Trees have been chopped down to make way for demolition of the former Roof Depot warehouse as the city of Minneapolis moves forward with constructing a new water yard, despite years of opposition from organized residents.
But a coalition of Minneapolis City Council members, including Vice President Andrea Jenkins, Cam Gordon, Alondra Cano and Andrew Johnson, is offering new hope for neighborhood proponents of saving the building at 1860 28th St. E. for a community-owned urban farm.
A draft staff directive calls for suspending "all aspects" of the city's work to expand the Hiawatha Maintenance Facility, find an alternative site for the water yard and propose a planning process in partnership with East Phillips residents.
The council members say they shifted their views and now side with the neighborhood for several reasons: the city's declaration of racism as a public health emergency, its establishment of a truth-and-reconciliation process and the displacement of Black, Indigenous and other business owners of color during the civil unrest on Lake Street last summer.
Gordon said he intends to propose the motion when Roof Depot next appears on the agenda of the Business, Inspections, Housing and Zoning Committee.
"We've really been trying to dig in to figure out more ways we can address historical harms that have been done [in East Phillips]," he said. "There does seems to be a groundswell of community support to rethink this, too."
Support for the change on the council isn't universal. Council President Lisa Bender cautioned colleagues against canceling the water yard before fully understanding the consequences.
"The main impetus for this project is to make sure that our city's water system is maintained," Bender said.
The city has eyed the Roof Depot site since 1991 and purchased the building in 2016. In 2018, council members unanimously voted to relocate water distribution services there from 935 SE. 5th Av.
The city's water division oversees more than 1,000 miles of underground water main, which supplies the drinking water of Minneapolis and seven surrounding cities. Its current building is crumbling and inaccessible to people with disabilities.
As climate change exacerbates flooding and stresses sewers with every major storm, city workers need a new headquarters with upgraded facilities to store their emergency vehicles and repair equipment.
Simultaneously, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute has developed a vision that would spare the old warehouse and reuse it for urban farming, aquaponics, low-income apartments, an industrial kitchen and mom-and-pop retail.
Its proponents include a diverse cohort of residents and environmental activists who have spent years urging the city to recognize the negative health consequences caused by a concentration of heavy industries in East Phillips, including an old Superfund site left over from chemical companies that stockpiled arsenic- and lead-based pesticides at the corner of 28th Street and Hiawatha Avenue.
"It is an environmental injustice going on there. We have to remember that that was an undesirable zone dictated by the city when it was redlining. … Like all the things we're seeing now, it is not by mistake," said community organizer Joe Vital, who lived in Little Earth of United Tribes as a child.
According to the state Department of Health, Little Earth residents suffer some of the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations in Minnesota. Vital said many of his friends and relatives died early after developing lead poisoning and other health issues.
"Given the impact of the coronavirus which impacts how people can breathe — and that that community has been impacted by asthma rates, heart disease, other respiratory issues — in light of all those new developments, I shifted my own opinion about that site," said Jenkins, the council vice president.
She said she would like to see East Phillips residents take ownership if they can find an investor to buy the site for $6.8 million, which is what the city's Water Fund paid for it. The account, funded by fees paid by water customers, must be reimbursed under state law.
According to city staff, the Water Fund has spent $9.8 million on the water yard to date.
"There is a need for water safety in our community so I don't want us to necessarily discount that," Jenkins added. "We've got to figure out where else we can locate a water maintenance facility. That's going to be a part of the equation as well."
Dean Dovolis of DJR Architects, a commercial designer and member of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, said the agricultural investment fund Agro Fund One will help residents purchase the building.
A November letter of intent from Agro Fund One's Mark Erjavec states, "Agro Fund One is ready to get involved, highly interested and believes that this project will bring economic, social and environmental justice for the East Phillips neighborhood."
The city has completed a lengthy environmental-assessment worksheet for the water yard. Proponents of the urban farm say it's less thorough than an environmental-impact statement and doesn't take into account cumulative pollution sources.
The environmental assessment worksheet's public comment period closed March 25, and staff are now reading and sorting comments. A review will be presented May 4 to the City Council's Business, Inspections, Housing and Zoning Committee. The review was postponed from April 20 after the city received about 1,000 comments, according to staff.
The council members who have publicly declared support for the indoor farm are currently a minority faction and it remains to be seen if the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute can recruit more leaders, including veto-wielding Mayor Jacob Frey.
Bender said that, in her opinion, the functioning of the water system is "nonnegotiable."
"This is a critical function that the city government provides, that people expect and probably take for granted, that when you turn on the tap, clean water comes out," she said. "When you flush the toilet, the sewer system is working."