City Council reconsiders Roof Depot plan in East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis
The Minneapolis City Council will vote Thursday on whether to put a highly controversial construction project in the East Phillips neighborhood on hold.
The city wants to use the old Roof Depot site near E. 28th St. and Longfellow Avenue to expand its waterworks facility, but neighborhood and environmental groups opposing the plan want to use it for a mixed-use complex that would include an urban farm, affordable housing and a job training site.
Debate over the current proposals highlights tensions between the city, which has pledged to make environmental improvements in the area, and activists, who want the city to keep its promises.
The previous city council approved a compromised project in October that included both the water park and three acres set aside for community groups, but new city council member Jason Chavez proposed in February that council vote to put the project on hold.
“Fundamentally, this is a project that residents of the Ninth Ward — and the entire city — have long opposed,” Chavez said. “It would create more pollution in East Phillips. So the first step is to pause or suspend the unwelcome expansion project in the service. After that, the next steps for city farm, housing, fresh food and employment can be taken. But for now, we are focusing on its suspension.
The suspension of the project would mean that another vote would take place to determine whether to award the project to the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI), the non-profit organization that leads the urban farm project. And this group should find 14 million dollars to pay the city the money it has already invested in the project. Minneapolis purchased the Roof Depot site in 2016. Support among city council members appears to be mixed, according to Chavez, but a majority appears to be leaning toward stopping the city’s expansion.
The sought-after land is in a city-designated South Side Green Zone, an area disproportionately affected by environmental issues in which the city says it will focus on improving health and environmental awareness. It is also contaminated with arsenic from a factory that produced arsenic pesticides between 1938 and 1963. Neighborhood groups and environmental activists say the designation means the city must pay special attention to the planning for the next use of the land.
Additional diesel trucks, traffic and parking would likely contribute to increased air pollution in the area, although it is unclear to what extent a water facility would negatively impact the local environment.
A green zone designation should ensure that there is a higher threshold for land use, said Jay Eidsness, attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
“It’s not necessarily the volume of pollution that we find troubling,” Eidsness said. “What worries us is that the city doesn’t seem to care about environmental justice. Just because it’s not that bad doesn’t make it OK.
By designating the area as a green zone, the city recognized historic decisions that resulted in disproportionate environmental impacts in some neighborhoods, Eidsness said. About 70% of the neighborhood’s residents identify as people of color and about 30% were foreign-born; both figures are about double the city average. East Phillips also has more particulate pollution than 90% of the metropolitan area, according to a racial impact analysis presented to city council in September by Minneapolis Sustainability Director Kim Havey.
But there appears to be a lack of political will to change the situation, Eidsness said.
“It’s a classic environmental justice issue in East Phillips, and it doesn’t seem like the city really wants to do anything about it,” he said.
Proponents of the mixed-use urban farm project believe their plan would protect the community from possible exposure to arsenic, since it plans to renovate, not demolish, the current building. Disturbing the ground through demolition could release arsenic trapped underground into the air, they say. The plan would also implement solar power and add green space to the area.
“We would turn the outdoor parking lot into a garden and green the space,” said Joe Vital, an EPNI community organizer. “Roof Depot could be a model for how we go through this green transition that we hope to experience, and a model for renewing neighborhoods after they have been demarcated and exploited by historic racist politics. The city has declared racism a public health crisis. They have declared all these things, including the green zone policy, and I hope they will maintain what they say they are doing.