Skyway access advocates lose case in district court

Advocates for skyway access in downtown St. Paul were dealt a blow June 24 in Ram-sey County District Court. But what the ruling means for encroachment on skyway space at Cray (formerly Gal-tier) Plaza remains unclear.

Judge Robert Awsumb dismissed a civil complaint by the group Citizens for Skyway Integrity. The judge granted motions to discuss the case, which were filed by defendants City of St. Paul and property owner NEA Galtier.

Citizens for Skyway Integrity consists of downtown residents and property owners John Mannillo, Rick Cardenas, Elizabeth Frederick and Jeanne Hall. The group took the city and NEA Galtier to court after renovation of office space along the skyway resulted in the physical loss of skyway space. The group alleged that the city failed to properly maintain the skyway system and that NEA Galtier improperly reduced the width of the skyway to less than 12 feet in places. Another complaint is that the city and a prior property owner improperly closed a portion of the skyway concourse.

Members of the group testified in court earlier this year that the loss of skyway space made it less accessible for people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities choose to live in downtown areas where skyway access is convenient to them.

The city has had skyway and skyway access policy on the books since 1980. One requirement the city has is that property owners along the skyway must maintain public easements. The easement agreement for Galtier/Cray Plaza has been in place since 1985.

In July 2009 the city issued building permits to NEA Galtier which allowed the skyway to be narrowed to accommodate new tenant leasing space. A previous tenant was allowed to close some nearby skyway space more than a decade ago. At its narrowest point the skyway is now less than nine feet wide. At a hearing this spring Cárdenas and others testified about the difficulty people in wheelchairs had in getting through such a constructed space.

Citizens for Skyway Integrity sought an award of damages from the city and NEA Galtier, asking that the funds be set aside for skyway system upkeep.

Aswumb’s ruling was largely based on claims that Citizens for Skyway Integrity lacks legal standing to bring a complaint. Another issue he raised in his ruling is that of discretionary planning and policy decisions. He indicated that the city skyway does allow for modifications and exceptions to the policy when necessary. “The social, political and economic decisions by the city in relation to the Galtier skyway should not be revisited by the courts,” the judge wrote. Such discretionary planning and policy decisions are shielded from liability.

The plaintiffs indicated they have not determined their next steps. Mannillo planned to meet with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman as this issue of Access Press went to press.

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