The Minneapolis City Council voted to back off plans to expand its public works facility at the Roof Depot in East Phillips, but opted against giving exclusive development rights to a group seeking to build an indoor farm and community hub. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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The Minneapolis City Council granted a partial win to community organizers in the diverse and heavily polluted East Phillips neighborhood on Wednesday by voting to move a planned expansion of its public works site away from the area. But, in a further vote that will likely generate some confusion and disappointment for green activists, the council declined to give exclusive development rights to a group pursuing an indoor urban farm and housing project on the site. 

A committee of the full city council voted 7–5 to go against its long-held plans to expand its Hiawatha public works campus on the Roof Depot site in south Minneapolis. This turnaround fulfilled the goal of community organizers and environmental-justice advocates who want to see the site used for community purposes. 

A  second provision, however, stalled: This would have awarded rights to the property to the nonprofit East Phillips Neighborhood Institute. A key abstention from Ward 5 Council Member Jeremiah Ellison led to a deadlock 6–6 vote, leaving an uncertain future for the site and community control. 

“It’s a win, but I don’t know the extent of it,” Joe Vital, an organizer with the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, told Sahan Journal. 

The city plan to expand the Hiawatha public works facility on the site of the old Roof Depot building at Longfellow Avenue and East 28th Street has become a battleground for the environmental-justice movement in Minneapolis. 

Organizers in East Phillips envision the former warehouse becoming an indoor urban farm, a space for local businesses, and a hub of affordable housing, topped with a community solar garden. 

The City of Minneapolis acquired the building in 2016 with plans to consolidate its water distribution and maintenance operations with sewer and fleet services. Having a centrally located site would make services more efficient and result in a net reduction in emissions from city trucks. The proposed $75 million project would include a jobs training center and a new parking garage. 

Now the status of both projects is unclear, as the city will have to find a new site to consolidate its water and sewer services. The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute will become just one group with the opportunity to buy the property and the building, at an undetermined cost. 

The city spent $6.8 million in 2016, Hennepin County property records show. About $12.3 million from a water fund has been spent on the project so far, including architectural fees, according to Minneapolis director of property services Barbara O’Brien 

A motion written by Council Members Alondra Cano (Ward 9), Cam Gordon (Ward 2), Andrea Jenkins (Ward 8), and Andrew Johnson (Ward 12) proposed to move the new facility to an undetermined site. Their motion also would have given development rights to East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, which would have had until September 2023 to repay the $12.3 million and develop a robust community engagement program for the site. 

Cano, who represents the area, called it an opportunity to stand up to historical injustices. 

Minneapolis has already spent more than $12 million on developing the public works campus. “This is what institutional racism looks like and this is how much it costs to fix that,” Council Member Alondra Cano said during the debate. 

“This is what institutional racism looks like and this is how much it costs to fix that,” Cano told her colleagues during debate. 

Other council members opposed, citing concerns about the city budget, the need for improved water services facilities, and a reluctance to put city staff through an extensive work process after so much planning had already occurred. 

Council President Lisa Bender (Ward 10) and Council Member Kevin Reich (Ward 1) proposed an alternative that would have given the community about 3 acres of the site by removing the jobs training facility. 

“The consequences to our public works staff are too strong to not find a compromise,” Bender said. 

That compromise motion ultimately failed. 

A diverse, polluted neighborhood

East Phillips is one of the most diverse—and polluted—neighborhoods in Minneapolis. More than 71 percent of its residents are people of color and 45 percent of households earn less than $35,000 per year, according to Minnesota Compass, a nonprofit data group. 

The project site is located in the so-called arsenic triangle, which used to be home to the CMC Heartland Partners Lite Yard. The facility produced and stored arsenic-based pesticides from 1938 to 1963. Construction crews discovered arsenic in the soil there when reconstructing Hiawatha Avenue in 1994. This discovery ultimately led to the federal Environmental Protection Agency declaring it a superfund site and a priority for cleanup in 2007. The federal review found unsafe arsenic levels in 600 neighborhood homes; by 2011, it had removed 50,000 tons of contaminated soil. 

The Minnesota Legislature approved a bill designating the area an environmental justice community in 2008, citing higher levels of asthma and other diseases affiliated with pollution. The law requires an impact screening by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for any facility seeking an emissions permit in the neighborhood. The site is also part of the Minneapolis Southside Green Zone: a place of pollution and disproportionate poverty where environmental improvements and community self-determination should be prioritized. 

Today the area hosts two industrial pollution sources: the Smith Foundry and an asphalt-mixing plant called Bituminous Roadways. It is bordered by major highways like Hiawatha Avenue (Highway 55) and Interstate 94. The Sabo bike and pedestrian bridge looks down on the site.

Local elected officials, including U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, State Senator Omar Fateh, State Senator Patricia Torres Ray, and State Representative Hodan Hassan, have voiced support for the urban farm project. 

Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley, who represents the area, urged the city council to relocate the Hiawatha expansion project and to grant exclusive development rights to the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute. She pledged to support putting county dollars toward the projects, in a letter to the council. 

“We need policies and urban development that directly address economic, environmental, and racial justice in our city,” Conley wrote.  

The motion that passed directs city staff to come back on September 9 with a report on upkeep and maintenance costs for the existing Roof Depot building. City staff will also be required to conduct a racial equity impact analysis for any project that may ultimately land on the site.

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...