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‘You think the house is blowing up’: What it’s like to live in a construction zone

Construction on I-35W is making life a noisy, shaking, flooded hell for residents on the corner of 18th Street and Fourth Avenue.

Construction on I-35W is making life a noisy, shaking, flooded hell for residents on the corner of 18th Street and Fourth Avenue. Dale Haley

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is promising life will be better for everyone after its massive project revamping I-35W is complete. For now, life on the corner of 18th Street and Fourth Avenue is a nightmare.

Once the noise barrier wall between the highway and 23-year resident Dale Haley’s building came down, Fourth Avenue became a shifting landscape of dirt and machinery. Massive piles of earth wander to and fro while a garden of rebar and steel beams rise painstakingly from the ground. The street sank into a gigantic pit, which becomes a muddy, swilling lake after heavy rains.

Haley walks out the front door to see a groaning, dirty mess. His yard is a graveyard of discarded work gloves and fluorescent orange or green jackets, “just thrown on the ground,” he says.

And oh, the noise. The beeping, grunting, pounding, thumping rabble of it all, continuing night and day. The project has the city’s permission to work 24 hours a day—all the better to get it over with as soon as possible.

“Everything is shaking pretty much all of the time,” fellow resident Bridget O’Kane says. Some corners are worse than others. The worst of them vibrate like tuning forks at all hours. Glassware rattles in cabinets. Framed pictures slowly wander across flat surfaces or become jauntily askew on their mounts.

There have been nights when resident Thomas Champ says he would lie awake from the shaking and the pounding. Some residents haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in months. Haley says he’s even been written up at work because the exhaustion has been making him sloppy.

“It’s to the point where you think the house is blowing up,” he says.

Then, on August 12, there was the water incident. It’s uncertain exactly what happened: MnDOT says either an exposed water main might have been hit by a car, or simply rattled to pieces. Whatever the cause, water started burbling up and rushing down 18th Street. It washed over the road, lept over curbs, drowned sidewalks and almost reached the buildings before someone called the fire department.

But the damage had already been done. The excess water had created a mighty reservoir in the Fourth Avenue pit, seeping into the roots of the nearby properties.

O’Kane compares what happened next to a scene from Titanic. The pit’s contents gushed through the walls and quickly turned the basement of the corner unit into a swimming pool, complete with cardboard boxes, bikes, and old furniture bobbing almost whimsically in up to 3 feet of brown water. From there the damage traveled from basement to basement, like champagne cascading over a tower of empty glasses.

The fire department stepped in again, shutting off the gas and making sure nobody was about to add “explosion” to the list of the day’s catastrophes. O’Kane’s gas is still off. The department managed to pump out all the water, but not before the residents took on thousands of dollars in property damage.

O’Kane and the other residents have submitted claims with the city of Minneapolis, but the turnaround time could take anywhere between three weeks and three months, according to Haley.

“It’s frustrating to have an entire floor of my house be unusable,” O’Kane says. “They clearly don’t care what they’re doing to our building.”

MnDOT spokesperson Dave Aeikens says, for the record, they do care, and they are sorry for the disturbance. The highway is 50 years old, and revitalizing it is a massive undertaking expected to last until the fall of 2021. Plus there are 11 bridges to build, old ramps to reconstruct and new ones to install, and miles of old pipes underfoot that need replacing, too, while they’re at it.

“There’s a lot to be done, and the folks that drive through it and the folks that live there would like to see it done,” he says. To make things easier, construction workers have instructions to cease all work except earth-moving after 11 p.m., but that’s only quiet compared to the concrete crushing permitted during the day.

Champ gets it, to a degree. MnDot, he says, has been pretty understanding—it’s just a tricky situation for everyone.

“We all want to get this project done, and you have to work pretty much around the clock to do that,” he says. MnDOT says the noise barrier should be back up in September, which will mitigate a lot of the construction woes for the neighborhood.

In the end, this is something they’ll all have to endure, for at least a little while longer.