Why a dispute over skyway hours is really a fight over the future of downtown St. Paul

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The skyway from Cray Plaza to the 180 East Fifth Street Building.

Sitting across from Mears Park on E. 6th Street, the Railroader Printing Building is as good an example as any of the increasing vitality of downtown St. Paul.

Recognizable by the bars and restaurants located on its street level, Barrio and the Bulldog, the building shares the block with several other popular Lowertown joints, including the Public Kitchen + Bar and the Handsome Hog.

Recently, though, the historic building has also become the setting for something else: a fight over skyways — and the future of downtown itself. 

Nudity, pee and cigarettes

On March 1, the owner of the building, Jaunae Brooks, began locking the public out of its skyway at 8 p.m. rather than the required 2 a.m. More recently, she petitioned the city council for permission to make the change permanent. 

Her reasons? As Brooks explained in a lengthy letter to the city, she thinks people who misuse the system are putting her tenants and the public at risk. “The homeless have been literally living in my skyway for the past few years, suitcases and all,” she wrote. “They sleep naked and clothed, cook on hot plates, eat, poop and pee, smoke cigarettes and pot creating a fire hazard, drink alcohol, have sex leaving used condoms behind, use drugs intravenously and leave needles behind, litter and vandalize my property daily.”

Brooks noted that she spent $10,000 on replacement carpet, new locks, new glass, new cameras, private security and extra cleaning. She monitors the cameras herself and has security pass through on patrol, but hasn’t been able to resolve the problems. And she has the support of tenants, including the restaurants, as well as the residents of the River Park Lofts across Wacouta Street.

Chuck Repke, a lobbyist hired by Brooks, told the city council last week there is no reason for anyone to be in the skyway in Brooks’ building after 8 p.m., (she’s offered to give the keypad code for the lock to anyone who lives or works in the area who wants to pass through).

Repke also noted that of the six skyways in St. Paul that have been given permission to close early, five are either owned by government entities or are leased to government agencies. “The city and the Skyway Governance Committee seem locked in that the entire skyway system must be on the same schedule unless you either are or rent to the government,” he said. “The only reason the city requires us to be open longer is because it can.”

Pushback from … everywhere

The St. Paul City Council has put off a decision on Brooks’ request, and extended the time when public testimony will be heard. But the application has drawn plenty of opposition — sometime passionate — from downtown residents, the disabled community and even city staff.

The Skyway Governance Advisory Committee, which does exactly what its name suggests, opposes the request, partly because Brooks closed her skyway before getting city permission. The committee members also wrote that they don’t think she provides the level of security required by the city. “An hours waiver should only be considered in cases of need, not for the convenience of financial advantage of building owners,” the committee wrote. 

Rick Cardenas, a resident of the area and a disabilities rights activist, told the council last week that the early closing of the skyway poses a serious problem for those with disabilities, since the only access to the restaurants below is through the skyways and elevators down to the ground level. “St. Paul prides itself on being an inclusive city,” Cardenas said. “But an inclusive city means all aspects of a city should be open to people with disabilities.”

A skyway over 4th Street in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A skyway over 4th Street in St. Paul.

William Tilton, A St. Paul lawyer, sent a letter to the city threatening legal action should skyway access to the restaurants be blocked, since neither the Bulldog nor Barrio provide access at street level entrances. (Brooks said Wednesday she is working on a temporary and permanent way of providing ADA-compliant access to the two restaurants).

City officials aren’t on board, either. Dan Niziolek, deputy director of the city’s department of safety and inspections, told the council the staff doesn’t think the early closure should be allowed because the passage in question is not at the end of the system and is connected to businesses that are open later than 8 p.m.

He also questioned Brooks’ security. “A majority (of building owners) are providing at or greatly above the level of security expectations,” he said. “There is a major commitment by property owners. Unfortunately that’s not uniform across the skyway system. As you walk through our skyway system, I think you can recognize where the investment is and where the investment is not.”

Rules from a different era

Unlike the mostly private system in Minneapolis, St. Paul’s skyways are governed by a legal agreement between the city and building owners. In most cases, the city paid for the skybridges in exchange for easements that require public access at hours set by the city. Private security works with the police to patrol and enforce the rules in the passageways. 

And while Brooks’ application didn’t start the debate over the city’s skyway system, it has focused attention on what many have come to see as a serious problem. 

After a request similar to Brooks’ was denied in 2016, Ward 2 City Council Member Rebecca Noecker began working on broader solutions to many of the concerns about the skyways. And since February, she has been co-chair of a work group that includes downtown building owners, residents, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, youth and homeless service organizations. 

