See more of the story

Before the pandemic, Christine Davis would use St. Paul's skyways to walk to the Xcel Energy Center from the other side of downtown during her lunch breaks. She's made the trek once since, and doesn't plan to do it again.

"Things are just different now," Davis said. "If you're not paying attention, you can find yourself in potentially risky situations."

City leaders are turning their attention to St. Paul's skyway system after hearing concerns from downtown residents, workers, business owners and property managers. Since the pandemic began, many say parts of the five-mile network have become unsafe, unsanitary and uncomfortable.

Commercial vacancies, the decline in commuters and a lack of upkeep have contributed to a mood shift over the years. Anxiety rose further after two men were fatally shot in December in a building that connects the skyway system to the Green Line Central Station.

"I was really clear after we saw the double homicide that things need to change — that it was no longer acceptable to just make incremental improvements," said City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents downtown. "We really need a totally new approach."

Part of that effort is already happening. Police have added some overtime patrols in the skyways, Downtown Beat Commander Laura Bolduan said, and the Metro Transit building where the shooting happened has been temporarily locked to deter criminal behavior.

Improvements to the facility, including an intercom system and window treatments, are in progress, according to agency spokesman Drew Kerr. Metro Transit is also reviewing proposals that could bring supplemental security to this and other transit locations later this year, he said.

Meanwhile, officials are trying to figure out how to remedy less urgent, but still persistent, complaints about the skyways — things like litter, graffiti and spills that are left to fester.

"These very high-profile recent tragic events have brought into brighter focus conditions that have always been allowed to exist in the skyway system," said Heide Kempf-Schwarze, board chair of the Greater St. Paul Building and Management Association and senior property manager at Wells Fargo Place. "They've been going on for far too long without consequence."

Public-private partnership

Since the beginning of construction on St. Paul's skyway system in the late 1960s, the second-story corridors have been controversial. Some downtowners love the haven from Minnesota winters, while others argue the skyways pull resources and vitality from the streetscape.

Unlike the mostly private system in Minneapolis, nearly all of St. Paul's skyways were built by the city and are governed by agreements with building owners, who are responsible for maintenance and monitoring.

In 2017, St. Paul overhauled the skyway section of its city code in response to complaints about crime, litter and accessibility. The city started allowing skyways to close at midnight instead of 2 a.m., and required building owners to provide video surveillance or security personnel.

City leaders touted the changes as a success in the years that followed. Then COVID struck.

"Some of the behaviors and challenges that are there have been there, but they were less noticed because you had such an influx of people navigating through the skyways," Bolduan said. "We also could be seeing, after the pandemic, more people struggling with housing and addiction."

'Worse these days'

During lunch hour Wednesday, Kirk McElwain walked alone through the passage in the Victory Ramp building, an empty, white-walled stretch of skyway. After four years working in downtown St. Paul, McElwain said he's seen the area have its ups and downs.

"The skyways are definitely worse these days," he said. "They're more beat up. There's more vandalism. There's drugs in the skyway. More panhandling."

Bilal Saleem, owner of B's Barbershop in the Alliance Bank Center, said he thinks more police presence could "deter a lot of the negativity." Archie Dickens, a seven-year resident of downtown who stopped by for a haircut, agreed.

"Before the pandemic, we had a parade of people in the skyways all day long," Saleem said. "It's slowed down like molasses. … And the people that are still coming to work down here, a lot of them are living in fear."

Larry Thomas carried his lunch through the St. Paul Athletic Club, a dark and vacant corridor that the city has tried to animate by sometimes having staff work in adjacent glass-walled offices.

"For me, personally, it feels the same," he said. "I think people are just seeing more because it's not as busy."

Near Union Depot, Don Gustafson pushed a floor scrubber through the walkway he cleans daily, sometimes for hours. He said his crew has dealt with an increase in vandalism, litter, urine and drugs.

"We're trying really, really hard to make it better and better," Gustafson said, nodding to a man who thanked him for the improved smell.

Hope for a reset

Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance, said the skyways have always been complex — the winding design left some awkward spaces and blind corners.

But recent complaints, even the less egregious ones — about smoking, stained carpets, dirty walls and broken windows — have elevated the skyways to a policy and programming priority.

"I think a great concern is just the overall kind of feel and experience in the skyway," Spencer said, adding that the system needs "almost a reset of the basic social compact about what this space is for."

Noecker is planning to bring a proposal to the City Council that would make it easier for the city to step in when building owners aren't keeping up their properties. Instead of having to pursue criminal prosecution, as it currently does, the city would be able to complete maintenance work and assess the property owner for the cost.

In addition to better enforcement of building standards, city officials are brainstorming ways to make the skyways more welcoming, including pop-up shops to fill vacant storefronts.

"If you have a responsibility for safety and security downtown, we want you to be a part of these conversations," said Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher.

Officials also say there's a need for better coordination and communication among the various groups tasked with keeping the skyways safe, such as police, community ambassadors and private security.

Solutions can start small, too, Noecker said. For instance, high school students at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists are teaming up with the Minnesota Museum of American Art to paint a mural on the Victory Ramp wall.

And leaders are still betting big on foot traffic downtown, even though workers have yet to return in full force nearly three years after the COVID-19 outbreak. Spencer said a cellphone data tracking service shows skyway traffic during the workday is at about 60% of pre-pandemic levels.

"I am a relentless optimist — and I believe that we are going to bring thousands more residents and workers to downtown St. Paul," Noecker said. "That is what I work on every single day."

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of years Kirk McElwain has worked in downtown St. Paul. He has worked downtown for four years.