East Phillips Urban Farm shows the City of Minneapolis’ disregard for its promises to stop systemic racism

Originally published on Healing Minnesota Stories

Roof Depot site.

East Phillips community leaders have a dream: To increase the livability of their notoriously polluted neighborhood. And they have a plan:  Renovate the former Roof Depot and Sears warehouse site into a community-owned multi-use resource. It would include an indoor Urban Farm – producing healthy foods in what is now a food desert –  space for small business, jobs training programs, low-income housing, and a large solar array.

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.)

Site map of city Public Works yard and the Roof Depot site. Image: City of Minneapolis.

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).”

City’s initial plan to expand its Public Works yard on Hiawatha, along with the Roof Depot site.

“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.”

Broken promises

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.”

It’s not just a fight about land and a building, it’s about public health.


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.]

Community organizer Joe Vital (with mic) and Dean Dovolis (right) at a City Hall event advocating the Urban Farm.

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.

Pollution “mitigation” is not environmental justice.

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.

The city acknowledged it should have done a better job discussing how the project fit with “environmental justice and Green Zone issues.” 

The city agreed with critics that East Phillips residents, “primarily BIPOC, have been disproportionately affected and are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of pollution,” and live in an “environmental justice area.”

But the city still failed to explain how it believed the project met city equity promises.

While preparing the assessment, the city said, it “elected to focus on identification and mitigation efforts.”

That’s city jargon. “Mitigation” is a code word for “Sorry, you’re getting more pollution in your neighborhood but we’ll try to keep it to a minimum.”

Mitigation is not environmental justice.

The city acts as though mitigating pollution is doing the neighborhood a favor. In reality, it’s asking the neighborhood to make a sacrifice.

Unknown health impacts

The city’s 1,087-page environmental analysis doesn’t use the words “asthma” or  “hospitalization” once. It provides a technical chart showing the increase in pollutants, without interpretation.

Put another way:

  • Total Hazardous Air Pollutants from the Public Works Yard will increase 15 percent under the city’s plan
  • Total small particle pollution (under 2.5 microns), which has more harmful health impacts, will increase 18 percent
  • Carbon Monoxide pollution will increase 19 percent
  • Nitrogen Oxide pollution will increase 21 percent
  • Volatile Organic Compound pollution will increase 22 percent
  • Sulfur Dioxide pollution will increase 33 percent

The city defends itself by saying that the added pollution isn’t enough to require a state air quality permit.

Its thinking seems to be: “If we don’t need a permit for this one project, how bad can it be?”

It ignores the fact that this project is piling pollution onto a neighborhood already overburdened with it.

Residents had little influence

The city’s Racial Equity Impact Analysis defines five levels of community engagement: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower. The city only used the first two with East Phillips’ residents: inform and consult.

In the information-gathering phase, East Phillips residents told city staff they wanted “agency in the planning and decision-making for the site, rather than feeling like something was being done to them.”

They also worried about the project’s increased traffic and traffic-related pollution. They asked for: A vision to deindustrialize the neighborhood; access to healthy food, gardens, and cultivation; and a development that was a community destination.

The disregard the city showed East Phillips residents wouldn’t have happened in a more white and affluent neighborhood.

A suppressed report

An unpublished Public Works report, leaked to the public, analyzed an alternative proposal: Rebuilding and expanding the Water Works yard at its current site in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood instead of moving it to Hiawatha Avenue..

That plan was consistent with the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood’s Master Plan, the report said. It would preserve historic buildings. It would be less expensive.

It also avoided the health risks of expanding the city’s Hiawatha yard, which the report called “problematic.”

Demolition and site clearing of the Roof Depot buildings “will result in unassessed risk from legacy contamination, unaccounted costs, and increased exposure to the neighborhood from dust and from truck traffic hauling hazardous waste to landfills and will require dust mitigation,” it said.

Public Works issued a statement downplaying the leaked report, saying it was no more than “an informal, internally drafted report for contingency planning purposes only.”

However, it didn’t say the report’s conclusions were wrong.

PR spin

While the city is didn’t consider the project’s cumulative health impacts on East Phillips, it tried to make the project sound virtuous. These include:

  • Greenwashing: The city touted plans for “green site development and construction practices.” (It’s a stretch making parking structures and diesel fueling stations sound green, especially compared to what the Urban Farm proposal would add to the neighborhood.)
  • Vague jobs promises: The project would create jobs for “surrounding neighborhoods with historically higher unemployment rates,” the city said. (It’s unclear how many new jobs would be created and how many are being moved from one site to another. The city offers no neighborhood job commitment.)

Demolition could start soon

EPNI spent years trying to find a mutually acceptable compromise, but could bargain away the community’s fundamental health and well-being only so far. 

Dovolis said the city would likely start demolishing the warehouse buildings in October. EPNI plans to seek a court injunction to block it. 

“If this [Public Works] project is allowed to commence, it will cause irreparable harm to the East Phillips Community and residents’ health,” the EPNI lawsuit said.

EPNI’s Call for Action

The East Phillips Urban Farm is a visionary model. EPNI is asking for community support fpr a livable and healthy East Phillips community. 

Ways to help:

  • Donate to help with the legal expense of taking the city to court. 
  • Tell your city councilperson and the mayor to support EPNI’s vision for the Roof Depot site. Contact your state representatives too.)
  • Subscribe to updates on their work
  • Spread the word among your friends, neighborhood, and organizations – this is a tangible and essential way to support safe, livable and healthy communities for all.