That work contributed to a set of ordinances the city council will consider over the summer to update the code of conduct that guides St. Paul police in eliminating bad behavior — and to clarify the security requirements of building owners, including a requirement that building owners actually lock their doors at closing time. The council will also consider changing the skyway closing time from 2 a.m. to midnight. 

“If you think about it, skyways are an anomaly. They are a very bizarre concept.” Noecker said at a press conference announcing the proposals last month. “They are public space in private buildings elevated up into the sky. Are they streets? Are they thoroughfares? Are they destinations?”

Ward 2 Council Member Rebecca Noecker
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Ward 2 Council Member Rebecca Noecker speaking to the Skyway Governance Advisory Committee early this year.

Some users of the system say recent problems coincided with the June 2014 opening the Central Station of the Green Line, where many people wait for buses and trains and which includes a prominent stair and elevator entry to the skyway system. 

Since complaints began to increase about people lingering in the skyways, the St. Paul and Metro Transit police have become a prominent presence in and around the station’s elevator tower. Community Ambassadors, who work with young people to try to keep them out of trouble and direct them to programs and services, have also increased their presence, thanks to the help of a $150,000 appropriation in the city’s 2017 budget. 

The city also hopes that the opening of the new Dorothy Day Center and the coming expansion of its downtown campus will increase services for homeless people who might otherwise resort to taking shelter in the skyways. 

Still, the city feels it needs to clarify rules governing behavior in the skyways, including getting rid of a rule that required police to issue a warning before it could issue a citation or make an arrest. “Because the law isn’t clear, law enforcement isn’t able to enforce it with confidence,” Noecker said. “And people who use the skyways aren’t sure what is acceptable. That has to change.”

The current code of conduct dates from the early 1990s, she said. “It prohibits loud music through boomboxes. Nobody’s doing that anymore so I guess the ordinance was successful,” she joked.

Repke said he thinks the late skyway hours were born of a time when downtown was a different place, when new developments focused activities on the skyway level and not, as is the case now, on the street level.

In fact, before the current rules were put in place, the Railroader Building’s easement with the city allowed for closure at 6 p.m. They’re open late, Repke said, “because we need to go from the bars in the World Trade Center to the park in Town Square to the movie theaters in Gaultier Tower. They haven’t understood yet that the bars aren’t open in the World Trade Center anymore, that Town Square Park is closed and the theater is office space.”

City officials walk a fine line

City and business officials are trying to walk a narrow path in responding to problems in the skyway — or anywhere downtown. They want to address the things that have become problematic without sending a message that too much is wrong. Nearly every acknowledgement of anything related to crime, intimidation and unsanitary conditions in the skyways is preceded by some bragging: that St. Paul’s downtown is busier than it has been for decades. 

But not wrestling with problems for fear of giving the place a bad reputation also puts those gains at risk. So you get statements like the one Mayor Chris Coleman made last month while announcing ordinance changes: “We want to make sure that when people come down here to live, to work or to play that they see this as a welcoming place. It hasn’t affected our ability to attract folks but we don’t want it to get to that point.”

Or this from Noecker: “We absolutely have to make sure that everyone who lives, who works and plays, who goes to school and comes downtown to enjoy the wonderful, wonderful things we have here feels safe while they’re doing so.”

The council will hear final testimony on Brooks’ request June 21. Staff expects to bring the ordinance changes to the council this summer with the first public hearing tentatively set for August 2.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by jim hughes on 06/15/2017 - 04:03 pm.

    no fine line

    I have trouble seeing a “fine line” here. How could any reasonable person disagree with Brooks? If the city can’t maintain order in these areas, they can’t require open access.

    Sounds to me like some people see the skyways as a back-door way of quietly ‘privatizing’ this problem.

  2. Submitted by Jim Buscher on 06/15/2017 - 12:18 pm.

    The problem with the homeless needs to be addressed more. I’ve lived in downtown for ten years now. It’s not getting any better. I thought with the new Higher Ground building opening it would. It hasn’t. Go for a walk in the evenings and you find yourself panhandled every few blocks. Some have cursed at me for not giving money.

    Closing the skyways early doesn’t help the problem. It will simply take the skyway issues and put them on the street. There are already numerous campments in and around downtown. You’ve got urbanists advocating for removing skyways altogether. As if that helps anything. So instead of homeless sleeping indoors, now there outside pitching tents. Sadly some of the homeless want nothing to do with Higher Ground or any other shelter. They have addictions, mental problems, etc. But we do need to find them permanent housing and services.

    Police and building owners need to be aggressive and get the homeless to shelters and services. Maybe it’s time to start building some more public housing even.

  3. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 06/15/2017 - 09:22 pm.

    Just get rid of the skyways

    Do what Minneapolis can’t seem to do, and get rid of the skyways. Start by taking down one per year. End when they are all gone. The city would benefit from it.

