MPR: Not On My Street! (Part II)

Minnesota Public Radio wants the Central Corridor to reconsider its route – currently slated to roll down Cedar Avenue, a north-south street (more or less, like all Saint Paul streets) that runs the full length of the “Taj Ma Kling”, MPR’s immense, bleeding-edge studio complex filling the entire block from Seventh to Exchange in downtown Saint Paul.

The next two installments focus on engineering – indeed, two different extremes of engineering – and two different sides of downtown Saint Paul. Today focuses on the north end of downtown, and on acoustic engineering, one of the most subtle and nuanced engineering fields this side of biotech. Tomorrow, we’ll turn to civil engineering, the big, brawny, bricks-and-mortar variety on the opposite extreme (and the south side of the neighborhood).


MPR states its case for noise impact to its broadcast complex, located on Cedar between Seventh and Exchange Streets:

How would LRT affect MPR’s broadcast quality?MPR’s first responsibility is to our listeners and members. We provide programming to nearly 800,000 listeners on our regional network and nearly 16 million listeners nationally. We attract the best classical and popular musicians in the country to our recording studios.The LRT creates low frequency vibration, higher frequency noise from its horns and bells, electromagnetic interference, and radio frequency interference. Each of these can negatively affect the ability of our equipment to operate properly.

All of this is true; while people observing the Hiawatha light rail comment at how relativelly quiet it is, trains of any size do create low-frequency rumbling, the result of energy being transferred via tons of metal rolling over metal rails anchored in the ground; unless you specifically plan against it (at immense cost) this energy will get transmitted through the ground. Isolating a building from that kind of low-freqency sound is very difficult, and is something that needs to be done from the foundation on up; it’s not something that you can take care of by nailing extra carpeting over your walls.

And if sound is your business, that’s a serious problem:

Any inability to operate our radio and recording studios because of vibration or noise will significantly compromise our ability to provide high quality programming and other services to our listeners. As determined by our noise tests, our producers will not be able to do their work in the MPR building.

The part of me that grew up in AM radio (in a studio near a very heavy rail line, by the way) and is not an audiphile (indeed, who loves the nearly lost art of mixing music to sound good on tinny car speakers) says “sack up, MPR producers. It’s only radio”. And for much of their programming, that might be an adequate response.

But FM radio is a lot more technologically upmarket than the business I grew up in, and classical music – especially the production side – is an audiophile’s business.

But leave all of that aside for a moment – because whatever you think or believe about MPR’s audience demographics and politics, they were there first. MPR built the first leg of its studio – a veritable palace to my commercial-radio-trained sensibilities – almost thirty years ago. And again, whatever you think about the organization, they have made a huge investment not only in their “market”, but in the area.

Given the extremely close proximity of the train to our broadcast facility, the CCPO has been unable to provide a comparable example anywhere in the U.S. where mitigation has worked.

Imagine for a moment that a commercial recording studio – run, what the heck, by a scrappy Republican punk-rocker-at-heart like, say, yours truly – had worked and scrambled and saved and scrapped for years to build a state-of-the-art recording facility in a struggling downtown. Imagine that studio eschewed government handouts, and slowly, painstakingly built itself into a success…

…only to have the big, dumb jackboot of government, in the form of a misguided social-engineering project in the form of a useless, money-pit light rail project, dump an insurmountable handicap in its lap with its customary “like it or lump it” attitude.

How would you, the free-market conservative, respond?

Of course, Minnesota Public Radio is not that scrappy, underground Republican business. It’s taken all sorts of government handouts; to be fair and accurate, government subsidy is a relatively small part of MPR’s revenue stream (although not so small that MPR’s management doesn’t pull every political string it can to protect it from budget cutting at the state and federal levels). To be equally fair and accurate, MPR’s non-profit status gives it a leg up on its commercial competitors that is, in effect, a back-door subsidy that’d be called “corporate welfare” for any business that didn’t have “public” wedged into its name.

Still and all, MPR has been there forever, it has invested all sorts of money (theirs and ours) in their facilities, and it has, without a doubt, an immense technical, “business” and financial stake in making it possible to do business in their building.

It seems pretty clear-cut so far.

It won’t stay that way, of course. You might ask in response “But didn’t they know the light rail was coming through before they built the Taj Ma Kling?”, the eleventy-jillion dollar expansion they built between 2004 and 2006 that looms over Cedar like a Garrison Keillor temper tantrum?

Yes and no (with emphasis altered from the original and added by me):

MPR knew before it expanded that Cedar Street was the preferred route for the Central Corridor. Why didn’t MPR do more to address noise and vibration during its expansion from 2004–06? Final decisions about the route and location of the tracks were not unveiled until April 2008. In 2001 when MPR, with encouragement form the City of St Paul, chose to expand its facilities on Cedar, we were given no data (and none existed) illustrating the impact of noise and vibration. We designed the new north wing of MPR’s broadcast center to deal with every noise and vibration we could envision at the time. However, 16 of MPR’s 24 recording and broadcast studios are in the south wing, designed in 1979. MPR knew that Cedar Street was being considered for the route, but neither MPR nor the two churches knew how close the train would run to our buildings. LRT trains are proposed to be just 12 feet from the front of MPR’s St. Paul broadcast center.

