5 March 2022
Results are expected this month from an investigation probing why cracks appeared in a condominium building near construction of the Southwest light-rail line in south Minneapolis.
The Metropolitan Council, which is building the line, for now is not assuming responsibility for the cracks in the Cedar Isles condo tower, preferring to wait until investigators from a top engineering firm finish their analysis. Construction of a tunnel for light-rail trains along the Kenilworth corridor has been halted for nearly six weeks as a result.
While the Met Council has assured condo residents that their building is safe, many remain deeply concerned about whether their homes are secure and how cracking issues will affect property values.
Their confidence was further rattled when a water main broke near the Southwest construction two weeks ago, flooding their parking garage.
“This whole thing is giving me a pit in my stomach,” said one resident during a meeting last month of the Cedar Isles Condominium Association (CICA) with Southwest officials and their consultants that was closed to the public. A recording of the meeting, attended by 76 residents and others, was provided to the Star Tribune by a person who was there.
“We are human beings living and working here,” a resident said. “This is our home. I’m afraid this whole thing will collapse.”
The cracking and flooding comes at a critical time for the project. The Met Council said in January that the price tag of the light-rail line had increased by up to $550 million, to a maximum of $2.75 billion. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers at the State Capitol is close to approving legislation for an investigation by the state’s legislative auditor on how the line has been built and managed.
The condo towers, which were retrofitted for residential use in the 1980s, consist of two former grain silos built in the early part of the 20th century that are connected by a concrete bridge. The council has hired Socotec Engineering Inc. to investigate why cracking has occurred in hallways and common areas between the third and 10th floors.
Robert Vecchio, CEO of Socotec Engineering, told residents at the meeting that his team will assess the integrity of the CICA structure.
“Our goal is to figure out what the problem is and come up with solutions that are cost-effective and risk-based,” he said.
Vecchio assured residents that the concrete slabs that make up the towers’ floors and ceilings are “structurally adequate. … The performance is the same as they were when they were constructed.”
Over the past four decades, Vecchio has helped investigate many high-profile accident and disaster sites. They include the 1989 Exxon Valdez hull rupture, which caused millions of gallons of oil to spill into Alaska’s Prince William Sound; the 1993 World Trade Center bombing site in New York City; and the rescue and recovery efforts following the collapse of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
Closer to home, Vecchio said he investigated the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 on behalf of plaintiffs in a lawsuit. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
In an e-mail, Met Council spokeswoman Terri Dresen said officials don’t yet know how much Socotec’s work will cost, and confirmed that work on the half-mile long tunnel — which is only 19% complete — wasn’t done at the closest point to the condo towers when the cracking occurred. That’s unnerving news to some Cedar Isles residents.
“Continuing to live in the high-rise building without further construction is significantly and immeasurably risky,” wrote resident Maria Henly, in a recent letter to the Met Council and elected officials. “Continuing to live in the high-rise building with any additional construction activity is dangerous and insane.”
Henly requested that work on Southwest stop within 300 feet of the CICA property while the building is occupied, and for the council to purchase the condos at their value prior to construction. Either way, she wrote that she plans on moving out of her home of 11 years as soon as possible.
Several residents have asked whether some of the monitors installed at the Cedar Isles complex by the Southwest project were functioning prior to the cracking incident. In the e-mail, the Met Council’s Dresen said the monitoring system is “multifaceted” and includes ground monitoring to measure vertical and horizontal movement of soil, vibrations and groundwater levels, and meters to gauge the slope and slant of CICA structures.
Asked if the monitors were functioning, Dresen said Socotec’s investigation will include a “comprehensive review of the monitoring.”
Distrust of the project and its builders has run deep for years, and the condo association has spent thousands on its own attorneys and consultants.
“We were assured on multiple occasions we’ve never needed a Plan B, because Plan A would work,” said Cedar Isles resident Russ Palma during the meeting. “Now Plan B doesn’t work. What is Plan C?”
Other businesses and residents near the Kenilworth construction site, including the Cedar Lake Shores townhome community, have reported cracking and damages as well.
Steven Savitt of Golden Valley said a commercial warehouse and office building he owns on W. 28th Street was “significantly damaged” due to Southwest construction that occurred roughly 20 feet away. He’s sued the Met Council and the project’s general contractor, Lunda McCrossan Joint Venture, in Hennepin County District Court.
Savitt claims an insurance adjuster working for the council offered $128,615 to settle the dispute, but says his contractor estimated it will cost $526,694 to replace the building. The Met Council, which declined to comment on the litigation, has denied Savitt’s claims in court documents.