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Bad vibrations: How a fight between the Met Council and a Minneapolis condo association spilled into the state Legislature

The Calhoun Isles condominium towers
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Calhoun Isles condominium towers were built in 1985 out of a grain silo complex constructed between 1915 and 1928.

Somewhere in the closing days of the 2017 session of the Minnesota Legislature, a mandatory study of the impacts of light rail construction on a condominium building adjacent to the tracks became something, well, much less.

Offered by DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein and DFL Sen. Scott Dibble, the language was included in the state transporation budget and came at the request of owners of the Calhoun Isles condos — the converted grain silo at the junction of the Kenilworth Trail and the Cedar Lake LRT Regional Trail/Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis' Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood.  That location also puts the building in very close proximity to where the Metropolitan Council wants build a tunnel for the Southwest LRT project.

The Dibble-Hornstein language would have required the Met Council to hire an engineering firm selected by the condo owners within 21 days of the bill’s signing to “evaluate the susceptibility of the Calhoun Isles property to vibration during construction and during operations of a light rail train.”

Under the language, the Met Council would also have to take steps to protect the property from “vibratory damage.” The cost of the study, estimated by the homeowners association at $50,000, would have been borne by the Met Council.

But somewhere between Gov. Mark Dayton’s May 15 veto of the first transportation budget and a new version hitting the House and Senate floors a week later, the language changed. Dayton had listed the study as one of many “troublesome” items in the budget and wrote that all had to be removed “before I consider the next transportation budget.”

It was. According to bill language negotiated by the Met Council, the agency is now only responsible for crafting a “vibration management plan” that would limit vibration to levels allowed by Federal Transit Administration rules. The plan must include an inspection of the building before and after construction of the tunnel; vibration monitoring throughout the project; and efforts to reduce vibration impacts.

Under the new language, the Met Council also must “make reasonable efforts to coordinate and cooperate with owners of the condos and set up a “fair and objective” process for responding to damage claims. In signing the final transportation budget, Dayton wrote: “I am pleased that this bill removed the policy provisions included in the vetoed bill that obstructed transit development.”

Kate Brickman, spokeswoman for the Met Council, and Chair Adam Duininck said the council asked that the language be changed, saying the study was something it was already doing. “As part of the process with the federal government, you do estimations and mitigations ahead of time,” she said. “Once the project is being built, you do tests to see if the estimates were right.”

Kenilworth Trail looking north
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Kenilworth Trail looking north with the Cedar Lake Shores townhouses to the left and Calhoun Isles condos to the right.

She compared it to similar mitigations plans on the Central Corridor that paid special attention to the University of Minnesota, MPR and KSTP. (MPR’s concerns over vibration led it to sue the Met Council. An agreement was reached after the Green Line was up and running.) “The new language in the bill is confirming that we do this as part of the federal process and it’s not being done by a firm chosen by Calhoun Isles,” Brickman said.

The current impact studies and mitigation plans, Brickman said, were approved by the FTA when the agency signed off on the Environmental Impact Statement for the project in July 2016.

Lawmakers disappointed 

Hornstein said he was disappointed that the original language was dropped and that he and Dibble had to scramble to get something positive for residents in the final version of the bill. “We have been working with the residents and share their concerns,” he said.

Given that the tunnel is being built so close to the foundations of the condo building and  that it has a unique construction history, Hornstein said it is worth getting a second opinion on the potential impacts. “This is still a very serious issue and the Met Council hasn’t addressed it to my liking,” he said.

An aerial photo from a series taken by Joe Quigley between 1928 and 1932
Minneapolis Public Schools
An aerial photo from a series taken by Joe Quigley between 1928 and 1932 for the Minneapolis School Board. The McKenzie-Hague grain silos are in the center with Lake of the Isles in the background.

But the final language “was the best we could do to draw attention to the issue,” he said. “At least the owners get a seat at the table.” Hornstein also said he disagreed with a Met Council claim that his language would have reopened the entire environmental review of the project.

