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The Minneapolis City Council voted Thursday morning to pause a much-debated construction project in the East Phillips neighborhood.
The city wanted to use the former Roof Depot site near E. 28th St. and Longfellow Avenue to expand its water distribution facility, but neighborhood and environmental groups opposed the plan. In an 8-5 vote, City Council members decided to suspend the project and consider alternative proposals. The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) will have until June to present the council a new plan. The group has been touting a multi-use complex that would include an urban farm, affordable housing, and a job training site.
Council members Elliott Payne, Robin Wonsley Worlobah, Jason Chavez, Aisha Chughtai, Emily Koski, Jeremiah Ellison, Andrea Jenkins, and Andrew Johnson voted to pause the project. Council members LaTrisha Vetaw, Linea Palmisano, Lisa Goodman, Jamal Osman, and Michael Rainville voted against it.
The debate has showcased the tensions between the city, which has pledged to make environmental improvements in the area, and activists, who want the city to make good on its promises.
The previous City Council approved a compromised project in October that included both the water yard and three acres set aside for community groups, but incoming Council Member Chavez proposed in February that the Council vote to suspend the project. Before Thursday’s vote, Chavez and environmental and community activists spoke to Sahan Journal about their concerns with the initial plans for the site.
“Basically it’s a project that people of the Ninth Ward – and across the city – have been opposed to for a long time,” Chavez said. “It would create more pollution in East Phillips. So the first step is to pause or suspend the expansion project that isn’t welcome in the ward. After that, next steps for an urban farm, housing, fresh food and employment can be taken.”
Suspending the project means that another vote will be held to determine whether to award the project to EPNI, the nonprofit leading the urban farm project. And, that group will likely have to find $14 million to pay the city for the money it has already invested in the project. Minneapolis purchased the Roof Depot site in 2016.
The sought-after plot of land sits in a city-designated Southside Green Zone, an area disproportionately affected by environmental problems that the city says it will focus on improving health and environmental consciousness in. It is also contaminated with arsenic from a plant that produced arsenic-based pesticides there between 1938 and 1963. Neighborhood groups and environmental activists say that designation means the city needs to take special consideration in planning how the land should be used next.
Additional diesel trucks, traffic and a parking lot would likely contribute to increased air pollution in the area, although it’s unclear exactly how much a water facility would negatively impact the local environment.
A Green Zone designation should ensure that there is a higher threshold for how land is used, said Jay Eidsness, a staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
“It’s not necessarily the volume of pollution we find troubling,” Eidsness said. “What we find troubling is that the city doesn’t seem to be concerned with environmental justice. Just because it might not be THAT bad doesn’t make it OK.”
By designating the area a Green Zone, the city has recognized historical decisions that resulted in disproportionate environmental impacts in certain neighborhoods, Eidsness said. About 70 percent of the neighborhood’s residents identify as people of color, and about 30 percent are foreign-born; both numbers are about twice that of the city’s average. East Phillips also has more pollution from particulate matter than 90 percent of the metropolitan area, according to a racial impact analysis presented to the City Council in September by Minneapolis sustainability director Kim Havey.
But there seems to be a lack of political will to change the situation, Eidsness said before Thursday’s vote.
“It’s a classic environmental justice problem in East Phillips, and it doesn’t seem like the city really wants to do anything about it,” he said.