For years, the residents of East Phillips developed their Indoor Urban Farm for a brick warehouse in south Minneapolis, a lofty project aimed at countering years of pollution in one of the city’s poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods.
There was to be a bike shop, a hydroponic farm raising fish and vegetables and a large field of rooftop solar panels. Neighbors saw it as a green capstone on more than a decade — and at least $25 million — spent cleaning up lead, arsenic and other industrial contaminants from the Superfund site.
But Minneapolis has a very different plan for the site. The city has slated demolition of the Roof Depot brick warehouse for sometime this year to make way for a large new public works maintenance facility housing about 500 employees and a large fleet of work vehicles.
Angry residents say dropping another industrial-like facility into their neighborhood flies in the face of the city’s stated commitment to environmental justice, introducing still more pollution in an area designated a “green zone” because of its history.
Opponents, who plan to protest at the site Friday evening, say the city project may even violate a 2008 law that specifically protects their neighborhood.
The standoff has gained attention at the State Capitol. The Indoor Urban Farm project was developed with $300,000 in state funds.
“The state is involved with this,” said Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis and the Senate’s assistant minority leader. “We put money in there for the community to organize and start mitigating the environmental issues that were there.”
Hayden has urged the Minneapolis City Council to consider the neighborhood’s scaled-back 3-acre compromise plan to share the Roof Depot site. That part of south Minneapolis has had more than its fair share of pollution and traffic, Hayden said in an interview.
“It’s home to some of the most vulnerable people that we have in our community — low-income people, immigrants and also the Little Earth housing community,” he said. “Why would we site another industrial use — no matter how state-of-the-art they’ll tell me it is — in a community that’s so distressed?”
Meeting in the locker room
The old Roof Depot site, a former Sears distribution warehouse, sits on the Midtown Greenway bike trail near Hiawatha Avenue, at Longfellow Avenue and E. 28th Street.
The city bought the site with its trademark “Roof Depot” water tower in 2016 as part of a long-planned expansion of the city’s Hiawatha public works campus, just next door.
City officials say the expansion is desperately needed to support essential services. The city’s water distribution group is housed near northeast Minneapolis in an outmoded building that’s more than 100 years old, and so cramped they’re holding staff meetings in the locker room, said Public Works Director Robin Hutcheson.
“We need a better place to ensure we are delivering safe drinking water to residents of Minneapolis,” she said in an interview.
The planned south Minneapolis facility also would house sanitary and storm sewer operations, and store pipes, fire hydrants, manhole covers and gravel and other materials to fix potholes.
The neighborhood’s pollution concerns are valid, Hutcheson said, but the city has taken pains to develop a very green public works facility. They’re putting solar panels on the roof, for example, and working to manage the flow of personal vehicles. And they’ll eventually convert the fleet of work vehicles — more than 100 of which are diesel-fueled — to electricity.
According to Hutcheson, city officials worked hard to engage the East Phillips neighborhood on the expansion. Though it’s not the 3-acre compromise plan the neighborhood wants, the city project will include space for local businesses and for recruiting and training nearby residents for public works jobs.
“We hire in batches of 30 at a time,” she said. “These are great paying jobs.”
An unusual state law
Supporters of the Indoor Urban Farm project are underwhelmed. They want the city to find an alternative site, or work with them on a better compromise.
Cassandra Holmes, who lives in the Little Earth of United Tribes community next door to the Roof Depot site, said she fears the city’s new facility will add still more exhaust fumes to their busy area, which is already struggling with high rates of asthma. She’s also concerned that demolishing the warehouse will stir up more of the old arsenic encapsulated in the soil beneath it.
“It’s going to hurt our children for years to come,” said Holmes, who is vice president of the East Phillips Improvement Coalition.
Holmes said she thinks the city’s project violates state law. The unusual 2008 environmental law sets a stricter threshold for pollution in that part of East Phillips, according to former legislator Karen Clark, who helped pass it.
East Phillips residents met this week with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and officials at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to discuss the matter, Clark said. She said they are also pushing for an environmental review of the city’s project.
“We’re saying the law is broad enough that they are obligated to deal with it on a moral basis,” Clark said. “The city itself designated this part of the city a green zone.”
City officials say the expansion project does not currently require an air pollution permit.
“But with new users and operations moving to the site in 2022 and beyond, MPCA has requested a new assessment,” city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said. “We do not expect a future requirement for an air permit, however, and have been working closely with the MPCA.”