City of Minneapolis suppressed staff report favorable to the East Phillips Urban Farm Project

The city of Minneapolis inexplicably has kept a report from public view that would provide a win-win-win-win — for the East Phillips’ Urban Farm development, the city’s Water Works facility upgrade, the city’s climate goals, and the city taxpayer.

The report was leaked to the public, apparently some time last week.

The city’s Public Works Department issued a statement that the report was no more than “an informal, internally drafted report for contingency planning purposes only.”

Joe Vital, a South Minneapolis community organizer who backs the East Phillips Urban Farm project, said it was “disheartening” that the city suppressed the document.

It “puts into question transparency in this city,” he said. “If we are missing information at this level, it makes me wonder where else it exists?”

“It invites the question: Who is really steering this Hiawatha Expansion Project?”

Architect’s rendering of East Phillips Urban Farm redevelopment. Image DJR Architecture.

To recap: The East Phillips Neighborhood Initiative (EPNI) wants to purchase the old Roof Depot site near East 28th Street and Longfellow Avenue for a mixed-use development, with a community-owned indoor urban farm, spaces for small businesses and markets, and up to 60 units of very low-income housing.

The city operates a Public Works yard just north of the Roof Depot site. It acquired the seven-acre Roof Depot site to consolidate its Water Works facilities, a project called the Hiawatha Expansion Project. (The city’s historic Water Works site in the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood in Southeast Minneapolis has outgrown its space.)

The East Phillips neighborhood, disproportionately poor and BIPOC, already has pollution problems and the Public Works project would only make matters worse, neighborhood leaders say.

On Sept. 22, the City Council voted 7-6 approving a staff direction to move ahead with the Hiawatha Expansion Project.

EPNI still hopes to acquire the Roof Depot site.

Neighbors decorated the Roof Depot site with hand-made signs.

The suppressed city report helps make the neighborhood’s case. It offers an alternative proposal: Demolish some of the existing Water Works facilities in Southeast Minneapolis, preserve historic buildings, and rebuild a new facility there.

You can read the document here. (Formatting errors are in the original.) It’s not clear how many City Councilmembers have seen the report.

Public Work’s claim that this was an “informal” and “internal” document for “contingency planning” defies credibility. It’s not labeled as “draft.” It’s not in the form of a memo to a supervisor. It has all the appearances of an external report, with the city logo and table of contents.

Does this look like an “internal report”?

East Phillips leaders plan a press conference on the City Hall steps at noon tomorrow (Tuesday) to discuss this report.

Here’s the report’s highlights.

The alternative plan is a better fit in Southeast Minneapolis, and would allow the East Phillips redevelopment to move forward

Rebuilding the Water Works facility in the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood is consistent with the Neighborhood Association’s Master Plan, the report said. “A theme of preservation is established in the Master Plan’s Introduction. ‘The neighborhood is the oldest in the city and has a rich history. The neighborhood organizations believe they and the City of Minneapolis have an obligation to preserve and enhance this historic character.’”

“In contrast, the East Phillips Neighborhood has opposed the Hiawatha campus expansion project at the Roof Depot site since the City’s purchase of that property was first proposed in 1991.”

Location map for Roof Depot site.

The Hiawatha Expansion Project has unassessed health risks

The report’s Executive Summary calls the Hiawatha Expansion Project “problematic.”

The adjacent property to the east was a US EPA Superfund site contaminated with lead and arsenic that took millions of dollars and years to remediate. … While the new City facilities are designed as slab on grade to minimize the amount of site remediation, during construction, demolition and site clearing activities will result in unassessed risk from legacy contamination, unaccounted costs, and increased exposure to the neighborhood from dust and from truck traffic hauling hazardous waste to landfills and will require dust mitigation.

Rebuilding in Marcy-Holmes saves money

According to the report:

As of the end of 2020, the Water fund’s share of the estimated $100 million Hiawatha Campus Expansion project costs was $55 million. By rebuilding on the existing site, the new Water Yard will likely be considerably cheaper. The development of the site for activities of a single work group and the lack of contaminated soils are just two contributing factors that will likely result in cost savings.

The alternative plan could help the city meet its climate goals

The report cites the following benefit by rebuilding in Southeast Minneapolis:

Building with a carbon-free goal. Unlike the Roof Depot site, the existing site is not contaminated. This could be an opportunity for the City to use geothermal energy for heating and cooling the facility. By installing solar panels on the roof, solar energy could be used to help power the pumps that circulate the heating and cooling lines. By creating a first of its kind city facility, the City could demonstrate commitment to its goals in the Minneapolis 2040 plan.

Rebuilding on the existing site could meet the city’s needs

The existing site is challenging because of its irregular shape, the report said. To make it work would require a full two-story structure. It concludes that rebuilding on the current site provides “a space that is sufficient and functionally laid out to effectively support Water field operations.”

Dean Dovolis.

Dean Dovolis, chair of the EPNI board, called the suppressed report the “silver bullet” and “Holy Grail,” a solution for a new Water Works facility that could make everyone happy.

Yet all along, he said, city staff has failed to share information with the community or engage it in any significant way.

“To be truthful, there has not been a lot of honor in this effort from city staff,” Dovolis said. The suppressed report “is just another example of that same process. These are documents that were meant for public consumption.”

If the city moves ahead with Public Works’ Hiawatha Expansion, it would violate commitments its made to residents with its work to address racism and create Green Zones.

The Hiawatha Expansion Project would violate the spirit of the city’s Truth and Reconciliation work: The ultimate objective of this Truth and Reconciliation work, the city’s website says, “is to begin implementing specific solutions to specific harms that created and perpetuate racial disparities with a prioritized focus on healing with historically Black American descendants of slavery and American Indian/Indigenous communities.”

One of the most powerful things the city could do right now is to stop the ongoing harm. Building the Hiawatha Expansion Project is ongoing harm.

Robert Lilligren

Robert Lilligren, former City Councilmember and current President and CEO of the Native American Community Development Institute, said he was involved in Roof Depot discussion when he worked for Little Earth six or seven years ago.

“I am not super up to date on the details of the City’s latest action, other than it completely disregards the community’s vision,” he said. “The Roof Depot site neighbors have been historically harmed by pollution and environmental contamination. This is the sad truth. It would be progress toward reconciliation for the City of Minneapolis to invest in the urban farm proposal at the Roof Depot site.”

It would violate city Green Zone commitments: “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,” according to the city of Minneapolis’s website.

City map of the Southside Green Zone. It includes East Phillips.

“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.”

The city’s Southside Green Zone includes the East Phillips neighborhood. That should have made the Public Works’ Hiawatha Expansion Project a non starter.

It would contradict its resolution around racism:” The Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution declaring racism a public health emergency. The resolution says: “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 … The City will center the voices, work, and leadership of the communities most directly affected by said racism.”

To reiterate: The city says it will center community voices. Community voices are calling for the Urban Farm project.

Healing Minnesota Stories has made a request for an interview with a city leader who could explain how the Hiawatha Expansion Project is consistent with the city’s goals around racial and environmental justice. We will follow with that story later.

Correction: An earlier version of this blog said the city used eminent domain to acquire the Roof Depot site. It did not.

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