The Minneapolis City Council narrowly voted Thursday to demolish a warehouse on a former superfund site in south Minneapolis, angering neighborhood residents and activists who want to turn it into an urban farm and community hub.
Seven council members—Emily Koski, LaTrisha Vetaw, Michael Rainville, Lisa Goodman, Andrew Johnson, Linea Palmisano, and Andrea Jenkins—voted to move ahead with the demolition, which is estimated to cost $1.6 million. Six council members—Jamal Osman, Elliott Payne, Aisha Chughtai, Jason Chavez, Jeremiah Ellison, and Robin Wonsley—voted against the measure.
Dozens of residents from the East Phillips neighborhood and allies from the nonprofit East Phillips Neighborhood Institute flooded council chambers and loudly denounced the vote to demolish the vacant Sears warehouse in south Minneapolis. The city plans to expand its public works campus and water utility yard on the land located at E. 28th Street and Longfellow Avenue.
Nicole Perez, 45, moved to the diverse and historically polluted East Phillips neighborhood three years ago. When her 4-year-old granddaughter was diagnosed with asthma three months ago, Perez joined a years-long effort to convert the warehouse and land into an urban farm and community hub.
“You just said to my granddaughter that she doesn’t matter,” Perez yelled at City Council members after the vote.
The 7.5-acre parcel of land, known as the Roof Depot site, sits in what has been dubbed “the arsenic triangle,” a part of south Minneapolis contaminated by a long-defunct pesticide manufacturer. The site and surrounding neighborhood was declared a federal superfund site in 2007, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency removed 50,000 tons of contaminated soil in the area.
Supporters of the urban farm are concerned that the demolition of the building will release massive quantities of arsenic-laden particles into the air, further exacerbating higher levels of asthma and heart disease that the state has documented in the area. They’d hoped to purchase and use the structure for their project.
While supporters of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute left Thursday’s meeting disgusted and disappointed, the group did win concessions from the City Council. The council passed a unanimous update to a prior agreement with the group, giving the institute three acres at the site to build an urban farm free of charge. The council also committed to increasing the amount of green space in the neighborhood and to working towards phasing out industrial polluters in the area.
The neighborhood is among the most diverse in the state. Seventy percent of residents are people of color, and 30 percent were born outside the United States.
Council Member Chavez grew up in East Phillips and represents the area today. He grew emotional during Thursday’s meeting as he recalled a memory from his childhood: A letter in English arrived at his family’s home one day, but his Mexican immigrant parents couldn’t read it. Chavez told the City Council and attendees that the letter warned the family not to eat vegetables grown in their yard due to soil contamination.
Chavez and Council Member Johnson proposed a new memorandum of understanding with the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, which includes a city commitment to install a workforce training center at the site, and a commitment to reducing pollution in the area by prioritizing electric vehicles for the public works fleet that will be housed there. Johnson also committed to lobbying the state Legislature for funding to construct an urban farm on the three acres being allotted to the community group.
“Every step of the way we fought as hard as we could and we got what we could out of this council,” Chavez told Sahan Journal.
The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute has an active lawsuit against the city that is under deliberation. The group contends that since East Phillips has been designated as an environmental justice community in state legislation passed in 2008, the city of Minneapolis violated a Minnesota law by not producing a cumulative environmental impact statement documenting the effects of the project on air quality. Dean Dovolis, the institute’s president, said they expect a ruling on the case in February.
Chavez had unsuccessfully proposed delaying the council’s vote on approving the warehouse’s demolition until after a ruling in the case.
“There is still a lawsuit that my community wants an answer to, which is why I cannot support demolition,” Chavez said in the meeting.
Prior to the council’s vote, supporters of the urban farm crowded the hallway outside the council chambers Thursday morning, waving banners and banging drums. Many were restricted from entering the meeting due to crowding concerns. Those inside were vocal in their disappointment. They cried, “Hypocrisy!” as Council President Jenkins highlighted a resolution calling racism a public health crisis during a ceremonial recognition of Black History Month.
The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute has not agreed as a group to accept the city’s memorandum of understanding that was brokered Thursday, according to Joe Vital, an organizer with the institute. Vital and Dovolis negotiated the agreement with Chavez, Johnson, and public works officials. Their aim was to reduce as much harm to the neighborhood as possible, Vital said, and to get tangible concessions.
“It’s a small victory,” Vital said.
The group says it will continue to fight the demolition, which is tentatively scheduled for next month, in court.
“We’re not done yet,” Dovolis said.