Roxxanne O'Brien with Community Members for Environmental Justice speaks at a press conference announcing a lawsuit against the City of Minneapolis over the Upper Harbor development on October 28. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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A group of environmental justice activists are suing the City of Minneapolis over its recently approved plan to redevelop an industrial site on the North Side, citing inadequate environmental reviews and a flawed community engagement process. 

Community Members for Environmental Justice, a group of north Minneapolis climate activists, filed suit against the city October 28. Their suit asserts flaws in the redevelopment plan for the 48-acre Upper Harbor Terminal site, a former barge shipping hub along the Mississippi River. 

The suit contends the city failed to properly study the environmental impact of the project on the surrounding North Side neighborhoods.  The majority of residents in these areas are people of color and they experience disproportionately high levels of pollution. The legal filing demands a full accounting of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, pointing to statutory language in the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act.

At a Thursday press conference held in faintly drizzling rain in front of City Hall, Community Members for Environmental Justice also criticized the city’s public engagement policy. Speakers claimed that significant elements of the project were decided without public input. 

“They had no real intention of letting north Minneapolis residents drive this process,” Roxxanne O’Brien, an organizer with Community Members for Environmental Justice, said. 

Lawsuit follows a six-year planning process

The Upper Harbor Terminal redevelopment project emerged after six years of planning and public debate, and the discussion was often contentious over what to do with the city-owned former industrial site that stretches from 33rd to 39th Avenues North along the Mississippi River. Ultimately, the City Council approved a redevelopment plan on October 8 in a 12–1 vote. The project is estimated to cost about $350 million, and has received state bonding dollars, among other funding sources. 

The plan calls for a 20-acre park, affordable housing, a health center, and a 7,000- to 10,000-seat amphitheatre, that will be run by First Avenue nightclub. United Properties will develop the project, which includes unique elements that are intended to provide community benefits. For example, $3 from each concert ticket will be set aside to subsidize local businesses, fund community art, and support anti-displacement initiatives for neighborhood residents. The underlying land will remain owned by the city, while developers will pay leasing fees to construct buildings. 

The lawsuit was filed in coordination with lawyers from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that frequently challenges state and local governments in court over climate issues. 

The suit’s main complaints challenge the environmental review process the city conducted in accordance with the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act. The groups argue the city failed to consider a battery of issues: economic and environmental justice outcomes; cumulative effects on air quality from the project; long-term climate change impacts; and the socioeconomic repercussions of the redevelopment. 

The Upper Harbor site sits in the McKinley and Webber-Camden neighborhoods, which the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency defines as an “area of environmental justice concern.” The area is part of the Minneapolis North Side Green Zone, an area recognized for being overpolluted, economically disadvantaged, and demographically diverse. 

Evan Mulholland, an attorney with Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy who filed the suit, said the group believes those designations demand additional environmental review. 

“The City has a legal and moral responsibility to live up to its Green Zone promises,” O’Brien, the organizer, said. “We have a right to know how this redevelopment will benefit the health and wealth of our neighborhoods and our lives.” 

O’Brien and others with Community Members for Environmental Justice briefly participated in the city’s collaborative planning committee for the project. She acknowledged that the community got more input on the redevelopment than it has had on most projects, she felt “the table was already set,” by the city and developers.

The Minneapolis City Attorney’s office is still reviewing the lawsuit and had no immediate comment, according to a city spokesperson. 

Community Members for Environmental Justice filed the suit in Hennepin County District Court simultaneous with a related appeal in Minnesota State Court. That claim challenges whether the city acted properly when it approved an environmental review of the project. Mulholland said the organization filed the suit both ways to head off potential jurisdictional battles between the courts. 

The group is asking for a pause in the project while the legal process plays out. Construction is expected to begin next year and continue at the site for upward of 15 years.

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...