It’s winter in Minnesota. If you live, work or enjoy activities in a city’s downtown that has a skyway system, you are likely spending time up there.
And if you are a skyway user, chances are you’ve encountered broken glass, trash and criminal behavior. Maybe you have been a crime victim, or have worried that you would be victimized.
Problems in skyways escalated during and since the COVID-19 pandemic. Skyways are also places where people bent on criminal behavior tend to gather. Robberies and assaults are all too common. So are groups of people using or selling drugs. Even loud, rowdy behavior can be intimidating for those of us who are unable to fight back and defend ourselves.
People who are without shelter go to the skyways for protection from the elements, which is understandable. Many people don’t bother others and are quietly trying to exist. But when there are no public restrooms or facilities to even wash one’s face, it is difficult if not impossible to practice good hygiene. The impacts of that are felt by other skyway users.
Every skyway system operates a bit differently in Minnesota. In Minneapolis, skyways are privately owned. St. Paul’s skyway system was built by the city, and operates through agreements with building owners. The owners there are responsible for monitoring and maintaining the system. Owners work with police, a skyway governance council and downtown organizations to keep things operating smoothly. That system can hit bumps when property owners don’t want to cooperate.
Then there is the issue of skyway access for those of us who want to more easily use transit in downtown St. Paul. When Green Line light rail was in the planning stages more than a decade ago, questions were raised about access from street level to the skyway system. Nothing was on the drawing boards.
The late Rick Cardenas was a downtown resident and lifelong disability rights activist. He was one of the leaders who repeatedly raised the issues of access to transit. He and his allies knew all too well the challenges of getting into the skyway system around the clock.
Even though St. Paul city officials set skyway hours, too many buildings lock their doors earlier than they are supposed to. That leaves people with mobility issues struggling to find their way home.
Metropolitan Council officials finally added the tower, which was dedicated in June 2014. It provides an elevator and stairs near Green Line Central Station and a busy 4th Street bus stop.
Or at least it did. The downtown skyway tower closed December 27, 2022 after two men were shot and killed there. The tower has remained closed, awaiting physical changes to the structure.
People with disabilities who had relied on the tower and its elevator have had to find other access points. They have done so for a year. A year!
It isn’t known when the tower will be in service again. Metro Transit has indicated that it will reopen the tower when the transit agency can regularly provide what is called an official presence there, with more security and police. We will be glad to see that need met.
We have to ask, was the tower designed to inadvertently become a problem waiting to happen? Its location is one that is important, with proximity to rail and a key bus stop.
But it and the adjacent skyway became lookout points for people engaged in criminal activity. Hindsight is always 20-20 but could anything have been done to prevent that?
It’s encouraging to see some changes coming up for those of us who rely on the St. Paul skyways for access. Led by City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, St. Paul City Council members in December 2023 adopted ordinance changes designed to crack down on skyway owners who don’t maintain their properties. The changes, which had unanimous support, allow the city to do needed maintenance work and then assess property owners. That takes effect in early 2024.
City officials are also promising the needed changes in the skyway near Green Line Central Station, with about $850,000 for cleaning and design improvements. Another $50,000 is eyed to pilot a new security camera and intercom system for that area. Deep cleaning and repairs were promised by the end of 2023. More changes are to come through the hiring of a consultant to look at the skyways and more safety changes.
It has taken a long time to make the Central Station area safer. A lot of us have had detours, including detours late at night and in inclement weather, because a tower that was sought by us and built for us has been padlocked shut.
When a street or highway is closed even for a few weeks, there’s a great hue and cry. No one can get around! The detour is terrible! Oh, the horror!
But for downtown St. Paul residents, especially those with disabilities, one of their important routes has been closed for a year. And it may be closed even longer. Why is that considered acceptable?