Minneapolis city leaders are once again at a fork in the road in their commitment to racial justice.
At issue are competing visions to redevelop the Roof Depot site in the East Phillips neighborhood.
Mayor Jacob Frey wants the city to use the Roof Depot site to expand the existing Public Works yard near Hiawatha Avenue to consolidate Public Works operations.
The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) wants to develop the site into a community-owned asset, with “an indoor urban farm, affordable housing, cultural markets, and incubators for small businesses near accessible public transit.”
Since 2017, the City of Minneapolis has made several racial justice commitments. They seem to align with EPNI’s plan much better than the city’s Public Works plan.
The City Council will vote on Roof Depot site demolition this week, the first step in expanding the Public Works yard. City councilmembers supporting the project need to explain to the public how their vote meets the city’s racial justice commitments.
It’s a matter of integrity.
The city’s promises
Specifically, councilmembers need to explain how their vote lines up with the city’s following promises:
- Its Green Zone Initiative, adopted in 2017, which is supposed protect neighborhoods like East Phillips that already face environmental pollution and marginalization from being overburdened with more pollution.
- The city’s new mission statement, adopted in 2019, which it commits to “dismantle institutional injustice and close disparities in health, housing, public safety and economic opportunities,” as well as partnering with residents “to ensure all communities thrive in a safe and healthy city.”
- The Council resolution, unanimously adopted in 2020, declaring racism a public health emergency, and committing the city “to 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).”
East Phillips is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Residents are disproportionately BIPOC. It’s home to Little Earth, a 212-unit federally subsidized housing complex with preference given to Native American renters. The neighborhood is a food desert and heat island. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy says East Phillips “continuously ranks as having some of the worst air quality in Minneapolis.”
The city Public Works plan adds more pollution to East Phillips, and blocks the Urban Farm project.
Not an isolated issue
This debate fits into the much larger city struggle for racial justice.
The city of Minneapolis has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation.
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights issued a report this year finding probable cause that the city and MPD have engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminatory, race-based policing, in violation of state law.
In 2019, the city adopted its first Strategic and Racial Equity Action Plan. The city created a Division of Race and Equity to help implement the plan. Last year, all but one of the Division’s nine-member staff quit, citing burnout and frustration. In May, “some 75 current and former city staff signed a letter criticizing the “racist, toxic work culture” of the city of Minneapolis,” the Star Tribune reported.
The city currently is trying to rebuild that team.
East Phillips Matters
Public Works’ Hiawatha yard expansion would increase the site’s current 350 outdoor surface parking spaces to 888 spaces, including a three-story parking structure, city documents say. Peak morning traffic, currently 165 vehicle trips, would increase to 365 trips. At full occupancy, the new facility would have 1,800 vehicle trips daily, “including City fleet vehicles (674), heavy fleet vehicles (202) and employee vehicles (924).”
Bob Friddle, the former director of design and construction for the city of Minneapolis, commented on one of our recent blogs supporting EPNI’s Urban Farm. He defended the city’s plan.
“The city has a responsibility to meet all of its constituents’ and employees’ needs. There is a balance between what the city as a whole needs and what individual neighborhoods need, that is why we have a [C]ity Council review and approve [s]uch decisions.”
Friddle seems to be expressing what city leaders are thinking.
Telling East Phillips residents they’re getting more pollution because the city has to consider the needs of all neighborhoods is like saying “All Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter.” It ignores the historical harm and ongoing disparities. City actions need to show that “East Phillips Matters.”
Friddle did acknowledge that the Public Works project “is not fully in line” with the city’s mission and values,” adding “The facts remain that this new facility is badly needed.”
It begs the question: Which is more urgent, the public works yard or addressing racial disparities?
The city needs to be honest with itself about what it’s asking of East Phillips
The project benefits the city as a whole, while East Phillips gets the pollution. The city is asking East Phillips to “Take one for the team.”
The city lists project benefits on its website. They include:
- Space for hundreds of green jobs that emphasize safe drinking water and environmental quality.
- A new job training facility with more opportunities for Minneapolis residents to get living wage jobs with high-quality benefits.
- Improving City responsiveness and delivery of daily essential services and lower operating cost.
- Green site development and construction practices and serve as a catalyst for Green Zone development.
- Replacing an outdated facility with a new green buffer between operations and the neighborhood,
Residents are getting a green buffer, the possibility of job training opportunities … and more pollution.
City’s commitment to partnering isn’t clear
The city’s mission statement says: “In partnership with residents, City leaders help to ensure all communities thrive in a safe and healthy city.”
East Phillips residents told city staff they wanted more agency in the planning and decision-making around the Roof Depot site, according to the city’s Racial Equity Impact Analysis. Residents had concerns about increasing traffic, traffic-related pollution, and the possibility of more vehicle accidents. They wanted a vision for deindustrialized neighborhood.
Looking at the results, those comments didn’t go anywhere.
Friddle writes that the “city tried to involve the neighborhood,” offering it space on the Roof Depot site or at one other site for its Urban Farm development. EPNI refused both, he said.
The city “involved” EPNI after it had made the decision to move forward with the Public Works yard expansion. After that, the city gave EPNI two options, take it or leave it. That’s not partnering.
EPNI was in a tough spot. The city plans to demolish the Roof Depot building that EPNI had planned to remodel. EPNI would have more expensive new construction under the city’s offer. Also, while the Urban Farm is important to EPNI, so is reducing air pollution. Accepting the city’s land offer would mean the neighborhood is agreeing to the increased pollution.
Air pollution impact disputed
Residents living near the Roof Depot site “experience much higher levels of cumulative pollution than residents from majority white city neighborhoods … leading to [higher] levels of asthma and hospitalization for children and adults living in the surrounding neighborhoods,” according to the city’s Aug. 6, 2021 Racial Equity Impact Analysis.
EPNI said: “The City’s project would dramatically increase toxic air pollution from more traffic congestion in the area and exacerbate existing pollution-related health issues in the community, including asthma and cardiovascular disease.”
The city said the project’s environmental impacts were low enough that it didn’t need an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) or a state air quality permit.
The city didn’t take into account cumulative pollution impacts. The Roof Depot site is near a foundry and an asphalt plant. When you already live in a neighborhood with air pollution, every little bit hurts.
The city did an EAW voluntarily, but got pushback because it was doing the assessment on a project in which it had a vested interest in the outcome.
The Minnesota Center for Environment Advocacy wrote the city’s EAW failed to address key environmental issues.
Even more troubling is the city’s “loud silence regarding the historical environmental racism the residents of the East Phillips neighborhood have endured,” it wrote.
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