This brings up any number of questions.

  • What Did MPR Know, And When Did They Know It: While the MPR press release is correct inasmuch as the general timeline, it’s been pretty common knowledge that the city has wanted something to rectify downtown’s biggest open sore. Cedar was once the heart of a bustling downtown. But “Urban Renewal” in the form of the mid-Fifties “Capitol City” master plan (while we’re on the subject of misguided, hamfisted government social engineering) gutted the area in the Fifties, turning Cedar in particular into a cold, ugly, windswept canyon that could scarcely divide and isolate Uppertown and Lowertown more effectively if it had barbed wire and guard dogs. Light Rail has long been seen as a means to fixing this; more on this tomorrow. MPR can hardly not have been aware of this rather key bit of urban planning.
  • 12 Feet?: How significant is the “12 foot” figure that the MPR release cites? Would an extra six feet help? That would presume, naturally, that there was room to move the train – which I suspect there is not. Saint Paul is an old downtown, laid out in the 1800s; its north-south streets are relatively narrow, by big city standards. Cedar is not an especially wide street. I’m going to presume the answer is “no” on that.
  • Mitigation?: Some say it’s possible to use technology to mitigate the vibration. MPR’s consultants say not so. As with so many questions in so many businesses, pick your consultant.

So how did we – MPR, the City, the Central Corridor Planning office, everyone – end up in this mess? Again – I’ve taken out MPR’s emphasis and added my own:

Why didn’t The Met Council consider the potential damage to MPR earlier? We don’t know. The Federal Transportation Administration guidelines clearly require special consideration for recording and broadcast studios, concert halls, theaters and other sound sensitive areas. The federal guidelines also state: “…before mitigation measures are considered, the project sponsor should first evaluate alternative locations/alignments to determine whether it is feasible to avoid severe impacts altogether.” The required study of the impact on recording studios and historic structures was never done.

Which is of a piece with the serial negligence that’s accompanied every step of this project; the Washington Avenue Bridge isn’t strong enough, the U of M can’t absorb a train running up Washington through the middle of its campus, traffic at University and Snelling will be snarled enough to make a Mumbai rush hour look like a Saturday afternoon in Fargo, and businesses up and down University will be gutted.

What’s another flubbed study among friends?

Tomorrow – more about MPR’s suggested changes.

UPDATE: Welcome, Politics in Minnesota and Save WCAL readers. Please check out part III of the series. Part IV follows on Monday.

14 thoughts on “MPR: Not On My Street! (Part II)

  1. I was in Bloomington last night, stopped at a stoplight when a light rail train blow by. Didn’t feel any vibrations. No tingely feeling up my leg.

  2. Whether you feel it sitting in your car (on its rubber tires) isn’t the issue. IT’s whether sensitive audio equipment feels it in a building a stone’s throw away.

    It’s plausible.

  3. There are train tracks on the other side of my backyard (probably 75′ and two floors away – I’m on the third floor). When some of the bigger ones rumble through, we definitely feel it up here. Everything shakes just a little bit.

  4. When I pass the light rail near the MoA, and the train is passing, my FM radio picks up noise from the passing train’s electrical systems. Don’t know whether it is the bar sliding on the caternary wire, or the wheel motors, but some radio frequency interference is caused by the train.

  5. but some radio frequency interference is caused by the train

    Maybe MPR could line their studios with tinfoil. It worked for their hats.

  6. This isn’t a real fight, it’s prep-work for a shakedown.

    When the government takes away the value of your property while doing public work, it is required to compensate you. But Minnesota taking law is weird. If the government doesn’t physically take any of your land but only vibrates it a little, I’m not sure how much you get paid, if anything (Mn/DOT can close off your highway access, strangling your gas station, and you get zippo).

    I view this as PR groundwork to poison the jury pool, or set up the legislators, for a favorable decision to buy out MPR’s building and pay them to relocate out of that space.

    Not a bad idea. There’s lots of room in the Great Northern Business Park just off Dale Street, which is either an HRA or a Port Authority boondoggle, I can’t remember which. Used to be contaminated, now it’s an industrial park. Relocate MPR to a toxic waste dump where it belongs!


  7. The University Avenue light rail plan is getting worse and worse! The logical action would be to postpone until after the St. Paul Ford Ranger plant closes in 2012 (?) and then run light rail from the Ford plant to the Union Depot. The High Bridge power plant is no longer coal burning so there will be no industrial rail after the Ford plant closes. It could cross the river at 27th Street or at the Ford Bridge.

  8. Pingback: A Modest Proposal for MPR | SaveWCAL

  9. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive » MPR: Not On My Street (Part III)

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