During the day, St. Paul’s skyways bustle with hordes of office workers on lunchtime walks and coffee runs.
But by 6 p.m. an uneasy quiet settles over the skyways, which are increasingly a setting for conflict as loitering teens, homeless people and new downtown residents converge.
Police cited people for violating skyway conduct rules twice in 2011. So far this year, they have given out 77 of the citations, state court data show. The number of police reports that mention the word “skyway” has more than tripled from an average of 100 a year in the early 2000s to 353 over the past year.
Skyway problems are a result of growing pains in St. Paul, community members said. The Green Line and Union Depot are drawing more visitors, including many teenagers, downtown. Meanwhile, building owners said more people are moving downtown and reporting incidents.
“Eventually we plan to have 10,000 people living downtown,” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the area. That foot traffic, and more entertainment and retail development will help the area feel more vibrant, but it’s not there yet.
Community members and local officials recently started meeting to discuss solutions, but said the situation is complicated — they need to stop offenders without discouraging the rest of the community from using the skyways.
Debating dead ends
St. Paul’s skyways, unlike those in Minneapolis, are public and are generally open until 2 a.m.
Jay Severance, who lives in the Lowry building downtown, often uses them to get to the Ordway or farmers market. He occasionally runs into someone huddled in a corner, sleeping, but he said he does not feel unsafe. However, he acknowledged the skyways can feel “spooky” after the business crowd leaves and “the town kind of closes up.”
Julie Bauch, who manages the 180 East Fifth building, took a bold step to deal with crime in the skyways attached to her building: She started violating the city’s rules for when the skyways should be open, closing the doors.
After the city told her to stop, Bauch requested an exemption to close the skyways around her building at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 12 a.m. on weekends.
She said she was prompted to act after watching security footage of young people beating up a homeless man and after people who work in her building told her they did not feel safe in the skyways.
“Right now we’re just scrambling to keep things secure and we’re not able to do it,” she said.
Her request was denied.
Noecker, who voted against the proposal, said creating dead ends would make pedestrians feel less safe. And closing skyways earlier in the evening would counteract the city’s goal of getting more people to use them, she said.
“It would really lead to a backtracking for the skyway system rather than a positive move forward,” said Andy Flamm. He chairs the local Skyway Governance Advisory Committee, which also opposed the early closures.
Nonetheless, Bauch said she plans to continue to push for earlier closures and more security.
Both ideas are worth consideration, said Joe Spartz, with the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association. Spartz said he is skeptical of claims that reducing skyway hours will counteract vitality efforts.
“Reality is, Minneapolis has much shorter hours in their skyways,” Spartz said. “It doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact” on vitality.
Downtown stakeholders are developing interim fixes as they wait for foot traffic to increase in the evening.
Property owners are currently required to provide either 24-hour patrol staff or video surveillance. The city is working with building owners to improve the patchwork of monitoring, said Dan Niziolek, deputy director of the Department of Safety and Inspections. Staff might bring a new ordinance to the City Council in a few months with more stringent security requirements, he said.
The city should add signs informing people about skyway rules, Noecker said. Clarity about public and private space is particularly relevant given the high-profile case in 2014, when police arrested and used a Taser on Chris Lollie when he refused to leave a seat in a skyway lounge.
Noecker also suggested the city gather volunteers and employ youth who are hanging out downtown and put them to work as “welcome crews” that could give directions and clean up trash. Business owners are interested in funding that program, she said.
The city could impose a 10 p.m. skyway curfew for everyone younger than 17, Noecker said. Many teens hang out the skyway connected to a light rail transit station. Officers who monitor the area try to direct youth to other places, like recreation centers, Sgt. Mike Ernster said.
As for people who are homeless and causing problems in the skyways, police and nonprofit staff said they work together to try to connect them with services and treatment rather than just repeatedly ticketing them or kicking them out.
Any changes the city makes should not push people who are homeless out of the skyways, said Shay Charleston. She does not have a home and uses skyways to escape the cold. After people leave the Dorothy Day Center around 6 a.m., they head to the skyways, Charleston said.
The skyway scene could change as the new Dorothy Day Center opens and people are no longer forced out early in the morning, Noecker said. It will also help when offices that were sold, like the former Pioneer Press building, add tenants and are monitored more closely.
But for now, those gaps in social services and commercial and retail activity have shown that the skyways are a “delicate ecosystem,” she said. “When we’re not all holding up our part of the parachute … it can fall apart.”