Minneapolis City Council’s reasoning to move and expand Water Yard into East Phillips remains a mystery

The city of Minneapolis suppressed a report that said it would be less costly to expand its Water Yard in its current Marcy Holmes neighborhood location than the City Council’s current plan to relocate it to the East Phillips neighborhood.

Surprisingly, the report didn’t sway a majority of councilmembers.

On Oct. 18, I filed a Data Practices Act request with the city for more information on the report.

I am requesting emails and other communication (both internal and external) to and from the Public Works Department regarding the production of the June 2021 report: “Minneapolis Water Yard: Proposal for New Two-Story Structure on Existing Site.” This includes staff directions, discussion around the report’s purpose, drafting, and distribution of the report, and any communications with City Council members.

I had no inside information. I was just curious about the internal conversations around what seemed like an important report.

On Monday, I received an email with 1,022 pages of documents. None of them helped answer my questions.

The report seemed like good news to those East Phillips residents who didn’t want the increased truck traffic and air pollution the Water Yard would bring. Further, neighborhood leaders wanted to use that piece of land for community benefit. Their proposal included an urban farm and low-income housing.

The city’s Public Works Department downplayed the report’s significance, however. It was no more than “an informal, internally drafted report for contingency planning purposes only,” it said in a statement.

Why downplay the report? Why not give serious consideration to its conclusion that the city could save money by rebuilding the Water Yard in Marcy Holmes?

The city currently plans to build an expanded Water Yard just south of an existing Public Works site in East Phillips.

Of the city’s 1,022-page response to my data request, 728 pages, or 71 percent of the total were 28 copies of the 26-page Water Yard report. (That’s because 28 emails had the report attached. Each time, the city included the report with the email.)

More problematic, the report seems to have magically appeared out of thin air. The city’s response included no documentation prior to the report’s completion.

Those were the insights I was interested in: What were the original directions for the report? Was this really an informal report or was it meant to be more substantive? What were the behind-the-scenes conversations, questions, and/or pushback on the report? Did Public Works get behind the report’s findings with the Council, and if not, why not?

For instance, the report stated that rebuilding on the existing Marcy Holmes site “will likely be considerably cheaper” than the East Phillips option. The city had no documentation of any staff discussion, or Councilmember-and-staff discussions, on this significant point.

The city’s response had only a few interesting pieces.

One internal email refers to the report as the “final CM Jenkins report,” referring to Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins.

On Sept. 23, Jenkins emailed a few colleagues saying: “Hello All, As I have been stating for some time now, the Director of the Water Yard does not think we need to move the water yard. They created this document with how to upgrade the current facility. Please review this and let me know what you think we should do with this information.”

See full city response here.

Email provided as part of a city data request.

The city informed me my request was now closed.

I emailed back asking them to keep it open, writing: “Is the city saying there is no paper trail for how and why this report was produced?”

The OpenCity Data Practices Team responded today: “The data that was provided is all of the data the City holds that is responsive to your request. At this time, your request will remain closed.”

The city is in a bind of its own making. It borrowed $12.3 million from the city Water Fund to buy the East Phillips site for the expanded Water Yard site. It needs to repay that money.

Here are the bigger-picture questions that remain.

Why didn’t city planners consider rebuilding in Marcy Holmes in the first place? That seems like the obvious starting point.

Why approve the project in East Phillips when it violates both the city’s Green Zone policy and the intent of the City Council resolution declaring racism a public health emergency?

The public deserves to know how city leaders got so locked into the East Phillips site, given the site’s negatives on both cost and equity.

It’s not a done deal yet. A new City Council will take office in January under a new strong mayor system. It remains to be seen how that will affect the redevelopment of the East Phillips site.

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