  4. Submitted by Jay Severance on 06/15/2017 - 11:24 pm.

    St Paul Skyways

    My wife and I live in the Lowry Building Condos at 350 St Peter Street. One of the reasons we chose this location, when we relocated to the twin cities twelve years ago, was access to the Skyway, which passes through our building.

    One of our first experiences here, however, was being locked into the Skyway…coincidentally, between the Railroader Printing Building and River Park Lofts. As a result, I became active as a citizen advocate with the Skyway committee in promoting regularized Skyway hours, accessibility and security.

    The Skyway committee has done a good job over the years of controlling accessibility for
    residents, visitors and businesses, and it’s reasons for denying Ms Brooks request are consistent and sound. I understand the concerns that are raised in the request for a permanent variance to the Skyway hours, but the conditions reported are much more severe than anything we have encountered in our late-hour transit of properly managed Skyways.

    Mr Repke missed the point regarding the previous six approved closures. The buildings were all at the end of the skyway, and had no need for public access after their operating hours, or are private access at all hours. He also alleged that the residents of Park Square were in favor of the early closing. That isn’t the impression I get from my acquaintances who live there. Downtown residents need to be heard, not just the absentee landlords.

    In any case, granting a variance would be premature. There are active programs and work groups studying the issues. There is a public input meeting scheduled for June 26th to address them. These efforts should be supported and brought to conclusion to avoid any action which would jeopardize the integrity of the system. A piecemeal dismantling of the Skyway hours and rules is not in the best interest of the downtown residents, workers and visitors.

    • Submitted by Chuck Repke on 06/16/2017 - 10:42 am.

      River Park Lofts position

      Just for clarity, River Park Lofts requested to be able to close the skyway at an earlier hour nine years ago and were denied by the City. It is my understanding that is the position of the residents of that building and it has not changed.

      Further that skyway was built in 1985 with an easement agreement that it would be open from Monday – Friday 7 AM to 6 PM and closed Saturday and Sundays, much fewer hours than were the norm in 1985. Neither building have ever agreed to have extended hours or to take on those additional hours to provide security. The City has changed the ordinance on skyways and believes it can violate the agreement with the building owners by changing the ordinance and force them to keep the buildings secured.

  5. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/16/2017 - 09:34 am.

    I’m sure glad I don’t own that building !!

    Maybe the City Council can muster the same Courage and Bravery they brought to the boom box issue once again. You know, like every 25 or 30 years or so, it’s a good thing !!

    Instead of public relations pronouncements about how magnificent downtown St. Paul is, a serious attitude towards enforcement weighs a LOT more – WAY MORE !!

    Unfortunately, this whole matter of the homeless camping, peeing, and copulating in this quasi-public space is one more reflection of what a low priority taking minimal care of our most vulnerable is in these times, as another commenter, Mr. Buscher, reflected earlier in his closing thoughts.

  6. Submitted by jim hughes on 06/16/2017 - 09:37 am.

    increased panhandling

    Like a previous poster said, we’ve definitely noticed a big increase in aggressive panhandling. I now expect to be hassled by in-your-face transients every time we go to the Ordway.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/16/2017 - 05:22 pm.

      Your Mileage May Vary

      I work most Wild home and a handful of other events at the X, as well as attending a few of Ordway events each year and going downtown for entertainment a couple of times each month. I suppose I get solicited a couple of times a year.

      Of greater concern to me is the recent increase of questionable activity in the skyways adjacent to the LRT station. I believe I was leaving the boys high school hockey tournament in March when I walked past two men sleeping on the floor, in the block bound by 4th, 5th, Wabasha & Cedar. This is not the best thing to have on a weekend when several thousand out-of-townwers visit the Capitol City.

      When I approached the area above the LRT station, I mentioned it to two Saint Paul cops. They immediately went to address the situation. Much better than the situation previously when maybe a dozen young folks would be hanging out in that section of the skyway with no apparent purpose, and no police in sight.

  7. Submitted by Dara McCormick on 06/30/2017 - 01:48 pm.

    Skyways should close at 11 PM

    I was raised with nothing good happens 11 PM. that time and adults who are not working, paying bills or attending an event, etc. should be at home and asleep. At 2 AM I am at home asleep getting ready for the next work day. I was raised with nothing good happens 11 PM. Maybe they can put a fingerprint or ID card system for employee access after 11. But otherwise skyways do not need to be open to the public that late. Why do people who are not working need to use the skyways after that time anyway? If a substantial amount of employees or pedestrians are using the skyways after 11, make sure there are at least 2 officers patrolling the skyways. Otherwise there is no need for skyways to be open.

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