East Phillips Urban Farm plan stays alive, barely

City Council action is as murky as its commitment to racial justice

The Minneapolis City Council was faced challenging truths today as it deliberated on redevelopment of the old Roof Top Depot site at 28th and Hiawatha: addressing historic and ongoing racism costs money, it means changing “business as usual,” and it’s messy.

The Council faced two different proposals: One to use the Roof Top Depot site to expand and consolidate the city’s Water Works facilities, the other to give the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) exclusive rights to develop the property into an urban farm, affordable housing, and neighborhood-friendly businesses.

The fractured Council punted, keeping both options open, likely making no one happy. Significantly, it voted down proposed language to give EPNI exclusive development rights for its Urban Farm proposal.

Google map of the Roof Depot site.

The Council met as the Policy & Government Oversight Committee, which includes all 13 Council members.

Council President Lisa Bender, Council member Lisa Goodman and others used fiscal arguments to push for the Public Works expansion plan. The city borrowed $12.3 million from the city Water Fund to buy the Roof Depot site. That money needs to be repaid.

“Leaving a $12.3 million hole in our budget at a time we have significant financial issues is very irresponsible,” Bender said.

Some Council members framed a vote for the Public Works expansion project as a vote for environmental justice. It included cleaning up the “Arsenic Triangle,” a legacy pollution site from a former insecticide plan.

Such arguments are a bit of environmental justice sleight of hand. They miss the point. The neighborhood has organized behind the Urban Farm proposal. The City Council is essentially telling the neighborhood it knows what’s best for environmental justice, not the residents themselves. That paternalistic approach is not how racial justice works.

People will always use arguments about financial and opportunity costs to vote against environmental justice initiatives such as the Urban Farm. These votes will never be easy. If the Council is waiting for easy and noncontroversial votes on racial justice proposals, it will never get anything done.

The Council has made multiple commitments to racial and environmental justice.

The Council passed a resolution calling racism a public health crisis. It passed a resolution calling for reparations to the African and Native American communities. It’s created Green Zones, a commitment to help low-income neighborhoods “overburdened by environmental conditions.”

EPNI proposal for an urban farm, affordable housing and neighborhood-oriented businesses.

East Phillips is in the Southside Green Zone. It 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.

The Council’s racism-is-a-public-health-crisis resolution acknowledged this work would cost money. 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,” it said.

Council member Alondra Cano and others pushed for the Urban Farm project as a matter of racial equity. “This is a legacy project,” Cano said. “This is going to significantly improve the lives of working people,” including BIPOC people.

The Public Works proposal represented the “white supremacy urban planning by the city of Minneapolis,” Cano said.

“This is what institutional racism looks like and what it costs to fix it,” she said.

Proposal to parcel off 3 acres of the Roof Depot site for a neighborhood development. Image: DJR Architects

Council member Phillipe Cunningham pushed back on Cano’s institutional racism comments, calling them “an over simplification.” And here’s where addressing historic and ongoing racism gets messy.

Cunningham expressed serious concerns about where the new Public Works yard would be located if not in East Phillips. He didn’t want the air quality problems associated with project to get “hot-potatoed” to North Minneapolis, he said. The most logical option would be Fridley, and that would negatively affect his Ward.

“We are already cut off from the riverfront with the highway,” Cunningham said. “Our kids are already suffering from much higher rates of asthma.”

Council members Kevin Reich and Bender moved to go forward with the Public Works expansion project, leaving 3 acres of the 7.5 acre site for a community project. That failed 5-6 with two abstentions.

Cano, Jenkins, and Council members Cam Gordon and Andrew Johnson moved to drop the Public Works expansion project and to give EPNI exclusive development rights to the 7.5-acre parcel. The motion also required EPNI to repay the $12.3 million the City had paid for the site.

That partially passed 7-6, with Council members Reich, Steve Fletcher, Cunningham, Jamal Osman, Goodman and Bender voting no.

Significantly, Council member Jeremiah Ellison abstained on the part of the motion which gave EPNI exclusive development rights. That meant the vote was 6-6, so that part of the motion failed.

If EPNI doesn’t have exclusive development rights, it will be very difficult for the organization to fundraise the needed $12.3 million to reimburse the city for the land. That’s a blow to the project moving ahead.

The Committee also voted 12-1 (Cano voting no) to approve the Environmental Assessment Worksheet for the Public Expansion project. That vote keeps that proposal alive.

Read EPNI’s analysis here.

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