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Duluth skywalk plagued by offensive odor

Mike Arhart didn't mince words Tuesday in assessing the skywalk that links the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to downtown. "It smells like barf," he said. April Jacques, who was walking the skywalk with a friend for exercise, wrinkled her...

Skywalk
People use the Northwest Passage skywalk between downtown and the DECC during the lunch hour Tuesday. There have been complaints that this section of the skywalk has a bad smell; city officials are working on the problem. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Mike Arhart didn't mince words Tuesday in assessing the skywalk that links the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to downtown.

"It smells like barf," he said.

April Jacques, who was walking the skywalk with a friend for exercise, wrinkled her nose, as well.

"It's nauseating," she said. "I've heard that it's from all the pigeon droppings on the roof."

Jacques said the odor has been a chronic issue. "They put in an air freshener now and then, but it's only better for a little while."

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Duluth City Architect Terry Groshong said the city has received multiple complaints about the odor in the section of skywalk spanning the freeway, but he's not blaming birds.

"We're experiencing a roof leak problem," he said, explaining that the membrane on the 35-year-old skywalk has failed in places. As a result, moisture has infiltrated the roof decking, made of an engineered wood fiber product called Tectum.

"When that happens, it sort of smells like sheep or a wet dog," Groshong said.

Bob Masich frequently walks the section of skywalk dubbed the Northwest Passage and described the familiar unpleasant odor as "sort of a barnyard or urine smell."

While Masich said he'd appreciate it if someone would do something to address the odor, he has never complained to authorities.

Others have, however.

And Groshong is taking steps to remedy the situation. He said the city is investing about $7,200 in roof repairs that are about

90 percent complete.

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The roof isn't the only thing receiving attention. Groshong said two air-handling units keep fresh air cycling through the elevated walkway, but one of them has broken down. Repairs to the disabled unit should be completed in another week to

10 days, he estimated.

Groshong said he hopes the repairs will buy the city another two to five years of time, but he said the roof of Duluth's longest skywalk segment is reaching the end of its life and will require total replacement soon. That won't be cheap. Groshong figures the city may spend close to $1 million to tackle the job.

While maintaining the skywalk's roof is the city's responsibility, the upkeep of its interior clear to the "T" off Michigan Street is shouldered by DECC staff.

"Our crew goes through it every night and thoroughly cleans it," said Dan Russell, executive director of the DECC.

That's not to say there aren't occasional problems with misbehavior in the Northwest Passage, including urination.

Russell said that since the Greater Downtown Council stepped up skywalk patrols with its "Clean and Safe Team," the situation has improved, but incidents still occur in the large corridor, which is open to the public daily from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Occasional acts of vandalism also have caused expensive headaches. Russell said the cost of replacing a single glass panel in the skywalk can run about $3,000.

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While the Northwest Passage may appear to be a bit worse for wear these days, Groshong said it remains structurally sound.

"It looks a lot worse than it really is," he said.

As the existing skywalk shows its age, Russell said the DECC will look at all its options, including a wider thoroughfare.

"It may make sense to replace the Northwest Passage with something that's more pedestrian-friendly and perhaps even bicycle-friendly," he said.

Skywalk
Water leaking through the roof of the skywalk connecting the downtown to the DECC has infiltrated the roof decking and is the source of an unpleasant odor in the passageway, a city official says. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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