Peg Guilfoyle is a St. Paul skyway enthusiast — so much so that she organizes weekly walks through the second-story indoor streetscape for anyone who wants to join her.
"You can get to the bank and the dentist and the drug store and restaurants — almost everything you need without having to go outside," Guilfoyle said on a morning stroll Tuesday, gesturing to her favorite skyway art and waving to business owners.
Accompanying Guilfoyle were about a dozen others, most of whom live in downtown apartments or condos. Many defend the city's skyways, pushing back on claims that the pandemic left the skyways empty and unsafe.
At the same time, they're not shy about pointing out the cracked windows, dead lightbulbs, spilled coffee, locked doors that should be open. Nor do they avoid discussion of the urban challenges that at times manifest in the skyways: homelessness, addiction, crime.
Now, as the weather gets colder and more people take to the skyways to traverse downtown, St. Paul leaders are launching a new suite of efforts to address some of those issues.
For instance, Council Member Rebecca Noecker recently introduced an ordinance that would make it easier to enforce building owner compliance with St. Paul's skyway code.
The mayor's office is planning to spend nearly $1 million of the city's federal COVID-19 aid to make physical improvements to a particularly problematic stretch of the skyway system.
And another $750,000 is slated for a no-barrier workforce program designed in partnership with a homeless shelter, whose guests may earn wages by picking up litter in the skyways.
"I really think we need to plant the flag and say, 'We are making progress on the challenges that we've had with the skyways,' " said Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher, who for months has led regular meetings with public and private partners strategizing ways to improve the system.
"That said," Tincher added, "we're not putting up a 'Mission Accomplished' banner."
A patchwork system
St. Paul's skyways were built in the 1960s as a way for downtown to compete with new suburban malls and office parks. They've always had their critics, including those who say the system evolved to cater to white-collar workers instead of the public.
Then COVID struck, forcing downtowns across the country to reimagine their futures in the era of remote and hybrid work.
"The state of the skyways is really, really important to downtown," said Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance. "It's this thing that affects and touches almost everybody who comes to downtown or lives downtown or owns downtown or has businesses downtown. And there's been a fair amount of frustration with it over the years."
Unlike the mostly private skyway 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. The result is a patchwork system to keep them clean and secure.
Noecker's proposal aims to crack down on some of the building owners who aren't holding up their end of the bargain. She is suggesting code changes that would allow the city to complete maintenance work and charge property owners for it when they don't comply with city orders.
"The vast majority of our property owners are doing the right thing," Noecker said. "But the system is really only as strong as its weakest bridge."
Shoring up one stretch
City officials have deemed a small section of the skyway around the Central Station light-rail stop to be that weakest link — dragged down by commercial vacancies, poor upkeep and design, and criminal activity.
The stairway connecting the light-rail stop to the skyways was closed last December, after two men were fatally shot there. Metro Transit spokesman Drew Kerr said the agency will reopen the building "once we can regularly provide an official presence, including supplemental security officers and police officers." A date has not been set.
Metro Transit and the city will also soon start marketing the long-vacant lot next to Central Station for development. Kerr said they plan to issue a request for proposals early next year.
The surrounding skyway area — the stretch from the Alliance Bank Center to the Victory Ramp, which winds through the St. Paul Athletic Club and the Press House Apartments — will get a boost from the city's pandemic aid. About $850,000 will go to cleaning and design improvements, and $50,000 to pilot a new security camera and intercom system.
By the end of the year, the city plans to clean and polish floors in the area, patch drywall and fix lights in that section of the skyway, said Michael Burnett, senior design and construction project manager.
In early 2024, the city plans to hire a consultant to help with more significant changes. Ideas range from installing more surfaces that are easy to clean and reflective to help see around corners, to welcome kiosks and interactive map stations.
"We're looking at a bunch of other places that have a lot of indoor foot traffic — other skyway systems like Minneapolis, but also airports and shopping malls — to find out who are the people doing the best to make these places safe and welcoming," said John McCarthy, St. Paul's financial services director.
Tina Gassman, president of the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association, said her members are supportive of the city's efforts — though begrudgingly so. Over the years, building owners have complained about having to foot skyrocketing security costs to respond to incidents they think should be handled by police.
"It is unfair that the city is spending money on bad actors," Gassman said. "But their frustrations have really come to a boiling point where they're looking for any feasible solutions to help bring up the standard and safety of the skyway."
City leaders agree and say they continue to search for more such solutions, which can sometimes start small or piecemeal.
For instance, St. Paul Police Cmdr. Jesse Mollner said the force is working on changing its dispatch system to track where crime happens in the skyways, as well as updates to city statutes to clarify what illegal skyway behavior looks like.
Noecker has started to hold quarterly "Skywalker" trainings for downtown residents and workers on how to report issues in the skyway, a program she formulated in concert with Guilfoyle's walking group.
Said Noecker: "We're always saying, over and over again, the city can't do this alone."
Those residents see the skyway as an amenity, one that may have factored into their decisions to move downtown. When they gather at 9 a.m. Tuesdays in the U.S. Bank Center, they're eager to share their excitement for St. Paul's indoor streetscape — and, they hope, simultaneously build a community presence.