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St. Paul's skyway issues are ongoing and unsolved

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The two-year-old skyway tower is a popular winter refuge.

With the Winter Carnival in full frolic, thousands of people will be passing through downtown St. Paul’s “Central Station” the 2-year-old public space at the center of the city. When the Green Line light rail was completed, one design triumph was the erection of the brand new skyway over the platform, recreating a central link in the downtown network. In place of the demolished Bremer Bank building, a shiny new public tower enclosed an elevator and staircase in colored glass. The tower was funded through a federal grant and some wayward transit funding.

The shine quickly faded. In just months, Metro Transit Police began locking the doors at 9 p.m., concerned about security and loitering. After receiving complaints from downtown residents, the tower reopened. But since then, and especially in winter, the skyway has become a site of contention in downtown St. Paul as residents and workers cross paths with a wide cross-section of the city, especially people waiting for the bus. Meanwhile, building owners have a mixed record of maintaining the skyway’s labyrinthine public spaces. At a public meeting last week, the age-old conversation of who belongs in the skyways ignited anew, as downtown residents raised questions about how to maintain the modernist quasi-streets.

Public versus private space in the skyway

There are many pros and cons to skyways. Relief from the wind is often nice, for example, while the division of potential customers into irredeemably separate populations is a stark economic challenge. But the fundamental issue in both downtowns remains the lack of clarity over their status as public space. By combining public and private space in often haphazard ways, the skyways create nearly impossible obstacles for the delicate dance of a modern downtown.

“Security, safety, litter, access, comments about things like employees having to walk through the skyway when there are people sleeping in there,” replied Jon Fure, the director of the downtown Capital River Council neighborhood group, when I asked him what the main issues were that arose during last week’s skyway public meeting. The meeting was well attended, almost a hundred people meeting to air concerns about the downtown skyway environment.

The issues are nothing new. Since its inception in the mid-1960s, the skyway has sat at the crossroads of downtown livability debates. For example, in a Pioneer Press column from 1996, Larry Millett described an outcry over public safety downtown. He wrote then that “the short-term fix” for downtown’s “unsavory reputation … is aggressive policing designed to create a reasonably hassle-free street and skyway environment. If that means adding a few more cops to the downtown beat, so be it.” 

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
A typical St. Paul skyway during lunch, its busiest time.

Particularly for people of color who rely on the nexus of transportation and retail in the downtown core, the idea of more policing is cold comfort. In 2014 an African-American man named Chris Lollie was waiting to pick up his kid from school, occupying a chair alongside the designated skyway right-of-way. According to reports, building security guards called in city police, who confronted Lollie. The situation escalated, and eventually a video of the incident, in which Lollie was tased, went viral. He later sued the city, settling for $100,000 in damages.

Since then, the skyways have become more carefully demarcated. Signs appeared in areas outside the 12-foot public right-of-way reasserting areas like the one in First Bank as private space, “for tenants only.” And at a meeting last week, downtown residents packed a community meeting room in the US Bank tower to seek answers for persistent problems like perceptions of safety, cleanliness, and more consistent access from the skyway to the street.

Especially with a cluster of vacant or underutilized buildings in the downtown, like the vacated Pioneer Press building next to the Central Station, the sense of disorder and dilapidation seems to have increased.

“The issue is that there is a perception of, and reality of, a lack of safety and cleanliness in the skyway,” explained Rebecca Noecker, the City Council member who represents downtown. “There’s this feeling that the skyway is going to become a no man’s land with no expectations for how they’ll look and feel.” 

Comparing the two systems

Comparing the Twin Cities’ two downtown skyway systems, St. Paul’s has always been more compact. The core network consists of about 40 bridges that link most of the buildings along Kellogg Boulevard with the midcentury office core. Like the skyway system, St. Paul’s downtown is much smaller than Minneapolis’, and overall the skyways are easier to navigate.

Apart from size, the biggest difference between the two networks is that St. Paul’s skyways were partially funded with public dollars. Along with the initial money came policy strings shaping things like strict rules about building hours and access [PDF]. Technically, the skyways are supposed to be open and accessible to the public, including 12-foot rights-of-way through every attached building, from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. Minneapolis’ system is far less controlled, and individual segments vary widely about when they close and how they link to the street.

