Skyway safety changes are eyed, but tower still closed after a year

Cracking down on downtown property owners who don’t maintain skyways is a key focus of city ordinance changes made in St. […]

The St. Paul skyway tower shone during its construction a decade ago

Cracking down on downtown property owners who don’t maintain skyways is a key focus of city ordinance changes made in St. Paul. But the next step disability rights activists want is to have a shuttered skyway tower reopened. 

The ordinance changes take place in January, after approval by the St. Paul City Council in December. St. Paul City Council Member Rebecca Noecker championed the changes in an effort to make the downtown skyway system cleaner, safer and more welcoming.

The ordinance changes are among several ideas in the works for the downtown skyway system, which has been a flash point for crime and poor conditions in places during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Physical changes to parts of the skyway system are anticipated over the next several months, using almost $1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars allocated to the city. 

The area in question centers on the Central Station for Green Line light rail, where a stair and elevator tower has been closed since December 2022. The tower was closed after two men were shot and killed there. Metro Transit has not indicated when the tower will reopen. 

The skyway area eyed for improvements centers on the tower. It extends from Alliance Bank to the Victory Ramp, between East 4th and 5th streets, and over Cedar Street into the crime-ridden Press House Apartments. No set timeline for the work has been announced. 

All of this could be tied to a larger redevelopment plan. City and Metro Transit/Metropolitan Council officials hope to market a vacant lot adjacent to part of that skyway for redevelopment next year. 

Another effort is to hire a consultant to look at skyway safety and improvements that could be made. 

The closing of the tower has long been a sore point. Disability rights activists led by the late Rick Cardenas challenged Metropolitan Council over the lack of a direct skyway connection between Green Line light rail, Metro Transit bus service and the skyway. As a growing number of people moved downtown, that connection became more critical. 

The connection was finally approved, built and then dedicated in 2014. A large group of activists happily attended the dedication. But the tower, which providing critical access, quickly became a hangout for loitering and for people who wish to commit crimes. It was padlocked shut after the shooting and has been closed ever since. 

Noecker worked with the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections, Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), and the Capitol River Council’s Skyway Governance Committee for several months on the changes. 

The most significant change proposed would specifically add an abatement process for skyway issues such as trash, broken windows and doors, and graffiti. Angie Wiese, DSI director, said the abatement process would be similar to that used for property owners who fail to shovel snow, cut grass, or address poor property conditions. 

Property owners are notified of a problem with any kind of abatement. If the property owner doesn’t address the problem by a set deadline, city crews do the work and the property owner is billed. There is a legislative hearing process, with the option for property owners to appeal to the City Council. 

“Abatement works really well for unresponsive owners,” said Wiese, adding that “Abatement is just a fancy word for do the work and then charge you for it.” 

Trash and vandalism in the skyways have sometimes created obstacles for people who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. 

Along with the ordinance and skyway design changes is a program through Ramsey County Workforce Solutions, said Wiese. People who use services at Listening House, a drop-in day shelter on east 7th Street, can become employed to pick up litter in the skyways and along downtown streets. That has a cost of $750,000, also in ARPA dollars. 

Tina Gassman, president of BOMA, said the group’s 300 members include about two dozen who have properties along the skyway system. “Frankly, they have been sick and tired of keeping up their end of the bargain, when the skyway system is not kept up to the proper standards.” 

While BOMA members aren’t happy that the city would have to spend money on what Gassman called “bad actors,” members support the abatement process and other changes coming forward. 

Another part of the ordinance changes puts a hard date of March 31 on when property owners must submit security and surveillance camera plans to DSI. Weise said that replaces the “nebulous annual requirement” that was in place. 

Minnesota has various skyway systems in downtown areas, and on college and university and larger corporate campuses. Every system was built differently, and has different rules of ownership and operation. 

St. Paul began developing its skyway system in the 1960s. The city built the system and works with building owners on policies including operating hours. The skyway system has long served downtown workers, and has evolved to also become a passageway for a growing number of downtown residents. 

A growing unsheltered population and criminal behavior escalated during the recent pandemic. Some building owners have asked for earlier closing times to combat the problems. But that can force skyway users to go outside at night to get to and from their destinations. 

A version of this article appeared in MyVillager newspaper. 

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