Exemptions to uniform hours include City Hall/Courthouse
Imagine having the sidewalk or even the street in front of your home closed for use at 7 p.m. or even earlier. That’s been the case with some of St. Paul’s skyways, which connect downtown buildings. Change has come with the adoption of consistent daily skyway hours of 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. but the process of allowing exemptions to some skyways has vexed advocates for the disability community and downtown residents.
Rick Cardenas, a downtown resident who uses a wheelchair, testified against several of the exemptions at a St. Paul City Council hearing in July. “Skyways are part of our passageways, part of our path,” he said. One of the most difficult challenges for persons with disabilities is that when a skyway is closed, it means navigating to an elevator to get to street level, then back to an open door and elevator elsewhere to get back to the skyway system. In some cases, elevators don’t work. In others, the access points to and from the skyway system aren’t clearly signed.
For years downtown residents, workers and visitors have questioned the lack of consistent hours skyways are open. Members of the disability community have lobbied long and hard for consistent skyway hours. The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce has also weighed in support of consistent hours.
But several companies that own and manage downtown buildings raised a number of concerns about security costs, safety of building occupants and practicability of keeping skyways open later. Some building owners offered to provide access cards for residents of neighboring buildings. Critics say that’s not enough.
Ward Two Council Member Dave Thune said there’s a need to make the skyway system accessible for as many people as possible. Yet Thune said there is also a need to be practical and realize that not every skyway needs to be open late. For example, the Macy’s skyways allow users to walk through the store’s open floors and merchandise. Other skyways lead to destinations that close and don’t connect to other buildings, such as the Minnesota Children’s Museum.
The city built much of the skyway system in the 1980s and 1990s, working with property owners to obtain easements into each building. But the costs of maintenance and security fall on the property owners, something some object to when it comes to expanded hours.
A series of exemptions granted July 23 by the St. Paul City Council allows Macy’s, Metro Square, Minnesota Children’s Museum, McCullough Companies, St. Joseph’s Hospital, St. Paul City Hall/Ramsey County Courthouse, Sibley Square and the Warren E. Burger Federal Courthouse. But the Golden Rule Building, 85 E. 7th Place, was denied its request to close its skyway access at 7 p.m. The building, a department store converted years ago to office space, houses mainly state offices.
Pat Wolf, who has managed the Golden Rule Building for many years, raised some of the strongest objections to not getting an exemption. She said the building owners have spent more than $7 million restoring the Golden Rule and turning it into a “historic jewel.”
But members of the public and City Council members noted the Golden Rule provides a skyway connection to a public parking ramp and key downtown destinations. There have been complaints that visitors who park in the ramp and then return have had difficulty getting to their vehicles.
The exemptions can change over time. For example, if part of the downtown area is redeveloped and a later skyway link is needed, an exemption may be revisited. Building owners and managers go through a review with the Skyway Governance Committee, a committee of CapitolRiver Council, the district council representing the downtown area and a St. Paul City Council hearing.
Longtime downtown business owner and CapitolRiver Council Member John Mannillo said he views skyways to his property as an asset and that other building owners should do the same. Rod Halverson, a resident of downtown and member of CapitolRiver Council, agreed. “Building owners want the advantages of the skyway system but they don’t want the responsibility of being open after hours.”
One exemption is for the St. Paul City Hall/Ramsey County Courthouse, which will be allowed to close at 5 p.m. weekdays and be closed weekends. Halverson objected to the city seeking an exemption for its own building, calling it “ironic.” He had come to the building at 5:09 p.m. for the public hearing and found the skyway connection already closed. People were trying to get through the connection, without success. City Council hearings start at 5:30 p.m.
Halverson said that the city wants to dictate when skyways are open “and yet you want an exemption for your own building.” The City Council did agree to have a device installed that will allow skyway users to leave via skyway 30 minutes after public hearings end.