Paul Petzschke, the chair of the condo association’s SWLRT committee, wrote that the association was “very disappointed” that the Met Council worked so hard to block the vibration susceptibility study and continues to rely on vibration tolerances that the association believes are too high for a building like theirs.

A 'guinea pig' building

The Calhoun Isles condos are an adaptive reuse of the McKenzie-Hauge grain elevators that were built between 1915 and 1928, according to architectural historian Larry Millett. The conversion included cutting window and balcony openings into the concrete silos between 1982 and 1985.

The condo association hired Itasca Consulting Group last spring to give an opinion on how the vibrations the Met Council expects during construction would impact the main condo tower. Itasca disagreed with the council’s determination on the building's sensitivity to vibration, arguing that the structure is very sensitive to potential movement, and recommended a full susceptibility study be done to resolve the issue.

In a letter to Dayton, condo association board president Nicholas Shuraleff wrote that the building was damaged in 2015 by vibration from construction of an apartment building on nearby West Lake Street. Shuraleff also wrote that if vibration exceeds what the building can tolerate during light rail construction, it could halt the project and require a rethinking of the tunneling plan. “In essence, it appears to us that the Met Council is willing to use Calhoun Isles (as) a guinea pig,” he wrote. “The consequences for us could be very serious.”

Cross-sectional view of the proposed Kenilworth Corridor light rail tunnel
Metropolitan Council
Cross-sectional view of the proposed Kenilworth Corridor light rail tunnel, near the southern end of the tunnel.

The tunnel is to be built in the narrowest section of the Kenilworth Corridor to accommodate light rail tracks underground with freight rail and the Kenilworth Trail on the surface. It became necessary, according to Met Council planners and policy makers, when it was decided to keep both freight rail and light rail in the corridor.

The project proposes to use a cut-and-cover method for the tunnel: that is, digging a trench, shoring up the sides and building a tunnel within. Met Council project staff have said the piles will be driven by hydraulic pressing which produces less vibration than other methods. Once completed, the tunnel would be covered and landscaped. In the final EIS, the council staff wrote that it tested the current noise and vibration levels at various points on the 14.5 mile line between Target Field Station and Eden Prairie.

The EIS notes that short-term impacts are those that will happen during construction through the use of jackhammers, rock drills and pile-drivers. Long-term impacts are those caused by operations of light rail and freight trains. The EIS said that a vibration mitigation plan would include additional testing and the identification of short-term and long-term mitigation measures.

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Comments (22)

SW LRT

I grew up on Drew Avenue & Cedar Lake Avenue and lived in the grain elevator condos from when they opened until 1990. I do fear the tunnel will do damage that may not be able to be repaired once construction begins. I've seen too many "interesting" environmental issues around Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles over my lifetime to "trust" the Met Council on this one. Much of the soil in the area is not particularly stable - witness the pile drivings needed to construct anything as simple as two story shopping center when Calhoun Village (just south of the trail intersections. LRT is good, but this route and its ability to do much damage around the chain of lakes is still very bad.

Bad Vibrations and Calhoun-Isles Condo Historical Experience

I have to second Gary Cohen's comments. I was the first president of the Calhoun-Isles Condo Association in the early 1980s. During this time freight trains were still running daily on both sides of the project. We lived in one of the town houses. Every time a train went by our house would vibrate and the china would tinkle in the cupboards. These trains were moving very slowly, probably not more than 10 mph. I shudder to think what the effect of fast moving light rail and freight trains will be on these frame townhouses as well as on the tower and its garage.

We lived at C-I during the grain elevator's conversion construction. Each day concrete saws cut out another floor of roof to foundation continuous vertical spaces where the windows and balcony doors are now. Each day the newly separated curved wall segments were linked to each other by newly poured round concrete floors attached to the remainder of the old curved walls with periodically spaced metal pegs. These floors do not adjoin the walls elsewhere as we discovered when occupants could hear conversations from the units above and below them through the perimeter linear space. I am not an engineer, but I worry that the floor pegs will be put under stress in trying to hold the walls together with so many trains vibrating by over many years, and perhaps also during LRT construction, especially if they have rusted since the 1980s. We should learn and be very careful after our experience with the I-35W bridge collapse. A second or even third engineering opinion is a good idea and should not be resisted by the Met Council.

