City of Minneapolis offers self-serving ‘Racial Equity Impact Analysis’ on proposed Public Works project in East Phillips Neighborhood

Backers of the East Phillips Urban Farm development held a press conference at City Hall Tuesday.

The Minneapolis City Council’s Policy & Government Oversight Committee will vote Wednesday afternoon on directing staff to move forward with its Public Works expansion plan in the East Phillips neighborhood, one opposed by neighborhood leaders.

The docket includes the city’s “Racial Equity Impact Analysis” for the project, something that assesses how it aligns “with the City’s Southside Green Zone policy, the City’s resolution declaring racism a public health emergency, and the City’s resolution establishing a truth and reconciliation process.”

The city offers a self-serving and weak racial equity analysis, raising questions about the city’s understanding of, and commitment to, racial justice.

Map showing existing Public Works site and the 7.57 acre Roof Depot site where it wants to expand. The 3-acre yellow area is optional for a to-be-defined community development.

The City Council meets at 1:30 p.m. The East Phillips project is the last on the agenda. Here’s a link to watch on-line.

Currently, a slim majority on the Council want to use the old 7.5-acre Roof Depot site at East 28th Street and Longfellow Avenue to expand its Public Works yard and consolidate its Water Works functions there.

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) has proposed a community-owned, mixed-use development on the site, including an Urban Farm, aquaponics and hydroponics, market space, affordable housing and more.

The current city proposal has the option to carve out 3 acres of the Roof Depot site and issue a request of proposals (RFP) for a community-led redevelopment. It would involve community stakeholders, such as EPNI, the Southside Green Zone Task Force, Native American-led organizations and others.

EPNI proposal for mixed-use development with an Urban Farm.

To begin its racial equity analysis, the city defines environmental justice:

Environmental justice emphasizes accountability, democratic practices, remedying the historical impact of environmental racism, just and equitable treatment, and self-determination… The concept of fair treatment includes the equitable distribution of environmental resources and burden. Realizing this environmental justice goal requires the City’s intentional action to significantly engage historically disenfranchised communities to protect the health of all Minneapolis residents and guests.

City’s Racial Equity Impact Analysis

The city’s analysis makes clear that the East Phillips is a “historically disenfranchised” neighborhood with disproportionate environmental burdens.

This neighborhood has the largest urban American Indian population as well as many immigrants from Latin America and Africa. The neighborhood is a majority BIPOC community and has approximately twice the percentage of people of color as the City of Minneapolis overall. Unemployment rates are slightly higher than Minneapolis overall, while median income is less than 2/3 of the city’s median income.

Residents in the zip codes around East Phillips have two to four times the rates of asthma emergency department visits and hospitalizations as the Twin Cities metro area. The Minnesota Pollution Control
Agency considers the East Phillips neighborhood as an area of concern for environmental justice … The neighborhood is in the highest 10% of particulate matter (PM2.5) levels of the entire state, with over 50% of PM2.5 contributed by traffic.

City’s Racial Equity Impact Analysis
Participants at the Tuesday press conference.

The city wrote two different Racial Equity Impact Analyses, one Sept. 22, 2021, and one Oct. 6, 2021.

In both documents, the Racial Equity Impact Analysis defines five possible levels of community engagement: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower. The city only used two of those on the East Phillips project: inform and consult, the reports said.

The city’s Sept. 22 analysis provides this summary of residents’ comments:

  • Desire to have agency in the planning and decision-making for the site, rather than feeling like something was being done to them.
  • Preference for the City’s engagement with the community to have started much sooner.
  • Concerns about increasing traffic and traffic-related pollution in a community that already has some of the most dangerous intersections and some of the worst air pollution in Minneapolis, as noted above.
  • Vision for deindustrialization of the neighborhood.
  • Opportunities for youth recreation / activation and job training, employment, and entrepreneurship for BIPOC residents.
  • Interest in solar / sustainable energy to reduce residents’ energy burden and career pathways.
  • Creating a community destination with connections to history, culture, and connectivity to the greenway and LRT.
  • Access to healthy food, gardens, and cultivation.

