A proposal at the state Legislature would protect homeowners at the Cedar Isles condominium complex in Minneapolis who say construction of the Southwest light-rail line has damaged their property.
Introduced by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, an amendment to the omnibus transportation bill would in part compensate condo owners for damages caused by the construction of the 14.5-mile line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.
The effort comes as the contractor of the $2.7 billion light rail project prepares to resume work near the condos later this month.
Construction of a tunnel wall was halted in late January after Cedar Isles residents discovered cracks in walls and floors of the condo towers. Originally built as grain silos in the early 20th century, the structure was converted to residential use in the 1980s.
Although a forensic engineer hired by the Metropolitan Council assured residents that light-rail construction wasn't the likely cause of the cracking, many Cedar Isles residents remain deeply fearful that more damage will occur once construction ramps up. In some spots, the tunnel for Southwest trains is within inches of the condo building's foundation.
"People living [at Cedar Isles] are extremely frustrated," Dibble said. "They can't even get real estate agents to come in if they want to sell their home; they're told it can't be listed."
Dibble's amendment was approved last week. While there's no guarantee it will be adopted in the waning hours of the legislative session, it appears to have bipartisan support.
"Your home is probably the single greatest asset that you have in your lifetime," said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, chair of the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy committee, who supports Dibble's amendment. "Imagine the government comes in and all of a sudden your home is worthless,"
Any costs related to the amendment will be borne by the Southwest project — not by the state. The project's budget has ballooned due in part to the complicated tunnel construction in the Kenilworth Corridor.
In January, the council said the project's overall cost would soar by $450 million to $550 million, totaling up to $2.75 billion — making it the most expensive public works project in state history. The project is about 60% complete.
Dibble's amendment calls for the Met Council, which is building the line, to compensate Cedar Isles condo owners for the devaluation of their property related to light-rail construction. It requires a real estate assessor from Minneapolis or Hennepin County to reassess the condos by Jan. 1, 2023.
The council must ensure work on Southwest will not cause further damage to Cedar Isles condos, and that the units will remain safe to occupy, according to the amendment. The council must also hire a third party approved by the condo board to repair damage deemed to be caused by light-rail construction.
The amendment also requires the council to provide free office space for Cedar Isles residents who can no longer work from home because of interruptions from Southwest construction.
And the council must reimburse the condominium association any costs it has incurred in recent years to hire engineers and lawyers for expert advice about Southwest construction — a bill that has tallied about $250,000 so far.
"We are very thankful for this," said Russ Palma, a Cedar Isles resident and vice president of the condo association. "We really need to counter this David and Goliath feeling we have with the Met Council. We are worried we'll be steamrolled by the council. They have so many resources that we don't have."
In a statement, a Met Council spokesman said, "We are aware of the recently adopted amendment and are currently analyzing the language."
There appears to be some disagreement about what caused the cracking.
Socotec Engineering Inc., a firm hired by the council to investigate the condo damage, said 75% of the cracking resulted from "seasonal temperature swings" that caused the structure to shift. The situation was exacerbated by the support system used when the towers were retrofitted 40 years ago, the firm concluded.
Construction of the Southwest line was one of four factors contributing to 25% of the building's movement, according to Socotec. The others were wind, vibrations caused by nearby freight trains and deferred maintenance.
"The building movement we believe has been taking place for some time," Robert Vecchio, CEO of Socotec Engineering, said in a recent presentation to condo owners that was not open to the public. A recording was made available to the Star Tribune by a resident who attended.
"Cracking has been around for a while and may have just become evident in the last several months," Vecchio said.
The 90-minute meeting was at times tense, as several homeowners seemed skeptical of the firm's findings. As one resident said, "These conclusions defy logic and defy science."