An East Phillips neighborhood crusade to turn an old warehouse into a community-owned urban farm is gaining momentum among some Minneapolis City Council members.

The support comes years after the council unanimously agreed to build a city water facility on the site. A growing bloc now wants to change course.

Led by Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins and Council Member Alondra Cano, who represents the area, at least four council members have said they support relinquishing the Roof Depot building to the community instead.

"I was certainly one of those 13 council members who voted to move [the water yard] project forward in 2018," said Jenkins. "And then, in 2020, we had a global virus that impacts people's respiratory systems, as well as a social justice racial reckoning that spread all around the world and really made us re-evaluate."

In a presentation on Thursday, city staff members showed that conceding Roof Depot would cost potentially tens of millions, including $12.3 million already spent on decadeslong plans to create a centrally located public works campus at the site near Longfellow Avenue and E. 27th Street. Brette Hjelle, the city's interim director of public works, said the city needs a new water yard for sewer and water distribution workers, their vehicles and equipment to travel more efficiently on daily maintenance routes as well as respond swiftly to emergencies like flooding and water main breaks.

Supporters of the urban farm oppose the city's vision, saying it would add traffic to a low-income, high-asthma neighborhood already burdened with an outsized share of heavy industries. A former chemical plant left high concentrations of arsenic in area yards, and some residents fear demolishing Roof Depot would expose long-buried pollutants. East Phillips neighborhood activists want community-led development of an urban farm with aquaponics, solar gardens, small shops and affordable housing.

Hjelle offered four possibilities for how to proceed: keep the city's original plans, relinquish a 2.8-acre corner of the site for community development, relocate the city's water distribution division out of Minneapolis and join Fridley's water treatment plant, or find a new home for that division.

Only the first option would keep plans for a workforce training facility intended as a public works career pipeline for East Phillips area residents.

Cano said the first two options are unacceptable to urban farm advocates, and a shared site wouldn't be ideal for the city, either.

"You either move forward with 100 percent of the [water yard] project or you completely withdraw and then turn it into a redevelopment site, which [staff] have told us is the nature and size and scope as Upper Harbor Terminal, and that is precisely why I think this is really exciting," she said, referring to the massive $300 million development of 48 acres of north Minneapolis riverfront. "You will need that type of attention, investment, support and dedicated analysis to really turn around. So I don't think it's a bad thing that this project is being compared to something like that."

Council Member Phillipe Cunningham cast doubt on the third option, pointing out that maintenance fleets commuting from Fridley would have to cut through north Minneapolis, adding to the air pollution in his ward, which also includes industrial polluters and a highway.

"We are having to then deal with the increase in air pollution, without the city jobs, without the job-training facility," he warned.

Council Member Cam Gordon said he plans to vote at the Aug. 18 meeting of the Policy and Government Oversight Committee to support finding a new home for the water yard, which comes with the most uncertainty and greatest expense: an estimated $121.7 million.

That figure includes $4.7 million in unused design fees and $10 million in "escalation costs" for canceling one development and making up for lost time, according to Erik Hansen, the city's economic development director. It does not include providing security for the vacant property, which was formerly slated for demolition, and holding it until community members can line up enough money to buy it. Nor does it account for potential subsidies the city, county and state may have to provide to make the project a reality.

A large coalition of urban-farm champions rallied Sunday in front of Roof Depot, serving locally grown fruits and vegetables while the Brass Solidarity band played and a slate of mayoral candidates and state legislators spoke in favor of pressuring the City Council to give the East Phillips neighborhood control of the site.

"The water distribution functions that the city wants to do can go literally anywhere," said Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, a former policy aide with Cano's office. "If you look at where people of color live and where poor people live, that's where the most polluting industries are sited. And so again, for decades, this community has come together and said, 'No, we're not going to be a municipal sacrifice area.' "

Susan Du • 612-673-4028