Critical vote on East Phillips Urban Farm Wednesday: Will Mpls City Council live up to its promises?

West side of the old Roof Depot building in the East Phillips neighborhood.

The old Roof Depot site near East 28th Street and Hiawatha Avenue in the East Phillips neighborhood covers a city block and its waiting for redevelopment.

Starkly different proposals are on the table: One would consolidate the city of Minneapolis’ Public Works facilities to create greater efficiencies; the other would create an Indoor Urban Farm, with affordable housing and neighborhood friendly-businesses.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fulfill a community-led, community-owned project — an economic investment in an economically depressed area,” said Joe Vital, a volunteer with East Phillips Neighborhood Initiative and Urban Farm supporter.

A key vote on these divergent plans is expected Wednesday, Aug. 18, 1:30 p.m. at the Minneapolis City Council’s Policy and Government Oversight Committee. This committee includes all 13 council members.

The question before the City Council is: Should poor neighborhoods — which are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) — be forced to take all the crummy polluting projects in their backyard or do they deserve some nice amenities, too?

Neighborhood’s proposed redevelopment plan. Source: EPNI

East Phillips is one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods and home to the city’s largest Indigenous community, according to EPNI’s website. East Phillips also is one of the city’s poorest and most polluted neighborhoods. “Residents experience the highest rates of asthma, cardiovascular, and lead-poisoning hospitalizations in Minnesota,” the website said.

Nearly half (45 percent) of East Phillips households had incomes under $35,000 a year (2015-2019, in 2019 dollars), according to Minnesota Compass.

The nearby Smith Foundry and Bituminous Roadways add to area pollution. East Phillips also is in the heart of the historic “Arsenic Triangle.” As the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy explains it, the neighborhood “is still being harmed by one of the most brazen and widespread urban polluters in Minnesota history. An insecticide manufacturer at East 28th St. and Hiawatha Ave. polluted the neighborhood with arsenic from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, resulting in a massive cleanup of contaminated residential yards.”

Existing Public Works site, and neighborhood redevelopment proposal in yellow. Image: DJR Architects.

The city Public Works Department has a large operation just north of the old Roof Depot site. It includes storage for city equipment, office and work space, a fueling station, and more. The “Hiawatha Campus Expansion Project” would expand its footprint onto the Roof Depot site to consolidate city operations.

The Hiawatha Expansion Project also would continue disregard for the neighborhood’s health and economic vitality. The facility would bring more congestion and pollution from the increased Public Works traffic. Further, this proposal creates no neighborhood jobs or amenities.

In contrast, the neighborhood’s redevelopment proposal would benefit the community with an Indoor Urban Farm, creating green, living-wage jobs and second-chance job opportunities. Its plan includes organic, aquaponic year-round food production, affordable family housing (30 percent of area median income), a coffee shop, a world café run by neighborhood youth, cultural markets, a bicycle shop on the Greenway, and more.

The neighborhood proposal would take more work to pull together. But the City Council needs to measure that against its commitments to residents in poor neighborhoods, who are disproportionately BIPOC.

Signs supporting the neighborhood’s redevelopment plan decorate a fence.

First, the City Council created two Green Zones in April, 2017. The South Side Green Zone includes the East Phillips neighborhood. According the city’s website:

Low-income communities, Indigenous communities and communities of color in Minneapolis experience unequal health, wealth, employment, and education outcomes, and also are overburdened by environmental conditions such as traffic and stationary pollution sources, brownfield sites, blight and substandard housing. …

A Green Zone is a place-based policy initiative aimed at improving health and supporting economic development using environmentally conscious efforts in communities that face the cumulative effects of environmental pollution, as well as social, political and economic vulnerability.

City of Minneapolis website

Case closed. The city’s Green Zone commitment alone should guide Council support for the neighborhood’s plan. But there’s more.

Second, the City Council passed a resolution in July, 2020 declaring racism a “public health emergency.” It said:

That by declaring racism a public health emergency, the City of Minneapolis will recognize the severe impact of racism on the well-being of residents and city overall and allocate funding, staff, and additional resources to actively engage in racial equity in order to name, reverse, and repair the harm done to BIPOC in this City.

Minneapolis City Council Resolution

This “Racism-as-a-public-health-emergency” test again favors the neighborhood proposal, because it would commit city resources “to actively engage in racial equity” to reverse and repair past harms.

Third, and related, the City Council passed a resolution in October, 2020 to begin a “Truth and Reconciliation” process. It created a working group to put action to its words. The resolution reads in part:

The ultimate objective of the reconciliation and transformational racial healing process is to name and address the harms that have perpetuated racial disparities by implementing specific solutions with a prioritized focus on healing with historically Black/American Descendants of Slavery and American Indian/Indigenous communities, recognizing that the issues of anti-Blackness and Native sovereignty continue to perpetrate harm against all groups.

Minneapolis City Council Resolution
Public Works yard

If the city is going to take reparations seriously, it needs to start by stopping the ongoing harm, in this case adding more pollution to an already poor, polluted, BIPOC neighborhood.

The Urban Farm proposal poses a big test for the City Council: Do all the resolutions it passed actually mean something or are they just sloganeering?

Urban Farm backers are encouraging city residents to call their councilmembers and ask them to support the project.

Here’s the City Councilmember directory.

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