The piles of gravel and pulverized blacktop are somnolent for now at the Bituminous Roadways yard on E. 28th Street in Minneapolis' East Phillips neighborhood. But the contents of the yard will soon throb as they pour through hoppers, and a tar-like smell will once again waft over the neighborhood as asphalt is mixed for another construction season.

Next door at Smith Foundry, another longtime East Phillips business, there's a muted hum, punctuated by an occasional clank from the metal-casting business. But it's the odor that Jose Luis Villaseñor catches on a sidewalk across 28th.

"You smell that?" the nearby resident and nonprofit leader asked as a somewhat metallic, somewhat plastic smell floated across 28th to the sidewalk where he stood. "We get that really heavy at the house."

The status of the foundry and the asphalt mix plant, in a neighborhood where nonconforming zoning uses are popping up again, is complicating efforts by the city to add a third public works facility there: a new water maintenance yard. The dispute reaches ranges from the community organizing of residents such as Villaseñor rally residents to the State Capitol where an area legislator is trying end the presence of the two plants.

It's playing out in a neighborhood with heavy industry near houses without the buffering found in modern zoning codes. That tension among very different land uses, and the legacy of a long-shuttered business that blanketed the area with arsenic, have generated a series of battles over land-use proposals for the past 25 years that's hampering the water maintenance proposal.

The foundry is the last in the area and predates the 1920s adoption of a city zoning code. That zoning designated the sites of the foundry and the adjoining blacktop plant that sprung up in the 1940s as heavy industry. But in 2010, the area was rezoned as medium industrial, making them legal nonconforming uses. That status means that they can keep their businesses but not expand there.

Foundry President Neil Ahlstrom said that limit has already inhibited the business, but that the costs of moving are prohibitive. After almost 49 years at the foundry, which employs 66 people for an average wage of $25 per hour, he said he can't smell what Villaseñor detects. The foundry has made operating changes to reduce odors and is considering more, he said.

"I'd love to have somebody tell us they could help pay for a new site that's larger," he said.

City seeks more space

The city's plans have inadvertently reopened the debate over how long the nonconforming status of the two businesses will continue.

The city has long wanted to vacate its cramped 2.4-acre water department maintenance yard on E. Hennepin Avenue, which dates to 1898, for larger, more flexible space. It's a base for dozens of city workers who maintain water mains, hydrants and valves.

That's why city public works officials want a former Sears warehouse across 28th from Smith. It's three times bigger and adjoins the city's revamped Hiawatha public works complex. The warehouse at 2860 E. 28th St. has Roof Depot as its main tenant.

The proposal to purchase it is opposed by the area's new council member, Alondra Cano. The city has informally contacted the property's owner, who didn't return a call for comment. Nor did Cano.

Echoes of the past

At a Feb. 28 community meeting that drew about 70 people, the proposal encountered fierce opposition from local activists.

There's some history to that. A onetime city incinerator in the area burned trash for decades. In 1991, the community fought off Hennepin County's plan to convert the incinerator property to a transfer station for garbage. Later, it opposed an ultimately abandoned plan by several entrepreneurs for a biomass-burning power plant.

But the biggest environment threat to the area came from arsenic dust that drifted through the neighborhood from a long-gone pesticide plant at 28th and Hiawatha Avenue S. That prompted a multimillion-dollar Superfund cleanup several years ago in which soil was replaced at hundreds of area homes.

"Phillips has plenty of issues to worry about, but it sort of slides into this culture of victimization," said former county Commissioner Jeff Spartz, who backed the transfer station plan.

That's a view disputed by Villaseñor. He and others are organizing to get area residents behind a different, less-industrial future for the neighborhood. He portrays those efforts as part of an emerging environmental justice movement that aims to end dumping undesirable land uses in poor communities, and as an effort to develop an alternative of green jobs tied to urban agriculture and green energy.

His organization and other residents seek joint use with the city of the warehouse, pursuing a green jobs agenda that includes such ventures as a bike shop and an aquaponic institute. That's conditioned on a long-term city pledge to finance moving the foundry and blacktop plant.

Meanwhile, area Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, is trying to assist by carving out statutory room for the city to phase out the neighborhood businesses that don't conform with current zoning. That process of setting a time-limited economic life for facilities, known as amortization, is generally banned in Minnesota except for attacking adult-oriented businesses, and her proposal could face tough going in the Republican-controlled House. Clark didn't return Star Tribune contacts.

"We're very concerned that we are zeroed in on," Ahlstrom said.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

Twitter: @brandtstrib