For more than three weeks, residents at the St. Paul Public Housing Agency’s Montreal Hi-Rise — many of them needing wheelchairs or other mobility aids — were limited to using only the building’s smaller elevator while waiting for the other to be repaired.
With wait times to leave their floor stretching to a half hour or more and no updates about when full service would be restored, Shelly Gilbertson said residents were left wondering and worrying about what would happen in an emergency.
Gilbertson, friend to a building resident who sometimes needs to use a wheelchair, started calling the Public Housing Agency, city and federal officials about the delayed repair Friday. Repairs were started Monday and completed Tuesday.
“There was no communication. St. Paul Public Housing people did not have a schedule for work to be completed,” Gilbertson said. “I could see the impact to residents.”
The 18-story building includes 185 one-bedroom units.
In an email response to questions from the Star Tribune, Louise Seeba, deputy executive director and general counsel to the Public Housing Agency, said residents had to wait three weeks because the elevator contractor had to manufacture, program, test and install a new part. Residents were not told how long the repair would take, she said, because the consultant never shared that information.
“Notices regarding the elevator repair were posted in the building and on-site management and maintenance staff responded to resident questions about the repair,” Seeba said. “Unfortunately, despite staff inquiries neither the service contractor nor the part manufacturer were able to provide the [Housing Agency] with clear and accurate information on when the part would be received and the repair completed.”
She added: “If the [Housing Agency] had been provided with this information, we would have done our best to communicate it to residents.”
Mike White, whose arthritis forces him to use a wheelchair, and Billy Green, who has heart disease and uses a cane, have lived in the building for years. An outage years ago, White said, only lasted a few days.
“This was the longest time the big elevator was sitting,” he said. “The little elevator was packed like sardines. People had to wait a long time.”
For Green, going up and down the steps to his ninth-floor apartment was out of the question. There were times he worried “about getting in [the small elevator] and getting stranded,” he said.
Gilbertson said the lack of information to residents was unacceptable and never should have gone this long.
“They were given zero information,” she said. “They were just dismissed.”
In her email, Seeba said building staff worked with residents “to ensure that their needs were met during the outage, including retrieving requested items using the stairs, delivering groceries and packages upon request, etc.”
She added that the elevators have an emergency lockout function that can be used by first responders when they need to take control.
Asked whether this kind of situation has happened before, Seeba said, “despite diligent ongoing efforts to maintain and modernize the elevators in all [Public Housing Agency]-owned hi-rises, outages occur and are outside of the [agency’s] control.”
The last “significant” outage at 1085 Montreal Ave., she said, was in 2019 due to a contractor error during buildingwide plumbing work. Both elevators at the Montreal Hi-Rise were modernized and renovated 10 years ago.
“Completing elevator modernization requires that one of the two cars be rendered inoperable for extended periods of time. While inconvenient, this is the reality of maintaining buildings with elevators,” she said. “Situations like the recent elevator outage at Montreal Hi-Rise cannot be avoided entirely.”
James Walsh is a reporter covering St. Paul and its neighborhoods. He has had myriad assignments in more than 30 years at the Star Tribune, including federal courts and St. Paul schools.
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