For St. Paul Lowertown resident Chris Beckstrom, skyways provide safe passage at night and in inclement weather. He uses a power chair and struggles to get around on snow and ice-covered sidewalks.
Nancie has lived and worked in downtown St. Paul for more than 40 years. Downtown living is convenient for someone with lifelong disabilities. She bought a condominium along the skyway system, so she could easily get around.
They and many others are now worried about getting safely home from work activities, and the quality of life for many people like them. Downtown St. Paul’s skyways can opt to close at midnight instead of 2 a.m., starting in mid-October.
That’s too early for many downtown residents and workers, including the elderly and people with disabilities. The time change is a key part of the skyway code of conduct ordinance adopted on a 6-1 St. Paul City Council vote September 13.
Beckstrom sees the midnight closing as a potential erosion in access. “Any reduction in access sets a precedent,” he said. “You could say, ‘well, it worked to close at midnight … so let’s try 10’.” As to those who said there are fewer skyway users late at night he added, “diminished use does not equal diminished need.”
Nancie, who didn’t want her last name used, has a part-time job. “My job end time is unpredictable,” she said. “If an event ends at 11 p.m. I still must punch out, go to my locker to change my uniform, grab my coat and gear and then head home. I am not a fast walker, so the 12-block trek takes about an hour. With earlier skyway closure, I run the risk of being locked in – and being forced to sleep in the skyway myself! – or facing the elements at a difficult juncture.”
Until now skyways were required to stay open until 2 a.m., and then reopen at 6 a.m. It’s not known how many will close earlier. But at a public hearing earlier in September a group of more than 20 building owners and managers sought an 8 p.m. closing. That push could continue. Council Member Dai Thao cast the lone vote against the changes, saying, “I think it’s going to disproportionately impact folks in the disability community.”
“This is something we’ve talked about a great deal,” said Council Rebecca Noecker, who represents downtown St. Paul. Other possible changes that could come outside of the ordinance process include a radio contact system shared by the St. Paul Police Department, Metro Transit Police and Building Owners and Managers.
She described the ordinance changes as a beginning point, adding that they could be revisited and amended later. “I know that no one is entirely happy with where we’re at,” she said.
But Council President Russ Stark noted that a unique aspect of the public hearing was that no one was happy with all the changes suggested. “Sometimes everyone coming out a little bit unhappy means that you’ve found the right spot to land, in terms of a policy that is balancing the interests,” he said.
The changes are a response to a growing number of complaints about behavior in the skyways, including fighting, loitering, property damage and other problems. The stair tower/elevator link between Green Line light rail’s Central Station and the skyway system, a link people with disabilities fought to have built, has been one trouble spot. Other building owners and managers have reported issues with homeless people seeking shelter in the skyways in the late-night and early morning hours.
The changes to the skyway code of conduct drew a large crowd to a September public hearing, with no one testifying in support of all the changes. The hearing included almost a dozen people with disabilities who live, work or frequently visit downtown.
Additional regulations passed as part of the package of ordinance changes includes measures for more uniform skyway signage, changes to the citation and arrest process for violations, and clarifications to the code of conduct. Changes stipulate that smoking, fighting, littering, racing, propping open locked doors and playing music too loudly are not allowed. The code will be posted on signs provided by the city.
More requirements focus on skyway security, through surveillance cameras or patrols. The security plans will face more scrutiny from city Department of Safety and Inspections and the St. Paul Police Department.
Additional changes are possible in the months ahead, according to council members.