While I am a big supporter of light rail in general, this choice of routing for SWLRT is very unfortunate. When St. Louis Park refused to live up to its 1990s bargain to take the freight traffic, a new route should have been found for freight. But as we learned during my time on the C-I Board, the freight railroads have federal and state legal privileges bordering on the imperial. They were able to ignore our concerns and complaints with impunity.

One point...

SLP did NOT refuse to live up to it's 1990s agreement. THAT agreement called for running more trains like the ones already running there on the EXISTING tracks. When the time came to move the freight traffic, the freight hauler wanted to run much longer trains that required replacing the existing tracks with new ones and changing the route. SLP NEVER agreed to tear down 30+ businesses and homes, and put the new tracks atop a 20 foot berm, in order reroute the tracks and accommodate longer trains. SLP was perfectly willing to abide by the 1990 agreement, they/we just weren't willing to enter a new agreement that significantly damaged our community.

Meanwhile, the only "sacrifice" people living in the Kenilworth area are being asked to make, (aside from the temporary construction disruption) is to continue to live with trains that have there for 100 years.

So yeah, we all want to mitigate any damage that construction might do to buildings in the area, but no one's home or business is being torn down. This assumption that it's OK to tear down homes and businesses in SLP rather than temporarily inconvenience people living along the Kenilworth corridor is obnoxious.

That RR corridor has been there in use for 100 years. Look at that photo, look at the number of tracks and trains were running there. There were more tracks and trains running there when most of that housing was built, and they were there when people bought their homes, town homes, and condos along the tracks. So now what? You want to tear down someone else's home so that you don't have to live next to the rail road tracks you choose to live next to?

This is urban chauvinism pretending to be a transit debate, pure and simple.

NIMBY

If the route were inconvenient, disruptive or damaging to properties not owned by the power elite of this city, it would have been approved years ago. Remember, the people complaining now learned from those who closed off Nicollet Avenue to enable a K-mart store, and who drove 35W through South Minneapolis, being careful to make a detour around Bachman's nursery and store.The movers and shakers of the day couldn't have cared less about the`disruption to the working-class communities they destroyed, as long as it was good for their businesses. Again we see that no matter how much things change, they always stay the `same.

One Counterpoint....

I don't think Mr. Udstrand has been following developments since the Met Council decided to keep freight traffic in the Kenilworth Corridor. Set aside the argument about whether or not SLP reneged on a promise. You see no "sacrifice" in keeping a freight line, two light rail lines, and pedestrian/bike paths that have about 800,000 trips per year in a corridor that can't hold them all? So MPLS is faced with two choices: 1) dig a tunnel that will sit in 10' of groundwater that needs to be dug within 24 inches of a condo building and whose construction may damage other properties nearby; 2) don't dig a tunnel and tear down about 30 townhomes to accommodate the plan. And maybe the corridor held 12 train tracks 100 years ago but it hasn't for nearly 45 years--things change over time.

I guess denigrating MPLS residents' "sacrifice" is a matter of perspective. If it's someone else's home being affected it's no sacrifice for you.

Some clarification

Keeping up with more recent developments: There is in fact enough room for all of this in the corridor, you can see that in the diagram above. MPLS is not faced with any choices, the decision has been made to build a cut and cover tunnel south of the channel, no homes will be demolished.

I don't know why people keep claiming that the tunnel will be two feet or twenty four inches away from the condos, but that's simply not the case. Maybe people are misreading the designs specs and mistaking 24 feet for 24 inches?

And no, I don't see a "sacrifice" in using a rail corridor as a rail corridor, and living next to the rail corridor that was there when you bought your house, isn't a "sacrifice", although it may be a disappointment to those who had hoped to rid themselves of the freight rail someday. I hope the planes stop flying over my house some day, but in the meantime it's not a "sacrifice" to live with the noise. The freight line and the bike paths are already there, and we've wet aside $50 million additional dollars to mitigate the effects that the LR line may have on adjacent properties.

