Annie Rose loves Lowertown. She also loves the exposed brick of her coffee shop, restaurant and bar and the awesome view of the historic Union Depot across the light-rail tracks.
Too bad the large picture window that frames that view will be covered in plywood for several more weeks, thanks to a burglar who last month smashed the window and a door, stealing rolls of quarters and a few bottles. It was the fourth time in a little more than a year since Lost Fox opened that it's been hit by thieves, leaving Rose — and several of her neighbors who've also been victimized — wondering if anything can be done to stop the cycle of crime.
"We're not going anywhere. This is what we want to do. My husband and I wanted to make community here," Rose said of her business. "I'm not surprised. I'm just frustrated that it keeps happening."
Property crimes and burglaries in St. Paul are down citywide and downtown compared with the same time last year, police say. But not in Lowertown, where both are up slightly.
Rose said she and others have also watched as people use and deal drugs in the open. It's time for Lowertown residents and business owners to make some noise, she said: At some point, if enough people are scared away from Union Depot and CHS Field, maybe the status quo will change.
"There are solutions out there. Something needs to be done," Rose said. "What we can do, the people who live and work in the neighborhood, is speak with our votes. And speak with our money."
Mark Toth has owned Urban Wok since 2018. Located next door to Lost Fox, Toth said he was drawn to the history and vibe of the neighborhood. But his business, too, was broken into — on the same April day as Rose's. And he, too, is tired of sweeping up broken glass and replacing stolen property.
Toth said he keeps no cash on the premises, "but every single time, they've stolen all of our tablets. ... It keeps happening, it's very frustrating."
According to St. Paul police, burglary charges were filed Tuesday against Said Murekezi in connection with the break-ins at Lost Fox and Urban Wok. Murekezi was also recently charged with setting fire to a St. Paul mosque. In fact, as he was speaking to investigators as part of that case, "the defendant admitted doing a burglary in downtown St. Paul," the criminal complaint said. He is being held at the Ramsey County jail.
St. Paul police Cmdr. Laura Bolduan, who leads the Central District and is tasked with keeping Lowertown safe, said the recent uptick in crime has prompted a law enforcement response. Last week, police installed a mobile camera across the street from Lost Fox that records what's going on in the immediate area and is monitored live. She said she's also directed officers to spend more time in the area.
Bolduan urged residents and business owners to remain vigilant — and keep calling police.
"We understand the adversity that [business owners are] facing and will continue to work with them to make a difference," she said. "I think it's important to report any sort of criminal activity to us. That's how we direct our resources."
City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents Lowertown, said she shares business owners' concerns.
"It's extremely frustrating and it's concerning to me. Public safety downtown is one of the things I'm working on and this just shows we have a little more work to do," she said.
Like a tsunami that follows an earthquake, Noecker said, she suspects the area is still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. She's hopeful that as more people and activity return to Lowertown, crime will decline — although she acknowledged that waiting for better times is not a solution.
About $8 million in opioid settlement money will make its way to the city over the next several years, Noecker said, and could be used to address the substance abuse and mental health issues regularly seen near the Union Depot light-rail station.
"We have to be proactive and do what we can in the interim," Noecker said. "We can never be complacent and just assume things will resolve."