The Minneapolis City Council voted to move forward with plans to expand its public works campus at the Roof Depot site in East Phillips. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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The Minneapolis City Council narrowly approved plans to build a new public works facility at the Roof Depot site in the East Phillips neighborhood. The measure, which comes after months of debate, attempts to strike a compromise by giving 3 acres of land to community groups that hope to develop an urban farm, housing, and a hub for local businesses. But some neighborhood activists say the compromise does them no good and that they intend to keep fighting for a community-led proposal. 

After a series of delays and counter proposals in committee, the City Council voted October 8 to approve the construction of a new water yard facility at the Roof Depot site in south Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood. The resolution, first moved by Councilmember Kevin Reich (Ward 1), swapped out a plan to create a community workforce training center on the site. Instead, that 3-acre allotment will go to community groups. How that land will be awarded to specific groups has yet to be determined. 

The nonprofit East Phillips Neighborhood Institute had proposed a community-owned urban farm, low-income housing, and business space at the site. In response to the City Council announcement, the group says their plan requires use of the Roof Depot building –and more than the 3 acres offered in the City Council resolution. The Roof Depot building is a 230,000 square-foot former Sears warehouse. 

“I don’t think this vote is going to be the end of this,” said Ward 9 Councilmember Alondra Cano, who represents the area and has supported the urban farm project. 

The vote on the project reflected an unusual coalition of councilmembers, with more progressive and moderate members allying on different sides of the issue. The vote to approve the measure passed 7–6. In voting against the measure, Cano was joined by Councilmembers Andrea Jenkins (Ward 8), Andrew Johnson (Ward 12), Cam Gordon (Ward 2), Jeremy Schroeder (Ward 11), and Linea Palmisano (Ward 13). 

Councilmembers Lisa Bender (Ward 10), Phillipe Cunningham (Ward 4), Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5), Steve Fletcher (Ward 3), Lisa Goodman (Ward 7), and Jamal Osman (Ward 6) voted with Reich to support the Hiawatha campus project. 

A do-over vote after November elections?

At a rally in front of City Hall on October 5, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute and its allies called on the City Council to grant them exclusive development rights to the site, and asked for a pause on the project. The group hopes that it can rally a majority of the City Council to its side following the municipal elections in November. 

The group believes the city needs to back up its declarations of racism as a public health crisis and its commitment to create Green Zones: designated areas with high levels of pollution and low-income populations of color. Granting the community a chance to create a positive space is critical, they say. 

“We should be moving forward in ways not seen before. The city needs to take risks,” said Joe Vital, a community organizer with the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute.

The East Phillips neighborhood is one of the most diverse and polluted areas of the city, according to Minneapolis sustainability director Kim Havey, who presented a racial equity impact analysis in September to the City Council. 

The neighborhood comprises 71 percent people of color and 30 percent foreign-born residents, both about double the city average. The census block near the project registers more particulate matter pollution than 90 percent of the metropolitan area.

“The data indicates that residents living in the neighborhood around the project site, which has a majority of BIPOC residents, experiences much higher levels of cumulative pollution than residents of majority white neighborhoods and the average metro area resident, leading to higher levels of asthma,” Havey said. 

Adding heavy truck traffic to a polluted neighborhood would make the situation there worse, Havey said.  

The area around the Roof Depot is known as the arsenic triangle: A previous plant, the CMC Heartland Partners Lite Yard, produced and stored arsenic-based pesticides on the site from 1938 to 1963. Construction workers discovered arsenic contamination there in 1994, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a superfund site from 2007 to 2017. Nearly 50,000 tons of contaminated solid were removed from neighborhood properties in that time. 

A $12.3 million investment toward a public works campus

The city’s present goal is to expand its current Hiawatha public works campus to consolidate water distribution and maintenance operations with sewer and fleet services. The area lies along Hiawatha Avenue (Highway 55) and can be seen from the Sabo bike and pedestrian bridge on the Midtown Greenway.  

A centrally located site will make services more efficient and responsive, the city believes. The city purchased the site in 2016 for $6.8 million, according to Hennepin County property records. About $12.3 million from the Minneapolis water fund has been spent on the project so far, according to city officials. 

Supporters of the new City Council compromise say the city has a responsibility to create a new water yard with the public money already invested there. 

Council President Lisa Bender (Ward 10) said the council should continue with the project to respect public works staff, follow requirements for water fund usage, and move forward with contaminated soil remediation at the site, which would provide an environmental benefit. 

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute is calling on Mayor Jacob Frey to veto the council decision and pause the project. He exited City Hall amid the October 5 rally without addressing activists. 

In the wake of the council vote, the Mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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...