I think we all agree that any additional unforeseen damage that occurs it should be repaired. I think we all agree as well that whatever can be done should be done to avoid damage. However such concerns are part of ANY large transit project and would be were this being build anywhere else.

Different question

I've been by there, on both trails, many times and never knew that building used to be a grain elevator. Even looking at photos now, I don't think I would have guessed that if it wasn't in the article.

Which to me raises a question: if this is all that can be done, what's the point of adaptive reuse of a grain elevator like this? It's left us with a potentially unstable building that's closer to the railroad tracks than it ideally would be that's potentially standing in the way of expanding transit.

But maybe it's really cool and evocative of its history on the inside or something.

These building are almost 100 years old

These building are almost 100 years old so they are well built. If you have traveled around rural farm country, it becomes easy to recognize these buildings as former grain elevators.

These building are stable until you start digging a tunnel in bad soil with a high water table.

Remember the City sued a developer because they were pumping water into the channel between Isles & Calhoun because of high water table. The developer had to let one floor of underground parking completely flood to settle the lawsuit.

Preservationists filed a lawsuit trying to prevent the U of MN from demolishing a set of grain elevators by the U.

Because transportation decisions in the Twin Cities are made by politicians instead of transportation experts we get bad decisions like routing SW LRT through a park instead either down the Midtown Greenway or by I 394 where there has been over $ 2 billion of development since SW LRT was proposed.

Politicians making transportation decisions resulted in the Twin Cities have 5 of the 10 most deadly/dangerous interstate interchanges in the entire US. The politicians were more interested in preserving houses than preserving peoples lives.

I've traveled around rural farm country

But that's hardly necessary as we have many grain elevators right here in Minneapolis. These condos do nothing at all to say anything about the history of grain elevators.

And yes, the failure of this adaptive reuse is something to keep in mind when we're talking about whether to "preserve" other similar structures.

SW LRT

I'm not sure how you could write this entire article without pointing out the obvious... Adam Duininck is married to Governor Dayton's Chief of Staff, Jamie Tincher. Given Tincher's role as one of Governor Dayton's top legislative strategists, (see Briana Bierschbach's article from last June), is it any surprise that the Met Council is untouchable and that Hornstein and Dibble's language disappeared?

Next you're going to tell us...

Next you're going to tell us that the governor appointed every single member of the Met Council! The humanity!

Useful facts

It would helpful to know exactly how close the tunnel would come to the condo tower — namely, within a mere 24 inches of its footings, and only two inches from the building's underground parking lot.

Imagine a 30-foot deep tunnel being dug within two feet of YOUR home, and 220 mega-ton trains rumbling through it every day thereafter. You'd object, just as the residents of the 128 or so units of the high-rise are now.

It is patently absurd of the Met to claim that the construction will not damage the building.

As for the condo's stability (Mr. A. Miller, talking to you), wouldn't heavy construction and 220 trains this close to any building render it "potentially unstable" and thus fair game for anything the Met Council wanted to do?

The thing is, alternative routes are available to this one, which threatens hundreds of people's homes, and that runs through the Chain of Lakes and one of the city's largest urban forests, while skirting populations that need transit the most. One such route is Uptown, where dense residential population and a thriving business community would benefit from it.

Not so useful "facts"

No one is going to be living two feet away from these LR trains or tracks, that's simply bogus information. Just eyeballing it I'd say the nearest living space is at least 50 feet away from the outer side of the tunnel wall. Nor can the train or tracks possibly be two inches from the underground parking lot. The tunnel walls themselves are more than two inches thick, and the tracks are 3-4 feet away from the inside wall.

As for footings, what footings are we talking about? Are talking about the footings for the underground parking lot, or the original footings for the elevators?

Vibration can be mitigated and has been mitigated in other sections of the LR line. The tracks that the freight train currently runs on are 200 year old technology, they are literally wood ties with rails sections nailed into place with spikes. The LR line uses the newest technology, concrete ties, continuous welded rails, etc. That in and of itself reduces vibration, the we can look at addition vibration reduction if needed.

