When the jack hammering started next to Marty's Second Hand Store, Gilbert Marty's basement saw sunlight for the first time.
"There's gaps at that end, a lot of debris falling. Tenants upstairs reported panes of window glass falling out," said his son, Todd Marty.
The decades-old secondhand-goods shop at 935 University Ave. W. is one of several businesses along the Central Corridor light rail line to claim that general contractor Walsh Construction caused cracks last year in basement foundations, holes in exterior stucco, broken windows and spaces around doorframes.
About a dozen other small businesses in and around the 900 block of University Avenue filed claims last year with the Metropolitan Council, which were forwarded to Chicago-based Walsh Construction, the general contractor on the new light rail line. And like Marty's, they have yet to see a penny for alleged damages.
On Wednesday, Todd Marty represented his father, who is in modest health, in Ramsey County's conciliation court. He was joined by Betty Charles, owner of the Shear Pleasure hair salon, which sits on the same block, and Bartholomew Nwaiwu, owner of Safety Care, Inc., a homecare firm that shares a wall with Marty's.
The three business owners are asking for $10,000 apiece — the maximum allowed under the law for small claims.
A spokeswoman for the Central Corridor office said she could not immediately comment but she would look into the claims. Walsh officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but in the past referred reporters to Central Corridor offices for comment.
Walsh Construction, which is based in Chicago, was the general contractor for about seven miles of the Central Corridor line in St. Paul. At a price tag of $957 million to construct, the 11-mile line will connect downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul in mid-2014, much of it along University Avenue.
Small business owners along the route have said that construction — which tore up sidewalks and made traffic access hairy — closed many shops for good, though in many cases new businesses have opened in their place. Business advocates say that Walsh, which is self-insured, has refused to pay for damages up and down the corridor unless ordered to by the courts.
"They messed up the whole internal system -- all cracks everywhere, including the basement," Nwaiwu said. He recalls getting a letter from Walsh rejecting his claims shortly after a visit from an engineer or claims adjuster, who took pictures. "Somebody came in there, and the next thing I got was a letter denying everything."
Attorneys familiar with the claims say the Metropolitan Council's contract with Walsh offers no other recourse for a small business but to sue one of the largest construction firms in the Midwest, a likely slow, daunting and expensive proposition.
One of the few that have taken the legal plunge is the owner of the Trend Lounge, a bar at 1537 W. University Ave., which took a claim against Walsh Construction to conciliation court. The bar owner later moved the case to Ramsey County District Court, where the dispute settled for $7,500 after months of legal wrangling.
"There was a lot of discovery, paper documentation back and forth," said Larry Peterson, an attorney who represented the Trend Bar. "And that's the big problem with this damage claim process. The Met Council, they didn't set up this property resolution process that we have to follow, but they acquiesced to it."
Travis Adams, an attorney and former legal intern with the University Avenue Betterment Association, recalled the Trend Bar dispute as a difficult one. "It took a long time," Adams said. Otherwise, "no business on record has received any reimbursement for property damage from Walsh, who is self-insured."
Adams is now offering some legal guidance to businesses along the 900 block who suspect they were impacted by jack hammering and light rail construction.