to hang out, use drugs and alcohol, sleep, use as a bathroom and engage in other disturbing behaviors.

Building manager Jaunae Brooks showed the council a large suitcase filled with items left in the skyway, including feces-stained carpet, bottles of urine, discarded cigarettes, hypodermic needles, condoms, clothes and discarded food.

More frightening was an evening when Brooks and building security staff came in to check a restroom and found a man with a knife in there. Once Brooks found someone cooking outside of her office door, using a hot plate.

Sharing security and having walkthroughs from time to time didn’t work. “In a half hour can someone poop on my floor? Absolutely. Can someone tag my signs? Absolutely.”

The building has tenants who are leaving, including some who have been there for two decades. Current building tenant Mike Franklin and former tenant Patrick Connolly also addressed about the severity of the problem,” Franklin said. But instead of solutions, people are told to wait, allowing for more time for the skyway study process. He said it’s “almost comical” that the only person threatened with sanctions is Brooks.

“Frankly, it was just disgusting, going to work every morning,” Connolly said. His company’s Railroader office was broken into twice and computers were stolen. “Because of the break-ins, our business insurance dropped us.”

But longtime downtown resident and disability rights activist Rick Cardenas said Brooks should not be allowed to close the skyway at 8 p.m. He said such a closing violates the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Heightened complaints about bad behavior in skyways have prompted city officials and the downtown district council, CapitolRiver Council, to convene a “skyway vitality working group” to review and suggest changes to the city’s skyway governance ordinance.

Deputy Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) Director Dan Niziolek said the ordinance changes will be brought to the council in June. He said approving a change for Brooks before the recommendations can be completed would be premature.

Andy Flamm, who chairs the district council’s skyway committee, said that while there is sympathy for the problems, Brooks needs to provide the security required on the skyway. He said granting the 8 p.m. closing would bring requests from other building owners. Flamm said he’d personally like to see all of the downtown building owners get together and create a holistic security system that works for everyone.

Rebecca Noecker, whose Second Ward includes downtown, said closing a skyway should be “absolutely the last resort.” While she agrees with Brooks’ contention that locking the doors at 8 p.m. has alleviated problems, closing defeats the purpose of having a skyway system.

Read more about the efforts to make changes at the city website here.



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