Local control

The author rarely informs the public of the copious negative information and data related to SWLRT, and if any slips out, it is swiftly justified, and dropped. The author fails to make clear the condo's "close proximity" is mere inches from the proposed tunnel. An oversight that as always and once again works in the Met Council's favor. What histrionic, immoral, and selfish people in those condos.

All forgotten: the tunnel must be built because of Hennepin County's political and engineering failure and incompetence in assuring the freight could be moved for SWLRT. And of course, the Met Council and the Governor used every means in their power arsenal to force their failure of co-located SWLRT over the City and Park Board's strong objections.

Note the lie of the so-called "local control" narrative of SWLRT. Once again the Governor has used state level power to overcome the local Minneapolis representatives to force SWLRT.

All better be forgotten.

Municipal Consent

The City of Minneapolis approved municipal consent for this project and routing years ago. (I remember it quite well, since I was an advocate for the 3C or 3C-Alt2 routing in the years leading up to the LPA decision and the subsequent municipal consent).

Forced municipal consent

The original Mpls municipal consent was for SWLRT sans freight. Betsy Hodges later voted no on the SWLRT co-location plan. Only closed door meetings and defunding threats led to Mpls municipal consent.

Following this forcing procedure, SWLRT proponents now predictably argue, repeatedly, "all on the route gave municipal consent."

Endorsing SWLRT now is to endorse this political process and it's continued use in other parts of the metro.

A reasonable compensation plan

Maybe the Met Council can buy any units of people that want to sell at today's assessed value, then re-sell the units once there's a light rail station a block away with ~8 minute rides to the heart of the city. Or, for people who want to stay, they can be compensated by the immense increase in value of their units after we build this highly valuable amenity at their doorstep.

The problem is bad engineering.

That project has been plagued with trouble since it's inception. From leaking windows to various kinds of instability it was always a dicey conversion. Similar conversions around the country had similar problems, which is why you don't see more of them, and why no one has done another one anywhere in the Twin Cities despite an abundance of abandoned elevators "waiting" to be converted all over the place.

Everything about these elevators, from the footings to the walls, was designed for a very specific purpose that had NOTHING to do with anyone ever living in them. The conversion was problematic on many levels. In theory these elevators are huge an nearly indestructible, but they're strength integrity depends on them NOT having big giant holes all over the place for windows and hallways and living space. These elevators were designed to be constructed with continuous poor, solid concrete walls. No matter how thick those wall are, when you start punching holes in them you weaken their stability, it may not collapse, but don't expect it to be rock solid.

So let's not pretend that the LR construction is the problem when in fact the building itself has been the problem ever since people moved into it. I wish everyone well and I'm all for studying the thing and mitigating the damage as much as possible, transit policy and LR routes aren't the main culprits here.

Bad Engineering

I agree--the problem is bad engineering. Although contrary to Mr. Udstrand's contention, the bad engineering is on the part of the Met Council. Blaming the homeowners for damage to their property because someone decides to drive piles deep into the ground within a few hundred feet of a 100 year old structure is blaming the injured party, not the entity causing the problem. I would argue that the kind of work being contemplated by the Met Council near ANY 100 year old structure would give any thinking person pause. If the problem with the condos were caused by normal (or even increasing traffic) then I don't think I'd be as sympathetic. But I would guess that when the grain silos were converted to condos it was never contemplated that this kind of construction would happen. In fact, these condos have lived through the construction of Calhoun Village without a problem so I don't think you can blame any future problems on the building itself but rather the significant construction being considered.

And by the way

Given the alleged "instability" of the geology in the area, why would a "deep" and longer tunnel UNDER the channel be "safer" than the cut and cover tunnel? If residents in the area are so concerned about the ecology of the lakes, why are they demanding a more dangerous and disruptive design alternative?

I suspect some of those involved are more interested in creating a rail-free green space next to their own properties then the are saving the lakes or building good transit.

The route

As long it's come up (because it always does) let's just look at couple facts about the Kenilworth Route.