The analysis then describes how community engagement affected the city’s proposal:

  • The city said it conducted a voluntary Environmental Assessment Worksheet, engaged a broader community, and brought transparency and definition to the site, its environmental conditions, and possible mitigation where needed.

Comment: The fact the city suppressed a report that was favorable to the Urban Farm proposal belies its claim of “transparency.”

Cover and Table of Contents of suppressed report

The suppressed report, written in June but only recently leaked to the public, said the Public Works expansion at the old Roof Depot site would take place on an old Superfund site contaminated with lead and arsenic. “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,” it said.

The city’s Racial Equity Impact Analysis make no specific mention of this added environmental burden.

  • The city said it added green space, buffer space, and public art to the development.

Comment: Green space and public art are token offerings, really the very bare minimum the city should do for any pubic project. This does not speak to racial justice goals or significant community benefit.

  • The city said it reduced the square footage of the proposed new parking structure.

Comment: Put another way, the city is building a larger parking structure, just not as big as its original plan. That’s still increasing traffic in and around the neighborhood. That adds to the environmental harm.

  • The city said a new training center would complement current job pathway programs. “The training center carries with it the potential for a direct, positive, lasting impact for the neighborhood.”

Comment: A good idea, and could just as easily be incorporated in the Urban Farm development.

  • The city said it incorporated green principles, like LEED gold standard design and solar energy.

Comment: A good idea, but something the city should do with all of its new developments.

Roof Depot site as seen through a fence.

To summarize: The city’s responses fail to meet citizen requests.

Neighbors had concerns about increased traffic and traffic-related pollution. They asked for: A vision to deindustrialize the neighborhood; access to healthy food, gardens, and cultivation; and a development that was a community destination.

The city’s response to community engagement was to complete an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, promise to add green space and public art, shrink the size of a parking ramp, commit to build a new training center, and use environmentally sound building practices, according to its Sept. 22 document.

The city’s plan has the option of a community-based redevelopment, but no solid commitment. And it still includes a 4-acre Public Works expansion on top of a Superfund site.

The Oct. 6 version of the Racial Equity Impact Analysis added this paragraph:

It is understood that, although much progress has been made, community members remain concerned with some aspects of the expansion, namely additional traffic, added pollution from demolition and vehicle operations.

Hard to know what the city means by “much progress has been made.” It begs the question: Who gets to decide what “progress” or “racial equity” looks like, the city or the neighborhood?

The Oct. 6 analysis said under the current plan, vehicles on site would increase from 327 to 589. The city would make efforts to promote public transit.

It had a lot of technical language, discussing “Temporary Vehicle Storage,” and storm water filtration methods. It is not the language of racial justice but project management. At best, it’s an effort to reduce the project’s increased harm to the neighborhood rather than make things better.

The city’s blinders are apparent by its proposed measures of “success.” They are:

  • Changes to localized air quality. Success would be reduced pollution / improved air quality.
  • Increased use of transit and decrease in vehicle miles traveled, especially by single occupancy vehicles (SOV)
  • Reduction of Single Occupancy vehicle trips to the site
  • Increased local workforce at the site
  • Increased community perception of agency or satisfaction with the City (through resident survey)
  • Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions generated onsite
  • Rating of annual water quality reports

These are aspirational, with no guarantee of improved air quality. And they are not responsive to the community feedback the city received — feedback it promised to value.

The city either wants to go through the motions of community engagement and do what it wanted to do to begin with, or it honestly believes that the measures it proposed add up to racial equity. Either possibility is worrisome.

Lastly, the city conducted its Racial Equity Impact Analysis in a vacuum, considering only its preferred plan. It intentionally ignored its own analysis (the suppressed report) that said it could rebuild the Public Works’ Water Works facility at its current location. That plan was consistent with the Marcy-Holmes Master Plan, would save money, help the city meet its climate goals, and avoid environmental problems in East Phillips.

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