Stout chains and padlocks on the doors told the story. St. Paul’s downtown skyway tower remained inaccessible through January. People with disabilities have to trek at least a block away for elevator access, which is closed during overnight hours.
The skyway tower, which was at the center of a high-profile accessibility battle a decade ago, was closed in late December. It will remain closed until physical changes can be made to the structure. Both the tower building and a portion of the adjoining skyway connection to the Alliance Bank Center and St. Paul Athletic Club buildings are owned and operated by Metro Transit.
That means people with disabilities who rely on the tower elevator must travel to the bank building to use the elevator there.
The skyway and its elevator are lifelines for people with disabilities who live and work downtown. It is adjacent to the Green Line light rail Central Station, and to major bus stops.
The tower closed in the wake of a mid-December shooting, in which two men died. St. Paul and Metro Transit Police departments said safety changes need to be made in the skyway tower and connecting skyways before it can reopen.
One issue is that people loiter and use the windows as a lookout. Many windows will be covered to deter that behavior. Interim Metro Transit Police Chief Rick Gates described the longtime situation as a “perch” where people who commit crimes can watch out for potential victims.
In the meantime, Metro Transit has brought in private security guards to help them patrol the skyways. More cameras to add to the ones already in the area, and even an intercom system are being considered. City and Metro Transit leaders will look at the situation on a regular basis.
A timeline hasn’t been announced for completing changes and reopening the tower.
Metro Transit released a statement, saying, “In conjunction with the City of St. Paul, we have decided to temporarily close the building at 46 5th St. E., which connects the skyway and street level near the METRO Green Line’s Central Station effective Tuesday, December 27. We are temporarily closing this facility so we can work alongside the City of St. Paul and its police department to make physical and operational public safety improvements at this location.
“We recognize the importance of maintaining access to transit, as well as all the other surrounding amenities, and will work closely with our partners to re-open soon. Elevator access to the skyway will continue to be available daily from 6 a.m. to midnight at Alliance Bank Center. Outside of normal business hours, guard access is required.”
At a virtual town hall meeting days before Christmas, City Council Member Rebecca Noecker said, “We’re here because last week in a horrific event, two young men lost their lives.”
Noecker and other city leaders have heard many complaints about skyway conditions, both at the meeting after the shooting and at other meetings. Skyway users, including several people with disabilities, said they are concerned about a lack of safety in the skyways prior to the murders. They said a growing number of people use drugs, consume alcohol, urinate and defecate in the skyways and in stairwells.
Some skyway users have been crime victims. One speaker described downtown St. Paul recently as “almost a dystopian, lawless, chaotic place where hordes of individuals congregate freely using drugs.”
Several downtown residents with disabilities contacted Access Press. Many moved downtown in recent years for what they considered to be safe and accessible housing, convenient to shopping and good transit. But many now feel afraid and don’t want their names used because they fear being victimized.
A big frustration is how many people with disabilities, including the late Rick Cardenas, fought for the tower. Central Station is on the block at fifth and Cedar streets. It wasn’t originally considered when the Green Line and its stations were being planned.
Groundbreaking for the tower, which cost more than $1 million, occurred in summer 2013 after a high-profile campaign to get some kind of elevator connection built. At the time the tower was built, it was estimated that more than 9,000 people with disabilities were living in downtown St. Paul within a few block of Green Line light rail.
Of the downtown light rail stations, Green Line was the most heavily used by disabled transit riders, with about 2,000 boardings per day. The numbers are based on a study done almost a decade ago by the now-defunct District Councils Collaborative, a group that monitored light rail construction.
But the tower has become a spot for loitering and crime. At one point it was being locked at 9 p.m., which drew protests from downtown residents.
Read about the tower’s opening celebration in 2014, at https://accesspress.org/cardenas-honored-tower-provides-access-to-light-rail-line/