It’s a rainy, cold Saturday, 3:30pm. Just walked home from the Science Museum. One mile – all but 2 blocks were in the shelter of the skyway system.
I love that. I love the skyway system.
It was a quiet walk, as the skyways always are on weekends. But it wasn’t uneventful. I took some pictures for you.
3 days ago, the Pioneer Press published an article about the skyway ‘crazy show‘. It has 162 comments. People are talking.
7 days ago, the same paper featured our family. We bought and renovated a downtown condo and made it our family home. Unlike New York, where people put crazy money into small spaces all the time, in Saint Paul it’s rare – with kids even more so. So it made the news. 14 comments, 5 are mine. Much more to say about the ‘crazy show’.
Citing a scary encounter in a skyway restroom, the daughter of one of downtown St. Paul’s biggest property owners is asking the city to let her close her skyway doors early. But the city’s not too keen on the idea. Source: Downtown St. Paul building manager wants relief from skyway ‘crazy show’
The picture above is the skyway connecting to Central Station on the Green Line, taken for the newspaper.
Were the officers shown called to help solve a problem? Is it a photo-op? Probably neither. I assume it’s the buddy system plus one. It’s St. Paul’s way of being proactive to deter crime, graffiti, unwanted solicitations, littering, and loitering. 3 officers, 3 of them.
A quick journal of my walk today:
Lovely, clean, but door entrances were unpredictable.
I first used the side door closest to the Science Museum. No problem. We walked indoors to the front canopied section to wait for Dad to pick up the kids. After putting the kids in the car, I find the door we walked out of was locked. Super weird. People were working, eating, and mulling about inside. I started walking back to the side door, but someone saw me and let me back in. Thank you Minnesota Nice.
Unpredictable doors are a pet peeve of mine downtown, but it is the least of our concerns these days.
Tunnel Past Library/Skyway Through Landmark Towers:
Lovely, clean. No problems.
Lowry Building and Saint Paul Hotel:
Lovely, clean. No problems.
My mind wandered here remembering all the times I had gotten lost in this part of the skyway. It’s a maze without windows. Signs tell you where you are, not where you are going. I realize I’m officially an insider. I know where I am and the signs about Lawson Commons, Landmark Towers, City Hall or Victory Ramp actually have meaning to me. Ah, my old naive self, new to St. Paul, when I believed street addresses or north, south, east, west directions meant something.
I wouldn’t call this part lovely, it’s a parking garage. But it was clean. No problems.
Pioneer Press Building:
No words. My camera will speak.
Forgive the language. I didn’t write it. I just took a picture of it.
The paint isn’t even dry from covering up the last set of graffiti. They write right over it!
I understand this building is currently vacant.
St. Paul Athletic Club:
The carpet is ripped out. Not surprising. It had been smelling like urine. Really.
Do you know how nice the St. Paul Athelic Club is? Too nice for kids to be allowed. Chandeliers above treadmills. Wine with yoga (or at least I imagine it that way.) Unlucky location between a vacant building and a black hole.
The black hole. I’ll explain why I call it that in a minute. For now, a continued description of my day and observations:
The station smells like an ashtray. Floors are filthy. More often than not groups of teenagers are hanging out.
Today, 7 or so teenage girls (like 13 or 14) were hanging out, chatting. No big deal.
Then one asks me for a dollar. I gave her my “I’m sorry, no” head shake. I was outnumbered and did not want to stop. As I passed, a voice behind me said, “She totally has a dollar.” Another voice said, “I’m so hungry.” Then I was out of earshot.
Was I uncomfortable with the size of their group? The poverty I was confronted with? The daring of youth?
Probably all of the above.
I knew the Alliance Building just ahead had a security guard desk, manned 24/7.
God bless them. At a Skyway Committee meeting the Alliance Building manager said she called the police nearly 20 times a day for incidences at Central Station. That was a year ago – before the graffiti and pee in the hallway started.
(On a side note, Alliance used to provide public bathrooms. My kids and I used it often when we first moved in 2014. Not anymore. I can’t blame them for closing it. But, truth be told, having a significant public gathering spot without public bathrooms, port-a-potties, or even a sign saying where a public bathroom is, isn’t a wise design choice.)
Here’s the irony. All roads lead here.
- In the skyway, it is a bottleneck. Walking in the skyway, you must go through here to get between the Xcel Energy Center, Library, City Hall or Rice Park area and the rest of downtown.
- On the street, all buses transfer here. Older kids use public transportation for school. No surprise this is a pit stop to visit with friends before heading home.
- It’s the closest Green Line train stop to most tourist destinations. It is our front door to Conventions, Head Liners, Wild Games, Roller Girls, The Ordway, Rice Park, Landmark Events, the Science Museum, the Central Library, City Hall.
Here’s the double irony:
- 5 blocks away is a huge, gorgeous, recently renovated, 24/7 public facility with beautiful bathrooms, places to sit indoors, and space to loiter outdoors called Union Depot. Lowertown, with the Saints games, Mears Park, and the Farmer’s Market have an amazing front door.
The Black Hole Explained:
I was on the Skyway Committee a year ago. Scheduling conflicts have kept me away from the latest discussions and meetings. I know people are working on the problem. But back then, problems were just starting to brew. Guest speakers came from the Police Dept., the Safety and Inspections Dept., Metro Transit, and managers of downtown buildings. The meeting I remember most was a representative from Metro Transit. This was my takeaway.