Another problem is that in St. Paul, without a well-staffed organization like Minneapolis’ Downtown Council, there is a vacuum of leadership on how best to improve the skyway environment.

“There’s this feeling on the part of a lot of people, business owners and residents, that there’s nobody taking ownership of the issue downtown,” said Noecker. “Its complicated, and the response is complicated. It’s a matter of having someone or somebody responsible for adopting the standards, and holding the various property owners to them.”

Other differences are subtle but important. The St. Paul skyways have a uniform design, an elegant but utilitarian rectangle with modernist leanings. Originally the edges of the skyways’ Vierendeel trusses were edged with gold paint, though in many cases this detail has worn away. (One remnant example is the skyway over Fourth Street linking the Ramsey County Courthouse with the City Hall Annex.) Many of Minneapolis’ skyways, by contrast, are designed by individual architects to match the buildings on either end.

“It’s kind of like a street above ground, but is actually going through private property and is privately run,” Noecker explained. “The only place that is public is the vertical connection itself. That’s maybe why the lack of ownership is more salient, because so many people come into contact with the skyway.”

While the paradox of the skyway will not be easily remedied, according to Noecker, the existing problem has solutions. A lot of the work will fall on the shoulders of building owners, who will be expected to install cameras and have security guards make more regular rounds. For properties like the former Pioneer Press building on Fourth and Cedar, which has been empty for a year, this will be an extra burden.

“How to address real and perceived safety issues, cleanliness, access …” Fure said. “How to do security when its an office building with no business conducted after 6 p.m., but you have to keep it open until 2 a.m.: It sounds good for people to say that they should do it, but we have to take the building owners’ concerns into consideration too.”

Noecker also wants to reboot a committee of building owners, police, and downtown community that is supposed to be more active in managing skyway policies.

“Ultimately the solution is to have downtown be a vibrant place 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with crowds of people at all hours of the day,” Noecker said. “There is safety in numbers.”

With the Winter Carnival bonanza and the Crashed Ice festival in downtown St. Paul this weekend, Noecker's vision will come true for at least a few days. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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Comments (10)

Lived DT for 10 years

Having lived in DT for ten years I can tell you one of the single biggest detriments to vitality in our CBD is poor landlords. Far too many neglect the very basics of ownership. They don't care about cleanliness, maintenance, or security. The buildings are bought cheap and milked for every penny they can make. That's not saying there all bad. There are many good landlords in the area. But the bad ones stand out far more.

DT has come a long ways from when I first moved there. There was no Bulldog. Few restaurants. The light rail, CHS Field have been huge boons. Many once-vacant office buildings have been converted to housing. We've still got some holes, like Macy's and Pioneer Press' former HQ. But those are in process of redevelopment. We've just gotta hope that more people move in, businesses, residents, hotel tourists. That should drive up values, get the cheap landlords out, and make the area a better neighborhood.

Or you could just get rid of

Or you could just get rid of most of them and focus on improving the streets below, instead of having two competing systems. You'll never have the "vibrancy" that is sought with the skyways present. I'm sure there are other ways to deal with the coldest two-month period of the year.

"winter"

"The coldest two-month period of the year" is a good way to describe it, because it's not going to be "winter" any more. Almost all the time now you can walk around perfectly well outside, and even enjoy it. I hung out in Rice Park last night drinking a cold root beer outside and I didn't even have my warm coat on. The season ain't the reason. I'd be all in favor of getting rid of skyways and/or minimizing their economic centrality to the city. The last thing we should be doing is building more of them!

That "Coldest Two Months"

Seems to be getting warmer.

Skyway Issues in St Paul

My wife and I moved to St Paul in order to live on the skyway 2 years ago. We each walk at least 4 miles per day for our health and to frequent downtown businesses. Without skyways we would spend hundreds of dollars less per month in downtown St Paul. We and many other residents use the skyways 12 months per year. The wind blows hard and the rain comes down year round. Mostly, it is much safer in the skyway than on the sidewalks. The skyways represent a lifestyle that adds a lot to the wellbeing of its users as well the residents of St Paul and the tourists to St Paul. Almost everyday we see hundreds of people from outside the downtown area walking the skyway to Wild games and other events. Failure to improve the skyway system would reverse the socio-economic progress the City has been making.

skyways

We moved to lowertown 6 months ago and the skyways are important to us. We are older and more sensitive to the cold. And even though Global Warming is turning Minnesota into No. Carolina it is still cold to us so we value the skyway system. We feel safe and the skyways are generally clean. It's great to be able to walk from our apt to the library, the Ordway, the parks, and so forth. We patronize businesses in the skyway and the streets below. It would be nice to have some public restrooms here and there. The city has easements for the skyways thru privately owned buildings. Does the city compensate private owners in some way? Should the city underwrite some of the janitorial and other costs? Appreciate Councilwoman Noecker taking an interest.

