Light-rail route’s rumblings have some neighbors stressed

  • Article by: JIM FOTI , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2008 - 10:33 PM

Two churches and MPR face disruption and potential damage from the Central Corridor line.

At the Church of St. Louis, King of France, in downtown St. Paul, a commemorative plaque describes the sanctuary as an oasis of silence "in the clamorous city."

Over the next several years, the Central Corridor light-rail line is going to make things considerably more clamorous along Cedar Street, causing substantial worries for the 99-year-old Catholic church, the Presbyterian church next door and another neighbor that treasures silence, Minnesota Public Radio.

It's the latest round of wariness for institutions along the line, all of whom say they strongly support the transit project but, like the University of Minnesota earlier this year, wish the tracks were taking a different route. They're hoping for money to help mitigate the impact on their buildings and their missions.

As much as these future neighbors might want the route to change, federal deadlines mean it cannot, said Laura Baenen, a spokeswoman for the Central Corridor Project Office. She said the churches and MPR have known for years about the possibility of trains coming down Cedar, and she noted that MPR elected to rebuild its headquarters on the street a few years ago.

"We have sirens go by, we have buses go by, and that's part of who we are as a city church," said the Rev. David Colby, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, whose current building opened in 1889.

But "it would be a very different thing, on a regular schedule, to have a clanging of light rail right outside our door ... where you can just about predict that every time you stop for a silent prayer, you will be interrupted."

Colby is worried that vibrations will affect his building's foundation and the domed ceiling over its 1,100-seat sanctuary. The fact that the rail tracks will seal off his church's access to Cedar Street is another major concern. No hearses will be allowed to park out front for funerals, and the driveway that allows handicapped members to park or be dropped off next to a wheelchair-accessible entrance will be closed.

"It will completely change the character of having a funeral here," Colby said. The 225-member congregation has 10 to 12 funerals and a similar number of weddings each year, he said, as well as a full schedule of concerts for the Christmas season.

Baenen said there will be a place to park hearses and wedding limos about 120 feet north of Central Presbyterian's steps on Cedar. She also said planners are looking into using some of the MPR-owned green space south of the church to provide handicapped access, something MPR does not see as a solution. She also noted that the practice of sounding the bell at every street crossing -- as is done on the Hiawatha line -- can be modified.

Next door to Colby's church is the Church of St. Louis, King of France, which was designed by the architect of both the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. The building, which will celebrate its centennial next year, has been meticulously restored in the past couple of decades, and a new, million-dollar organ was installed in 1998.

Had the Central Corridor route been definite at that time, "the organ would have been designed quite differently," said the Rev. Paul Morrissey, who has been at the church since 1985 and pastor since 1988. As things are now, he said, "the constant vibrations from the train would cause the organ to be permanently out of tune." A retrofit is possible, at a cost of $100,000, he said. It's not clear who would pay.

Morrissey's church has a robust membership base -- about 600 families -- but the loss of parking in front of the church during daily masses would be a blow to the church's predominantly elderly membership, he said.

Like his counterpart at Central Presbyterian, Morrissey is concerned about the impact of the line on his building. Affixed to the brick exterior facing 10th Street is a crack-monitoring device that was put in place to measure the impact of a recent construction project across 10th Street, and light-rail work will be much closer.

Testing, testing

Negotiations continue with the light-rail office, and the number of unknowns is frustrating to both the churches and MPR. The media company says it expressed concerns about the route early on, to no avail, and would still like to see it reevaluated.

Heavy construction on the $915 million line is expected to begin in 2010, with trains running in 2014.

"As far as we know, there are not any buildings as close to the Hiawatha line in downtown Minneapolis as we are to the planned Central Corridor line," said Jeff Nelson, MPR's public affairs director. He rode a Hiawatha train with a laser measuring device to try to find out. MPR stands just 8 feet from the train's proposed right-of-way.

MPR and light-rail engineers have dropped weights onto the street to simulate the vibrations of the 50-ton rail cars. They also found that the sounds of an actual train horn could be heard inside two of MPR's state-of-the-art recording studios, which have played host to everyone from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to the band Death Cab for Cutie.

"We have not been able to find an example, and the Central Corridor Project Office has not been able to find an example, of a light-rail line running that close to a noise- and vibration-sensitive facility anywhere in the country," Nelson said. Remedies used in other cities -- such as placing rubber mats under the tracks -- have not been tried locally.

The project will pay to mitigate impacts directly related to the operation of the light-rail line, Baenen said. But Nelson is worried that relief funds wouldn't cover the workstations of dozens of MPR and American Public Media employees who make and edit recordings at their desks.

Pastor Colby wants to know what happens if the mitigation doesn't work -- and who will make that call. "The clock is ticking," he said, and the questions about noise, vibrations and street access "challenge our very viability."

Jim Foti • 612-673-4491

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