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What’s behind the epidemic of broken escalators in downtown Minneapolis?

Photo by Víctor Vázquez on Unsplash
When escalators fail, the outages last weeks, forcing large numbers of people into interminable waits for limited elevator capacity or sending them on long detours.

Earlier this winter, it seemed there were more escalators out of service in Minneapolis than there were working ones. That’s an exaggeration, but when elevators fail, they are out of service for hours. When escalators fail, the outages last weeks, forcing large numbers of people into interminable waits for limited elevator capacity or sending them on long detours.

Mayo Clinic Square, Gaviidae Center, and U.S. Bank Plaza all suffered notable outages; the downtime at Mayo and Gaviidae approached or exceeded a month. Property managers for those buildings either declined comment or could not be reached.

“The problem building owners have is the inconvenience of maintenance,” says Phil Cleminson, regional project manager for Lakeville-based Elevator Consulting Services. “You’re down for usually a couple of weeks minimum,” when major components are required.

Finding parts is often a challenge. In some cases, manufacturers no longer make them. Finding components on the aftermarket is often time-consuming.

For older escalators, the downtime for major components can be excessive, Cleminson says. “They’re very expensive for maintenance and repairs.”

The overall cost of maintaining the powered stairs is the biggest issue. Cleminson adds that escalators have the highest liability insurance costs of any form of “vertical transportation” — elevators, lifts, grocery cart conveyors, etc.

“They require a lot more maintenance, even new,” says Bill Reinke, supervisor of elevator inspections for the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. “It’s a piece of equipment that’s constantly moving.”

Veteran commercial real estate broker Mike Salmen, managing principal of the Twin Cities office of Houston-based Transwestern, says escalators are an ongoing headache for property owners. “They’re frequently out of commission,” Salmen says. On the other hand, he notes, “stairs don’t usually break.”

Escalators may be a more common feature in downtown Minneapolis than other cities because of the need to connect the ground level to the skyways.

The answer for some landlords is to get rid of them.

The owners of 510 Marquette, 811 LaSalle, and the former TCF Tower all recently replaced escalators with stairs. In downtown St. Paul, the escalators no longer work at Metro Square, an office building owned by Ramsey County. The county is studying replacing them with central stairwells, but has yet not found funding.

“The building is a converted Emporium department store with four central escalators that have all become inoperable over the course of the past few years. We have found that there are no longer replacement parts available,” says John Siqveland, a spokesman for Ramsey County. “Access has been blocked off, with physical barriers on all floors.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 06/18/2019 - 06:15 pm.

    There are people who can’t use the stairs who use canes, walkers, wheel chairs, baby carriages and grocery carts. Elevators are not always working either. It seems to be that there should be some parts available through the intelligence of people. My ex-husband made parts when not available for older organs when he was an organ builders. Good chance for people to get creative here. Opportunity for someone to form a business which solves this problem.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/18/2019 - 10:28 pm.

    Many years ago, I knew an older gentleman who could manufacture parts for ancient farm-type steam engines, threshing machines, and steam locomotives in the shop on his farm. Of course he had an industrial-grade turning lathe and other large-scale tools, but still, there has to be a market for rebuilt or newly built escalator parts if someone would go to the trouble of building/rebuilding them.

    I’m guessing the problem is that you can’t get fabulously wealthy doing it and nothing these days seems to be worth the effort for a lot of folks if you can’t make $millions doing it.

    Then, of course, why would you spend money maintaining the public spaces of your buildings if it limits your profits? Better to suck as much money out of a building as you possibly can, then do a few cosmetic fixes and unload it before the mess you’ve made becomes too obvious to hide.

  3. Submitted by Mark Kulda on 06/19/2019 - 12:08 pm.

    Another potentially bigger problem soon will be the lack of expertise in even supplying the labor to fix them. I once attended a conference and heard a great speech that noted there is no educational system anywhere in the US that currently teaches elevator maintenance and repair. As soon as the current crop of repair techs retire or quit, there will be almost no pipeline of qualified repair technicians. I’d suspect that the escalator problem is more than just a lack of parts but likely a lack of qualified labor as well. The outtages of elevators and escalators is a problem that is going to get much, much worse very soon.

    • Submitted by LeRoy Miller on 06/21/2019 - 11:44 am.

      All UNION Elevator Mechanic’s are trained by the Union for years in the Industry school in ALL phases of SAFE INSTALLATION and MAINTENANCE of escalators and elevator systems and must pass the school BEFORE they can take the test to become a “Qualified UNION ELEVATOR MECHANIC” and get their card that says they are a Qualified Elevator! So if you’re Elevator are being maintained by a Union Elevator Mechanic they have been to a Elevator school & are Qualified to work on that Elevator and their main job is to make sure that when you step on that Elevator Or escalator you and your family are safe, and you are getting on the safest mode of transportation!
      Elevator Constructors Local 9 Retired LeRoy Miller

      • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 06/26/2019 - 06:44 am.

        Thank you for your comment, LeRoy. Can you speak to Mark’s assertion that there are fewer elevator mechanics entering the pipeline to be trained? Because even with an active union, if there are fewer people entering the profession, that is going to be a problem (and I see that you’re retired, which relates directly to part of the point Mark makes).

        It’s wonderful that you speak to the importance of unions (something our current POTUS fails to appreciate).

  4. Submitted by Alan Straka on 06/19/2019 - 01:18 pm.

    Basically, an out of order escalator is a stairway. Problem solved.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/21/2019 - 09:09 am.

    It can’t just be a “parts” problem. I suspect escalator manufactures are deliberately obsoleting their own escalators, thinking that building managers will replace them rather than keep trying to fix them. Why else would manufacturers keep redesigning something that hasn’t changed in decades? If you have this many broken escalators that need parts, you would expect after-marker parts companies to emerge.

    Another thing that could be going on is investor vandalism. It’s possible that investor groups are buying these escalator manufacturers and squeezing them dry. The constant demand for “efficiencies” might be driving the design changes, looking for cheaper parts or suppliers or cheaper parts fabrication. Parasitic investors have absolutely no interest in providing long term service or durability, and if they’ve got hold of the companies that manufacture escalators THAT would explain part shortages and the loss of repair technicians.

    On the other hand we might also have parasitic investor groups who have bought the buildings, and are just not budgeting for repair and maintenance. You would think that with millions of escalators in buildings all over the country and world, someone could make plenty of money maintaining them, unless building owners are just letting them fail.

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