Trouble on the St Paul Skyways and Central Core

My wife and I retired after living in the center of a European city for several years, and moved to a rural setting in the US. We soon found that we missed the culture and convenience of city living. After searching several urban areas, we decided to purchase a condo in downtown St Paul. Downtown is compact, a great walking town, with restaurants, entertainment, culture and diversity, very much like a European city. Plus, access to the Skyway system provides a major advantage, particularly in adverse weather. We’ve lived in town and on the Skyway for 12 years, and despite annoyances, believe that Skyway conditions have generally improved with standardized hours, way-finding signs, improved access and policing. However,more needs to be done

I attended the St Paul Skyway meeting on January 27. Your article accurately reflects the concerns of the majority of people who attended. Personally, we have not felt threatened on the skyway, but acknowledge that traversing the skyway or tunnel late at night or on a weekend can be a bit eerie.

The problem or perception of lack of security extends beyond the Skyway. A recent Pioneer Press article discussed “Trouble in the Core”, referring to the concerns about safety and cleanliness around the St Paul Central Station block, and more generally in the area between Rice Park and Lowertown…Wabasha St to Sibley St. This applies equally to city streets and the Skyway. This area is dominated by bus and LRT stops, banks, parking ramps and offices, empty buildings and blank walls. The solution is to provide more vibrancy. The dream of a high rise office/retail building over the LRT station is probably unrealistic…the downtown already has plenty of vacant class A office space. There are plenty of people in the area…just nothing for them to do except wait for their transportation, or hang out where it is warm.

A possible solution would be for the city to construct a Center City year-round market on the unused half of the Central Station block, which could offer temporary or permanent spaces for micro retailers and vendors…similar to markets found in European cities. The facility could include public waiting rooms, restrooms and a police sub-station to serve the shoppers and Skyway patrons.

Both of these problem areas are affected by a lack of “ownership” or centralized authority and accountability. An excellent suggestion was made at the Skyway meeting to think about downtown as a big mall. In essence, a centralized authority would manage security in the form of a standardized centralized manned video monitoring system for all public areas. This could include streets and skyways, with corresponding police, private security, and ambassadors to respond to problems, monitor routine cleanliness and assist in way-finding. Perhaps the Mall of America would be a source for applicable best practices.

2nd Ward City Council representative Noecker implied that she was taking on the responsibility of coordinating improvement efforts. Possibly, a first step should be to convene a brainstorming session to start the process of addressing the “Ongoing and Unsolved Issues” identified at the Skyway meeting.

cool idea

I like the market idea. It would have to not compete with the Farmer's Market, but I could imagine some sort of craft situation. One issue is the question of "who" would be in charge. The city doesn't have the funds to devote to downtown, and there are issues of geographic equity in spending. Meanwhile, there's no business group or funded organization downtown that will take on something like this either.

Farmer's Market competiton

Why should it not compete with the Farmer's Market? There are already other Farmer's Markets around besides the big ones, and they do okay. And the big ones get so crowded on the weekends that it can discourage attendance. Maybe spreading it out a little wouldn't be such a bad idea.

Who would be in charge?

As you point out in the article, there is no ownership of the skyway or downtown as a whole. Perhaps something like the Port Authority could be created which would control the downtown similar to the port areas. Funding could be by assessing the downtown residents and businesses who would benefit from the security. How about a "stadium tax" arrangement? You mentioned the Downtown Minneapolis group. St Paul used to have a Capital City Partnership that was well funded and modeled after the Minneapolis group, but disbanded in 2011 and combined with a broader MSP group. See https://www.minnpost.com/political-agenda/2011/09/st-pauls-capital-city-....

Going further back, there was a Business Improvement District that businesses paid into. I believe it was merged with the visitor and convention bureau and faded away. Somewhere in the World there must be a best practice we could emulate. F not, let's develop and franchise it.