Trials of Central Corridor construction continue in St. Paul

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One day soon, the Twin Cities is going to get a shiny new light rail that travels all the way from Target Field in Minneapolis to Union Depot in Saint Paul, that brings with it a new vibrancy and commerce and connects the two cities in a way that’s never been done before. For many neighbors and businesses along the construction route, the road to completion is rough, pot-holed and potentially a dead end. Many in the Frogtown neighborhood are voicing grievances aimed at Walsh construction and the Met Council, including trucks using residential streets, in violation of their contract, and widespread miscommunication and failure to respond to complaints. 

Nathan Schrecengost, who lives on the Charles Avenue (two blocks North of Univerity) just east of Lexington, said he’s been frustrated because Walsh Construction subcontractors have been driving on his street, even though he was told they weren’t supposed to do that. “There’s tons of kids on our block,” he said. “One of these days, a truck is going to hit a kid, is that what it is going to take?”

Salvador Santibanez, his neighbor, says they work late into the night.

A woman named Erin, who asked that her last name not be used, said that the problem has gone all summer. Even when neighbors call the hotline number, problems don’t get solved. “I can’t tell you how frustrating this is,” she said.

See neighbors’ complaints on E-Democracy at E-DEMOCRACY | WALSH CONSTRUCTION & the CITY OF ST PAUL: the DEMOLITION OF FROGTOWN-Time to Put Our Foot Down!

Things came to a head on Friday, August 3. Tait Danielson Castillo, executive director of the District 7 Planning Council, was in the neighborhood talking to some residents when he noticed a dump truck driving on Charles. He followed the truck to the construction site, parking his vehicle in the entryway on Avon, until a subcontractor approached him. The subcontractor said to Castillo, “What’s your problem?” before the foreman came up and told the subcontractor to back away. The foreman told Castillo that none of the workers had any idea that they weren’t supposed to drive on Charles. Later, the subcontractor whom Castillo originally spoke to started taking pictures of Castillo’s car. When Castillo asked him what he was doing, he responded, “You’ll see,” according to Castillo. 

Standing: Mayor Chris Coleman; Seated, l to r” Janice Rettman, Shoua Lee, Toni Carter

Small Business Owner Concerns

On August 6, Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, City Council member Melvin Carter III, Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, and other public officials went on a walking tour to hear from business owners about some of their concerns. The tour was led by the Asian Economic Development Association, and revealed business owners who are struggling and frustrated with a host of construction-caused issues — from customers not being able to navigate through the detours, to parking issues, mitigation funds that don’t cover the loss of business, and property taxes they feel are too high. 

The August 6 walking tour highlighted some of the concerns of businesses along University Avenue. According to Nancy Pomplun, director of community builidng and organizing for AEDA, the walking tour was held in order to allow business owners to speak about how construction is affecting businesses, and what will allow them to thrive.

Owners of 88 Oriental

The first stop on the tour was 88 Oriental, an Asian grocery store, where Vanh Ratsamy and her son and daughter Christopher and Tiffany spoke about some of their concerns. According to Christopher, the $20,000 loan available to University Avenue businesses isn’t enough to recoup their losses they have suffered. Their taxes equal $14,000 a year, he said, and they’ve been losing about 60-70 percent of their business.

Christopher Ratsamy also said a problem was that all the construction signs are in English, which is confusing for their customers who don’t speak the language. “The only way people found out to come here is by word of mouth,” he said.  

Even with the signs, getting to the business from the other side of University is precarious, he said, with only a one-lane road that only one car can pass through. Christopher said that customers have been calling the store with complaints that they have damages to their cars due to the condition of the street. 

Tiffany Ratsamy said, “The way they place the road closed signs is confusing.  People coming from refugee camps are afraid to get a ticket.”

The family said the construction workers are not helpful either, as many of them don’t know when the roads will reopen. 

City Council member Melvin Carter III asked the family how communication had been, to which Nancy Pomplun responded than some businesses don’t know the schedule. 

“They leave it open one day, and the next day they close it!” Vanh Raatsamy said. The family asserted they needed signs in their customers’ language, and they need better communication about how long construction is going to take.

As the walking tour continued down University Avenue to the next location, Vaughn Larry of Aurora St. Anthony NDC pointed out a construction vehicle that was parked in a driveway, blocking the sidewalk, so the people going on the tour had to walk around it. “That’s not the first time,” he said. “They say — ‘Oh, we’ll change. We’ll do this, we’ll do that’ — but they don’t.” He also said there was no crossover on Western, so people wanting to cross the street have to walk several blocks. “Old people don’t want to walk that far,” he said. 

The next stop on the tour was the Spine Center, where Dr. Michael Mai, D.C., practices chiropractic.  The Spine Center opened nearly four years ago, and Mai’s most expensive piece of equipment is an MRI machine. The construction has caused vibrations, so Mai bought a shock absorber, which had not arrived yet, which cost over $20,000. He will have to test it out to see if it will be an effective solution, but then another worry is whether the new electrical lines will interfere with the MRI machine’s electromagnetic fields. If there is interference, Mai will have to move, but moving the machine costs upward of $100,000. Mai said he also needs to know what the schedules will be for the train, to know if he will be able to use the machine in between the times it will pass. If it runs on 30-minute intervals, he will be able to use the machine in between. (An MRI takes about 20 minutes).

