Thomas Dunne and his wife moved to downtown St. Paul 12 years ago to take advantage of the amenities connected to their home via a series of skyways.
But at a packed and heated public meeting Friday morning, Dunne said those amenities have become increasingly more difficult to access as people loiter in the skyways, which is a complex system of private and public space patrolled by both private security and St. Paul police.
“You’re not going to get killed, you’re not going to get robbed, but you’re going to be bothered,” said Dunne. “The fact that no one knows who runs the skyway is pathetic.”
Several of the approximately 60 people at the Skyway Governance Advisory Committee meeting clapped, eager to share stories about getting locked out of the skyway on cold winter nights because different buildings lock their exterior doors at different times, and being harassed by groups of people. Employees have been mugged and prospective business owners are reluctant to open shop downtown, they said.
Police don’t dispute that there is an uptick in quality-of-life crimes. While serious crimes downtown in both the skyway and on the streets have dropped from 757 incidents in 2014 to 740 in 2016, quality-of-life crimes have increased from 4,535 in 2014 to 5,545 in 2016.
On Jan. 18, an unknown man punched a security guard at the Union Depot in the back of the head and fled on foot. On Jan. 15, another guard was assaulted. On Jan. 10, a group of up to 20 juveniles fought in a skyway food court, throwing signs and chairs.
Almost all of St. Paul’s skyways are privately owned walkways with public easements inside privately owned buildings. The glass skyway bridges that connect buildings are owned by the city, but adjacent property owners are responsible for their maintenance and monitoring, said Dan Niziolek, deputy director of St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections.
Back at the meeting, citizens wanted answers.
“Who the hell is responsible?” asked John Rupp. “The city has to be for the whole system.”
Attendees suggested installing a universal security camera system, later hours for exterior doors that lead to the skyway and updated ordinances.(The skyways are open from 6 a.m.-2 a.m. daily unless exempted through specific ordinances.)
St. Paul City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who attended Friday’s meeting and whose ward includes downtown, said city officials are working with building managers and police to address the concerns.
“As all of you expressed, we want our downtown to feel safe for everybody who’s here … and right now it’s not,” she told the group.
St. Paul police spokesman Steve Linders said the department is increasing patrols downtown, adding additional officers in the area and working with Metro Transit and business owners.
On a recent patrol through the Town Square food court, downtown beat officer Bruce Schmidt spotted a downtown regular who has occasionally scared people by yelling loudly. Schmidt stopped the man for a short conversation, and the two parted ways.
“I always check on him, because he’s off his medication,” Schmidt said. “He’s harmless. We try to develop a rapport with these people to let them know we’re here to help them.”