Six years ago, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) was negotiating to buy the Roof Depot site, but the city of Minneapolis intervened and bought the property. The city wants the land to consolidate its Water Works Maintenance Facility, currently in Southeast Minneapolis, with Public Works operations already on Hiawatha Avenue next to the Roof Depot site.
The city is blocking what would be a community asset and replacing it with a project that harms neighborhood livability.
The city is breaking multiple promises it's made, and policies it's passed, to address the kinds of racial injustice that exist in East Phillips.
(Healing Minnesota Stories submitted an interview request Tuesday afternoon, seeking comment from the Minneapolis Public Works Department. City officials haven’t responded yet. We will run an update when they do.)
A neighborhood beset by pollution
East Phillips is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, with 30 percent of residents living below poverty. Residents are disproportionately BIPOC: 40 percent are Hispanic/Latino; 23 percent Black; 20 percent white; and 10 percent Native American. East Phillips includes Little Earth, a 212-unit federally subsidized housing complex with preference given to Native American renters.
East Phillips already is one of the city’s most polluted neighborhoods. The nearby Smith Foundry and Bituminous Roadways – and the heavy traffic on Hiawatha Avenue – add to the air pollution.
As a result, residents living near the Roof Depot site “experience much higher levels of cumulative pollution than residents from majority white city neighborhoods … leading to [higher] levels of asthma and hospitalization for children and adults living in the surrounding neighborhoods,” according to the city’s Aug. 6, 2021 Racial Equity Impact Analysis.
In addition, a five-acre area around 28th and Hiawatha was a Superfund site, known as the “arsenic triangle.”
From 1938 to 1963, CMC Heartland Partners used the site to produce and store arsenic-based pesticides. In 1994, workers found high arsenic contamination in the soil and groundwater during Hiawatha Avenue’s reconstruction.
Cleanup took place in 2005, but the Roof Depot building still “sits atop an arsenic plume, and its continued presence helps keep the arsenic in the ground,” according to a MinnPost Community Voices column.
Residents are worried that if the city demolishes the buildings and starts other construction, it could again release arsenic into the neighborhood.
More pollution for East Phillips
Public Works’ Hiawatha yard expansion plans include building a three-story parking garage. Overall, the plan would expand the yard’s current 350 outdoor surface parking spaces to 888 parking spaces.
Peak morning traffic, currently 165 vehicle trips, would increase to 365 trips. At full occupancy, the new facility would have 1,800 vehicle trips daily, “including City fleet vehicles (674), heavy fleet vehicles (202) and employee vehicles (924).”
“We are getting a big truck stop,” EPNI Board President Dean Dovolis said. “A big Flying J’s Truck stop except that it’s owned by the city. That’s the last thing we need.”
Former state Rep. Karen Clark, an EPNI Board member, said: “Over and over, we have made it clear: It’s not just a fight about land and a building, it’s about public health.”
City officials know expanding the Hiawatha Public Works yard in East Phillips is going against the city’s stated values. By moving forward with it, the city is embracing the kind of project it pretends to reject.
The Public Works expansion violates the City of Minneapolis’ mission statement, which reads: “Our City government takes strategic action to address climate change, dismantle institutional injustice and close disparities in health, housing, public safety and economic opportunities. In partnership with residents, City leaders help to ensure all communities thrive in a safe and healthy city.”
The Urban Farm proposal would meet the city’s mission statement. The Public Works expansion does not.
The Public Works expansion violates the spirit of the city’s Green Zone initiative: In April, 2020, the city created the Southside Green Zone. It has an advisory board of residents from neighborhoods — including East Phillips — that face “the combined impacts of environmental pollution and racial, political, and economic marginalization,” the city website says. “The Green Zone initiative is a resident and city collaboration to support community health, economic development, and the environment.”
Clark, who also sits on the South Side Green Zone Advisory Board, said the city wasn’t interested in the Board’s advice on the Roof Depot site, or at least “they didn’t enact anything we asked.”
The Public Works expansion violates the spirit of the City Council resolution declaring racism “a public health emergency.” The Council’s July, 2020 resolution said the City would “recognize the severe impact of racism on the well-being of residents and city overall and allocate funding, staff, and additional resources to actively engage in racial equity in order to name, reverse, and repair the harm done to BIPOC in this City.”
The city proposal worsens the public health emergency for East Phillips’ BIPOC residents.
The Public Works plan violates the spirit of the City Council’s Truth and Reconciliation resolution. In October 2020, the city began a “Truth and Reconciliation” process. The goal is “to name and address the harms that have perpetuated racial disparities by implementing specific solutions with a prioritized focus on healing with historically Black/American Descendants of Slavery and American Indian/Indigenous communities, recognizing that the issues of anti-Blackness and Native sovereignty continue to perpetrate harm against all groups.”
How is putting a new pollution source in the neighborhood, near Little Earth, “reconciliation”?
[Update: Received a brief update from the city. I asked how the city justifies the Public Works project, “which seems to conflict with the spirit of the South Side Green Zone, the city’s resolution declaring racism a public health emergency, and the city’s commitment to Truth and Reconciliation”?
I received a one-sentence answer: “The project web page outlines the need and benefits associated with the Hiawatha Campus Expansion Project.”
Comment: The project web page says the project will create “a new green buffer between operations and the neighborhood.” It’s silent on how the Public Works expansion at Hiawatha aligns with the city’s equity promises and policies. It appears the city doesn’t have a credible answer.]
A flawed environmental review
The city patted itself on the back for voluntarily doing an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) on the Public Work proposal, even though it wasn’t legally required to do so. (The EAW determines whether the project requires a more detailed environmental impact statement (EIS).)
The city had a vested interest in the outcome. City staff wrote the EAW. It concluded the project didn’t need an EIS. The City Council agreed.
EPNI, with Board member Cassandra Holmes, turned to the courts. They are suing the city of Minneapolis, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), and the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB). (Holmes is a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe and lives in Little Earth.)
The lawsuit argues Minneapolis can’t do an impartial environmental analysis of its own project. It asked the EQB to assign a different unit of government to do the environmental assessment. The EQB denied the request. The lawsuit is trying to force an independent review.
During the public comment period on the EAW, people criticized it for its failure to address the project’s environmental racism and its cumulative health impact on the neighborhood.
The city released a 59-page Finding of Fact and Record of Decision, including its responses to public criticism.