Le and Bob Phan

Then the tour went to Le’s Auto Tech, owned by Le Phan, who was there with his son, Bob, the manager. They complained about property taxes, and traffic. “We’ve talked to the county [about property taxes] and they say that’s the way it is,” Bob said. Le’s Auto tech has lost 30 percent of their business. The business has four employees- and they haven’t had to lay anybody off, although hours have been shortened. They were also concerned about new meters that they’ve heard will be installed outside, which they don’t want, as their employees generally park outside, and don’t want to have to pay for parking every day. Le and Bob were also concerned because the alley behind their shop doesn’t go all the way through, because 20 years ago the city sold the property at the end of the block to a private owner on the corner. Finally, the owners say the fire hydrant near the driveway needed to be moved, as customers were constantly hitting it.

Commissioner Toni Carter told the Phans to call her office. She said that on an individual basis, payment plans can be arranged and in some cases an new assessment can cause the property taxes to be reduced.

Kunrath Lam, Toni Carter, Melvin Carter III

The tour then went to Cheng Heng restaurant, where Kunrath Lam said she’s lost 30 percent of her business. Like Le’s Auto Tech, the alley is blocked, and she doesn’t believe $20,000 will cover her loss of business.  “It’s very hard,” she says. “It’s not easy. We are a small family owned business.” During construction, travel time has cut into people’s lunch hour, so they are less likely to come to the restaurant. Lam also said there has been an increase in crime, with prostitution regularly happening in the alley.  She doesn’t call the police, she says, because she’s worried the culprits will throw a stone at her window.

The last stop on the tour was Tho Hem’s Cambodian Video Store. Recently, the vibration from construction caused a television to fall from the shelf and break a glass case. She didn’t know about the hotline, at first. But eventually when the Met Council came to examine it, they said there was no evidence the construction had caused it, according to Nancy Pomplun. 

After the tour completed, officials met at Thai Café for lunch, where Jerry Ritter said he’s been on the avenue since 1983. Ritter takes the long view, that the LRT “is going to be good for the city and the community,” he said. But in the meantime, businesses are hurting, and are concerned about property taxes, as well as increased crime. He has hopes for facade improvement investments by the city, where projects such as murals can help bring vibrancy to the area. 

Many of the business owners and residents talked about a lack of communication.  They weren’t notified about changes in construction, or, there weren’t translators who could speak their language (Vietnamese, for example, or Cambodian).

Pomplun says part of the problem is understaffing. “Walsh has one person for the entire stretch of construction — that’s eight miles,” she said. “That’s way too much for one person.”  Pomplun also said that it’s a problem that the Met Council doesn’t have all the major languages spoken in their office. “We have a lot of Vietnamese businesses,” she said. “They don’t have the capacity to reach out to Vietnamese businesses.” 

Who’s to Blame?

On August 8, a group of residents met at a Walsh Construction meeting at 1080 University Avenue voiced concerns about construction trucks driving on residential streets, which they are contractually obligated not to do. 

Kevin Ryan, manager of construction services for Central Corridor Light Rail Transit, said the Met Council is “One hundred percent behind having no trucks on Charles,” but said people he’s spoken to from Walsh Construction say there is no way to do the work without going through residential areas. He also said the trucks were not doing anything illegal, although they were violating their contract. He said police told him there was nothing they could do unless construction workers were speeding, running stop signs or violating other traffic laws.

Castillo asked Ryan, “What does the Met Council plan to do for contract breach? Is there a penalty?”

Ryan responded that there was nothing blatant in the contract that would call for a penalty. He also said that it was difficult to enforce the contract because many of the workers were subcontractors. “It’s very difficult with these truckers,” he said. “They’re independent business men.” 

Don Henry, a manager for Walsh Construction, said that he’s fired two workers who had been posing problems. He said he was planning to meet with his subcontractors, and continue to discipline them for breaching the contract. He said the problem with some of the contractors, such as the ones from the quarries, is that they get paid by the load, rather than by the hour, so they are in a hurry and that is why they take the side streets. 

As to Castillo’s description of his encounter with the foreman who said they were unaware they weren’t supposed to drive on Charles, Henry said “That’s a bunch of crap.”  

Met Council Member Jon Commers said he was concerned about the reports he was hearing about Charles Avenue. “The council has not authorized the use of Charles Avenue for transportation of equipment or other truck traffic,” he said. However, he could not say what was going to be done to resolve the issue. “What happens next is a little unclear,” he said. “We’re focused on finding a solution.” 

At the August 8 meeting, when neighbors asked how residents would be notified about the outcome of the meeting, Shoua Lee, Acting Manager of Public Involvement for the Central Corridor said she wasn’t sure that Met Council had the resources to flyer the neighborhood. Castillo said he would notify residents that he knew so they could post it on their Facebook group, but said that he couldn’t flyer the neighborhood himself, especially since Met Council should be responsible for doing that.

But Met Council member Jon Commers said a lack of communication is not something that he heard people were concerned about. “I’ve had a couple people say favorable things,” he said. I don’t know what trends are in terms of the hotline- it’s been pretty well used.”

Still,  Commers said, “if residents feel like they are putting their best foot forward, not feeling like they are heard, that’s a problem. But I don’t think that’s been the trend. The engagement folks have been on the ground — that’s exactly the role they’ve been playing.”

“It’s a dynamic dialogue,” he said. “The council has really tried to do what they can to be a really effective partner.”

Based on the stories that neighbors and businesses told, they don’t agree.


Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.