Skyway Committee (SC): You own the skyway and vertical link (i.e. the elevator & stairs from street level to skyway) at Central Station. It is causing problems.
Metro Transit (MT): We know. We tried locking the doors at 9pm, but St. Paul says we have to keep it open until 2am.
SC: It is a public right of way. Other buildings provide security guards and/or security cameras. You should too.
MT: No money for security guards. No money to have people watch the monitors all the time.
SC: Find some. It’s your responsibility.
MT: No. We didn’t want this in the first place. We already spent x million dollars because St. Paul required it. We aren’t spending more.
This is my understanding of St. Paul’s perspective:
We don’t have jurisdiction in a property we don’t own. The only people we have are police. Sending police to be security guards is not a long term solution. We want the skyways to be open, accessible, and predictable to all the citizens and visitors of St. Paul. We’ve set the standards and individual owners must comply to those standards.
My understanding of the private building owners:
This sucks. Nobody is taking responsibility. The problems are leaking into our buildings.
This is why I call it a Black Hole.
Metro Transit is part of the Metropolitain Council, a government body that coordinates larger projects across the individual towns and counties of the Twin Cities. I’m praying their attitude of “I told you so, go figure it out yourselves” has evolved since last year.
They are doing something.
See the stainless steel window sills? They used to be a simple ledge, framed with drywall, and deep enough to sit on. My kids and I would sometimes break here to rest or have a snack. Unfortunately, we were one of many who had the same idea. A type of grate with metal spokes was added to make sitting uncomfortable. It clearly wasn’t enough to deter the littering and loitering. Now they have these slanted sheets of stainless steel.
Continuing on my walk….
Looks lovely. So close to the drama but unaffected thanks to a 24/7 security guard desk.
Town Square and Beyond:
Lovely, lovely, and lovely.
Since my camera was out, I took more pictures to prove the vast majority of the skyway system is well cared for and wonderful to be in. Town Square is a hive of activity during lunch hours M-F.
So what can we do? I have faith good people are working on it. But all the same, here are my two cents:
My Two Cents About What To Do:
- Security guards work. Buildings with them look great. People move through as they are supposed to. Golden Rule. Alliance. Securian. Town Square. Lawson Commons. The Skyway Committee has been begging for a desk and a person to be at Central Station. Police come and go as best they can, but a permanent presence is needed – and with a more civilian, less police-state feel.
- To have a more welcoming feel this “security desk” at Central Station should double as a Tourist Information Booth with people knowledgeable about St. Paul, the skyways, restaurants, and bathroom locations.
- A speaker system should loop commentary 24/7 in the same pleasant voice heard on trains or at the airport.
“Welcome to Central Station in St. Paul, please refer to maps located thoughout the station or ask for help at the Tourist Information Booth. Follow the red arrows towards Rice Park and Excel Energy Center. Follow the blue arrows to downtown’s central core, Mears Park, or Lowertown. For the benefit of all visitors take care to place all garbage in the bins provided. Smoking is not allowed and must be done 30 feet (or whatever the rule is) from any entrance or exit. Solicitations of any kind are prohibited within the skyway system. Public bathrooms are available at Union Depot, the final stop on the Green Line. Downtown Saint Paul offers many exciting opportunities for visitors. The Energy Excel Center, Ordway, Saint’s Baseball games…..”
Pause 30 seconds, repeat. This will be helpful to people passing through and annoying to loiterers.
- Change the main Metro Transit bus transfer point to Union Depot 5 blocks away. Union Depot is designed for crowds and traffic. Let’s use it and relieve pressure from the bottle neck that is Central Station.
- Change attitude or change ownership. Metro Transit or the Metropolitan Council needs to either relinquish the property or start taking some pride in it. Accept what is, budget accordingly, and let go of what could have or should have been.
- Vacant buildings need accountability. Saint Paul charges residential homeowners vacant building fees – a couple thousand dollars a year per house. Are businesses held accountable? Clearly the Pioneer Press building is having problems.
As far as hours and access, I’m glad St. Paul is fighting to keep access open to all citizens. 6am-2am skyway hours means an almost 24/7 public indoor space. It is being abused, so I understand private businesses desire to restrict freedom of access.
The main thing for me is predictability. I often feel there is a cat and mouse game being played between private businesses and the city. Wells Fargo, for example, may have a door open to the skyways per city rules, but it feels like they change what door it is, or they’ll lock everything and wait for a complaint before reopening.
I happen to know the parking garage next door has reliable skyway access, so when I’m thwarted at Wells Fargo, I walk the extra block to enter there.
Perhaps labeling these “Super Doors” – the doors that are reliably open – on maps could help businesses deter traffic in their buildings by allowing them to lock their own doors. Of course, the skyway access at Central Station is the ultimate “Super Door” and it’s a super problem. And once you are in, you can go anywhere.
Whatever is decided for times and access: May it be predictable, reliable, and clearly labeled.
Our St. Paul streets and skyways can be a confounding maze. It’s a maze worth getting to know. We reap the benefits everyday.
Praying our city and citizens can figure out how to end the ‘crazy show’ so everyone can enjoy and feel safe inside the skyway.