1) There's nothing stupid or irrational, or dangerous about putting the LR line inside an existing RR corridor. In fact it make perfect sense, has been studied, and has been found to be the most reasonable AND economical route. Alternatives were examined and rejected for perfectly good reasons. You don't have to "like" this route, but the claim that this route is the product of poor or incompetent planning is simply fatuous.

2) This route does not threaten the ecology or the lakes or destroy existing parkland. That land does NOT belong to the MPLS Park Baord, it is owned by the Regional Rail Authority. Yes, we have bike and pedestrian tails back there, and those will all STILL be there once the LR in built.

Again, look at the photo in the article from the 30's. That entire area used to be much more industrial and contained 10 times the number of tracks and yet the Chain of Lake Park System did just fine. The LR line has much smaller and more environmentally friendly footprint than that of more heavily industrial era's of the past.

3) This is 13 mile long inter-city rail line, not an inner-city transit option. The route does not by-pass populations, it connects the suburban populations with the city and vice versa. This was never designed to bring people back and forth from Uptown to Downtown, you don't build a 13 mile line in order to provide a mile of additional transit for people who already HAVE transit. And I remind everyone that while MPLS and St. Paul have more densely housed populations but they do NOT have larger populations. Two thirds of our metro population live in the suburbs, not the cities, and THAT'S population lines like the SWLRT are connecting to.

4) To the extent that this train is going to vibrate, it would vibrate the same on any other route. If you're worried about the 128 units on THIS, route, then what about the thousands of units this train would be rumbling past were it routed down or under Nicollet or Lyndale and then down the Greenway? In terms of livability and housing impact this clearly the lowest impact option.

5) We're not stuck with freight trains on this route because St. Louis Park reneged on a 1990s agreement. I remind you, when challenged to produce THAT agreement MPLS was unable to do so. Second, while we can acknowledge a "tacit" agreement to allow more trains running down the EXISTING track, SLP NEVER agreed to tear down dozens of homes and businesses and re-route and entire section of the track atop a 20 foot berm. It's simply obnoxious for MPLS residents to expect that SLP would disrupt and destroy neighborhoods and homes in order to protect or enhance million+ dollar property values in the Kenwood Neighborhood, which what removing the freight line was always about.

6) It's disingenuous for Kenwood residents to claim that ecological concerns are driving their demand for a longer and deeper tunnel UNDER the channel. While such a tunnel would make the LR invisible to a dozen or so residents next to the line: the claim that such a tunnel would be "safer" for the lakes defies common sense and ALL of the engineering studies that have recommended a shallow cut and cover tunnel south of the channel.

Pig Headed polititians

Originally there were 3 options for SW LRT through Mpls.

A. down the Greenway then north down using Lyndale, Nicollect or Park/Portland

B using the CP & BNSF right of ways that the relocated freight rail ways going to use

C.Kenilworth with the freight rail relocated to the BNSF & CP right of way.

After it was determined the freight rail would not be relocated. Which meant there would have to be a tunnel and the cost ballooned from $1.2 billion to $ 1.9 billion (which even upset Dayton) The politicians & their hired planners had a choice of doing a complete new analysis of the 3 options with updated cost information including the cost the of the LRT tunnel in Kenilworth and updated business development information.

They (Peter McLaughin & Hennipen Cty, & Met Council etc) were so committed to Kenilworth they refused to do a new analysis & just did a minimal update that showed that Kenilworth was still the best options.

Many who originally supported Kenilworth changed their minds & came out in opposition after co-location of freight & LRT was forced on them.

Both option A.and B have their supporters.

Personally I support B because it goes past the West End where there as been over $ 2 billion of development adding to the 4 existing office buildings, a hotel, Lifetime Fitness club Costco, Home Depot and several car dealerships on I394 etc. which far surpasses the housing development along Hwy 7 in St. Louis Park .of the Kenilwoth route Plus they could build a parking ramp for all the people commuting to Dntn using Hwys 100 7 & I 394 so they could park their cars & take the LRT into downtown.

CP is willing to sell some of its spur/short lines so S. Louis Park could have an LRT line going from Hwy. 7 to I 394 and the existing CP freight trains would go away, if Option B was selected.