Businesses along Central Corridor complain of damage to their buildings

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Kassim Busuri
Kassim Busuri inspects the water damage on July 19, 2012, in a storage room at the Minnesota Da'Wah Institute in St. Paul, where Busuri works with the mosque's youth. Busuri says the basement flooded in May after heavy rain filled a hole outside that had been dug as part of light-rail construction. The contractor has denied responsibility for the flooding.
MPR photo/Laura Yuen

Some St. Paul businesses and property owners along the path of a future light-rail line say no one is taking responsibility for damage to their buildings.

They claim Central Corridor construction has led to cracks in their foundations and flooding in their basements. But the Metropolitan Council says proving fault is not so simple.

Business owners on University Avenue figured they might take a financial hit from all the dust and disruption from the project. What many didn't expect was a physical bruising to their businesses. Many of them are situated in buildings that are at least 100 years old.

At the Minnesota Da'Wah Institute, Kassim Busuri walks down a set of creaky steps to the mosque's basement, and opens the door to a room used for storage. The air reeks of mold. Busuri squats and points to the wet, putrid carpet.

"It's water and mud that came in," said Busuri. "You can look at the four corners of the walls, there's mold growing."

A couple of months ago, workers dug up a giant hole in front of the mosque while working on the sewer system, Busuri said, adding that he thinks they must have disrupted the building's foundation. When a heavy rain came, the hole became a small pond, and water seeped into the mosque's basement.

Mosque flooded
Heavy rain this spring filled a hole that had been during construction of the Central Corridor light-rail project along University Avenue in St. Paul. A mosque member from the Minnesota Da'Wah Institute took this photo on May 7. Officials from the mosque claim the contractor is at fault for basement flooding, but officials as Walsh Construction said the foundation leak predates light-rail work.
Photo courtesy of Ahmed Farah

The Met Council sent a representative with contractor Walsh Construction to visit the building and take some photos. But Walsh later denied Busuri's claim. In a letter to the mosque, the company said that rust on the basement's ceiling tile suggests the foundation leak predated light-rail construction.

Busuri doesn't buy that. He says this is the first time the mosque has ever flooded.

"For them to come in and say, 'This is something we're not responsible for,' when it is obviously their problem, I think they could have done a better job of taking care of the problem right away and not putting the burden on the community. We can't afford to fix all of this stuff ourselves," he said.

Down the torn-up avenue, which is chock-a-block with aging storefront businesses, Long Her has a different kind of problem. The large metal awning on his clothing and tailor shop, New Fashion, looks like it's been pried off the brick wall by about a foot. Her said he's worried that somebody could get hurt.

"If we have a thunderstorm, the wind could be so strong that the whole thing could blow down," Her said. "That's why I'm scared."

Mosque flooded
This photo from May 7, 2012, from the Minnesota Da'Wah Institute shows flooding in a basement room the mosque was using for storage. The mosque contends construction crews disrupted the building foundation while working on the light rail project along University Avenue. But the contractor says the foundation leak predates construction.
Photo courtesy of Ahmed Farah

Her says jackhammering in front of his building caused his whole store to shake, and that's probably when the awning began to detach itself from the wall.

But Walsh denied his claim. Her says his insurance company will probably have to pay thousands of dollars to repair the awning. The insurance company would have the option of filing a claim against the contractor.

A complaint log from the Central Corridor hotline and emails obtained by MPR News show a sampling of claims being lodged against the project.

A Cambodian video store reported vibrations from the construction caused speakers to fly off the store walls. The speakers broke the glass display cases when they landed, according to community groups working on behalf of the businesses.

And at Latuff Bros. Auto Body shop, the owner said the brick facade of his building is damaged, and neither Walsh nor its subcontractor has accepted responsibility.

"When they were jackhammering, the whole sidewalk dropped down about an inch and a half, my whole building is shaking, and pictures are falling off the wall. And they're telling me they're not responsible for it," Latuff said.

Latuff said Walsh feels the issue is the subcontractor's responsibility, but the subcontractor told Latuff it won't pay for the repairs.

Long Her
Owner Long Her of New Fashion clothing and tailoring shop stands below his store's metal awning, which as fallen off the building's brick wall. Her believes that vibrations from construction crews using jackhammers caused the awning to peel from the wall, but he says the Metropolitan Council told him Walsh believes the problem predated construction.
MPR photo/Laura Yuen

The Met Council, which is managing the project, said it's difficult to show these damages were the result of the light rail construction.

Dan Soler, who oversees engineering on Central Corridor, said some disputes are more cut-and-dried than others.

"The ones that are obviously directly caused -- a truck runs into a building, or a Walsh pickup truck sideswipes a person's car driving down the street -- there, it's pretty clear. Water in the basement? Pretty tough," said Soler. "Did the contractor go about his own work in a typical manner? Were there pre-existing conditions that caused water to enter the basement? Did they leave a site unsecure against water? There's a lot of investigative pieces that have to go into those, they're not readily simple as to who's at fault."

Soler said these disputes are between the property owners and the contractors, and there's little the Met Council can do other than facilitate the process.

We tried to speak to Walsh for this story, but the Chicago-based company declined because the council generally forbids the contractor from talking to the media.

The Met Council says it does not have records of all the claims reported to Walsh or its subcontractors, and declined to make anyone from Walsh available to comment on this story.

It's unclear whether the number of damage-related claims has gone up over last year -- and how many of the claims have been rejected or resolved.

But the perception is that Walsh is holding the line more aggressively this year, said Isabel Chanslor, a project manager with U7, a group that provides services to disrupted businesses.

"We're at a loss at how damage can be seen as not part of the impacts of construction," Chanslor said. "We're not really sure what the issue is. It seems the businesses have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt [that the damages were caused by light-rail]. The burden of proof is on the businesses, not Walsh."

Walsh continues to receive mixed reviews from community panels, which has resulted in the contractor receiving only a fraction of its quarterly bonuses. The firm, which is working on the longer and trickier eastern end of the project, will receive 57 percent of its available incentive pay for last quarter.

In contrast, the contractor on the Minneapolis side of the transit line has consistently earned a bigger share of its pontential incentive pay, thanks to higher marks from business owners and residents. Ames/McCrossan received 85 percent of its potential bonus for the same period.

The money at stake is not big when considering the entirety of the contracts, but the bonuses provide one of the few community measurements of how the contractors are performing.

In St. Paul, Daisy Haung owns the Shuang Hur grocery, where crews have used the store's parking lot to back in and out, creating what she calls a traffic nightmare. Despite repeated requests from Haung and the Met Council, Haung says Walsh failed to provide a construction flagger to help keep the area safe.

"I think in the beginning, I would give them an F, literally, like 0 percent," she said. "I'm trying to run my business at a tough time. But instead of doing that, for the first four to six weeks, I ended up spending my full time trying to find people to help me with an emergency."

But Haung says the situation improved several weeks later, after there was a minor car accident.

Despite the headaches, the Met Council says it's generally pleased with Walsh's performance this summer. Unlike last year, when delays threatened the project, construction in St. Paul is moving at a fast clip. The council says the project is on schedule to open sometime in 2014.