Knowing she was about to lose a vote on a controversial city development, Minneapolis City Council Member Alondra Cano warned her colleagues of "very severe" consequences for approving the new Public Works water yard at the defunct Roof Depot warehouse.
Cano was more direct during an impromptu rally of East Phillips environmental activists last month, saying she would join them in civil disobedience to stop a project that would increase traffic and carbon emissions in their neighborhood.
"They're going to try to demolish the building immediately," said Cano, a former community organizer who's stepping down from the City Council this year. "I don't know what I can do besides put my body out there with yours if that's what it comes down to."
In recent months activists had persuaded half of the council to reject water yard plans, which the same body had once unanimously approved. They hoped the council would adopt a community-developed proposal to build an urban farm instead, but fell just short when the council voted Friday 7-6 to approve the project.
Friday's vote renewed plans to construct a new campus at the Roof Depot site for the storage of vehicles and equipment that water distribution workers use in their maintenance of the city's 1,000 miles of water mains. The existing water yard at 935 5th Av. SE. is dilapidated and has been in need of replacement for a decade. A new water distribution maintenance facility will benefit city staff, residents and seven suburbs that rely on Minneapolis to deliver 57 million gallons of drinking water from the Mississippi River each day.
But the project will come at a cost to one low-income, minority neighborhood that is already choked with heavy industry. City Sustainability Director Kim Havey told council members before their vote that the new water yard will further degrade the air quality of East Phillips by increasing emissions from city trucks.
"We would have some positives, but from a health and emissions situation, we would add to their high impact from those emissions that are existing already," he said.
The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI), a community group, has spent years trying to wrest Roof Depot from the city so that it can build an urban farm with aquaponics, affordable housing and retail instead. Without control of the site, however, EPNI has not been able to create detailed development and finance plans.
The deal approved Friday sets aside 3 acres of the 7.5-acre Roof Depot site for community-led development. That plan would erase a Public Works job training center from the city's schematic design, which had been initially offered as a community benefit.
"I understand the frustration of my colleagues. I too wish that there was more of an authentic compromise," said Council President Lisa Bender, who voted for the water yard. "For me the biggest unanswered question was how to fill a $12.9 million hole in our budget that would have been left by canceling the project and walking away."
In the days leading up to the council's vote, an internally drafted staff report that had been created in June but not previously shared with council members was leaked to the public. The report proposed rebuilding the existing water yard because some design elements of the Roof Depot project could be recycled with minimal alterations while sparing East Phillips the environmental risks.
"While the new City facilities are designed as slab on grade to minimize the amount of site remediation, during construction, demolition and site clearing activities 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," according to the report.
The document also predicted that rebuilding on the existing site would be "considerably cheaper" than the estimated $100 million cost to construct a new water yard at Roof Depot.
City spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said the report was not made public because it was "for contingency planning purposes only."
"This report … reflects the difficulty of a substandard facility and the ongoing uncertainty [Public Works] has been enduring," she said. "The approved ... plan continues to be the best option for Public Works operations moving forward."
In a strategy meeting anticipating the council's decision, East Phillips activists declared the parliamentary process over, hinting that they would continue to fight for their urban farm plan through litigation, campaigning against the council members who voted against their interests, and occupying city property to prevent demolition.
"The compromise plan is not a compromise," said Dean Dovolis, an East Phillips architect and EPNI board president. "The community is very fierce in its opinion that it will continue to fight."
Last week, EPNI filed a petition asking the Court of Appeals to order an environmental-impact statement, a more intensive analysis than the environmental assessment worksheet that the city conducted for the water yard project.
EPNI lawyer Elizabeth Royal said community members fear that the demolition of Roof Depot will release long-buried soil contaminants, including arsenic, into the neighborhood.
She said the city's environmental assessment worksheet failed to weigh the impact of additional traffic on the cumulative environmental burden placed on East Phillips by its many industries, including a foundry and asphalt plant.
Water distribution employees have also been frustrated by the decadeslong delay in upgrading their crumbling workplace, said LIUNA Local 363 Business Manager Tony Kelly. Removing the workforce training center from Roof Depot plans to provide 3 acres for community development is not a good compromise for city workers either, he said.
"We would like the opportunity to partner with the city to provide training opportunities for Minneapolis residents," Kelly said.
"Far too few of our members actually live in the city of Minneapolis … and my goal is that Minneapolis employees can make enough money so that they can live in Minneapolis. [Roof Depot] to us and to the building trades is an opportunity to do training, and to provide pathways to the middle class."
The city will go through a standard procurement and contracting process for demolition, which is expected in the spring or summer of 2022 at the soonest, said McKenzie. Workers will remove pollutants before starting construction.