A Minneapolis City Council committee voted on Wednesday to reinstate longstanding plans to build a new water maintenance facility in the East Phillips neighborhood. Although the new plan would set aside several acres for community development, the vote infuriated residents lobbying to repurpose the entire site as a large urban farm and neighborhood center.
The former Roof Depot warehouse, the intended site of the city's new water yard, has been in dispute for years as East Phillips environmental activists pushed for an alternative project that would include aquaponics, a community kitchen, small shops, solar gardens and affordable housing.
Wednesday's vote in the Policy and Government Oversight Committee favors demolishing Roof Depot and bisecting the 7.5-acre site so that the Public Works water yard would be built while 3 acres could be sold for community use.
The proposal was offered as a compromise by Council Member Kevin Reich, who supports Public Works staff moving out of the old water yard at 935 5th Av. SE. to make room for a new fire station.
Council Member Alondra Cano, who represents East Phillips and led a semi-successful effort last month to cancel all work on the water yard and turn the entire Roof Depot site, near Hiawatha Avenue and 28th Street E., to the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute through an exclusive rights agreement, lambasted Reich for unveiling his motion during committee, without prior notice.
"This would probably be one of the worst government processes taken up by the city, if approved today, for the high gap in transparency and public due process," she said. "The inequities in this whole conversation are really triggering for me, just because I see just how the weight of the white supremacy of the entire city of Minneapolis is being weaponized to shut down conversations with a community who's trying to figure out the future of their own vision."
Council President Lisa Bender, who has repeatedly emphasized the budgetary impact of canceling a city project that has already incurred $12.9 million in planning, urged the council to stick to its unanimous 2018 vote greenlighting the water yard.
A city fiscal analysis showed that Minneapolis could reimburse the Water Fund by raising the proposed 2022 tax levy increase to 8.7% — or 3.25% above the mayor's proposed increase of 5.45%.
That's unlikely to happen, Bender said, leaving the city exposed to potential lawsuits from suburban water customers who paid into Minneapolis' Water Fund to ensure water distribution infrastructure is maintained, not to subsidize neighborhood development projects.
"For a very long time I think a lot of us have been trying to get to some kind of compromise, or solution forward that honors the feedback that we're hearing from community, that acknowledges all of the trade-offs," Bender said. "The environmental trade-offs of not doing asbestos cleanup, the financial impact of walking away from a project and spending $12.9 million to get back to nothing, to having a site that is then vacant and polluted with a huge financial burden and the city of having that financial liability related to potential lawsuits from customers."
Council Member Steve Fletcher called Reich's proposal a good compromise.
"It gives 3 acres to the community to determine the fate of, to imagine what they would do with a significant piece of urban land," he said. "At the same time, it also shows respect to our workers ... who are currently working in an inadequate facility."
The committee voted 7-6 to pass Reich's motion. Council Members Bender, Reich, Fletcher, Phillipe Cunningham, Jamal Osman, Lisa Goodman and Jeremiah Ellison voted for it. Council Members Cano, Andrea Jenkins, Cam Gordon, Jeremy Schroeder, Andrew Johnson and Linea Palmisano voted against.
In August, Cano introduced a motion to suspend work on the water yard, sell Roof Depot to the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute and direct city staff to create fiscal- and racial-equity impact analyses. The Policy and Government Oversight Committee approved stalling the water yard but stopped short of granting community activists development rights, leaving Roof Depot in limbo and the city unsure of how to recuperate nearly $13 million.
Environmental activists were hopeful that they could win control of the site. Wednesday's vote sent them careening back.
"Today's vote was blindsiding and gut-wrenching," said Joe Vital, a representative of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute. "It's another mark in the history of East Phillips of the city of Minneapolis mistreating the neighborhood and its residents and subjugating them to be a dumping ground for the city and its pollutants. We think about our children and how this vote will impact them. The neighborhood will continue to fight even if the city isn't backing down."
City staff presented a racial equity impact analysis on Roof Depot Wednesday without a recommendation for the city to pursue either the water yard or urban farm. Instead, Sustainability Director Kim Havey laid out that East Phillips does suffer disproportionate environmental injustices, including two to four times the rates of asthma hospitalizations as the Twin Cities metro, and has the top 10% of particulate matter levels in the state. Lifetime risks include higher cancer rates.
Susan Du • 612-673-4028