The backstory on why Minneapolis is hell bent to expand its Public Works yard in East Phillips in violation of its racial equity commitments

Residents disrupt the Minneapolis City Council Thursday for moving ahead with a plan they say will harm East Phillips residents’ health.

Minneapolis city leaders say their controversial plan to expand the Public Works yard in East Phillips has been in the works for years, an effort to upgrade aging facilities and improve efficiencies.

Much less discussed is how the Public Works project is part of an interlocking set of city plans to build a new fire station and sell city land for private development.

The city’s plan also violates its commitments to reduce racial disparities, an issue city leaders have failed to address.

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) strongly opposes the city’s plan, saying it would increase local air pollution and harm residents’ health.

While the city has downplayed resident health concerns, federal health agencies recently released a map ranking East Phillips in the highest tier of its Environmental Justice Index, which identifies “communities most at risk for facing the health impacts of environmental hazards.”

Here is a more complete picture of why the city is breaking its racial equity commitments. It begs the question: Just when does the city plan to start living up to those commitments?

Historic photo of city Water Works yard. Image: Department of Public Works

The story starts with the city’s aging Water Works maintenance yard in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. The city has anticipated upgrading the facility for at least a decade.

In 2013, city consultants issued a report analyzed the costs and benefits of moving the Water Works yard to East Phillips compared to moving it to the Minneapolis Public Works yard in Fridley. The consultant concluded the Fridley option was more cost-effective.

Nothing came of the report.

Had the city pursued the Fridley option, it would have saved $6.8 million.

Three years later, in 2016, the City Council voted 9-4 to buy the 7.5-acre “Roof Depot” site for $6.8 million to consolidate the Water Works yard with existing Public Works facilities in East Phillips. (Had the city pursued the Fridley option, it would have saved that $6.8 million cost.)

The city wants to expand its current Public Works yard onto the Roof Depot site.

On Thursday, the City Council voted to seek bids to demolish the unused warehouse on the Roof Depot site, the first step in the Public Works yard expansion. EPNI still hopes to repurpose the building for its Urban Farm project.

Missing pieces of the puzzle

Last year, a Minneapolis Public Works Department report was leaked to the public showing it would be cheaper to renovate and expand the Water Works yard at its current Marcy-Holmes location than move it to East Phillips.

The Public Works Department tried to downplay the report, saying it was no more than “an informal, internally drafted report for contingency planning purposes only.”

So why was the city so nervy about the report? It probably had to do with other city plans that hinged on relocating the Water Yard.

Fire Station 11. Image: City of Minneapolis.

Minneapolis’ Fire Station 11 was built in 1925 and “is functionally deficient,” city documents say. It no longer meets building or energy codes or ADA accessibility.

Instead of renovating and expanding Fire Station 11 at its current location, the city plans to build a new fire station on the site of the current Water Works yard after it moves to East Phillips. (Relocating the fire station also puts it on a commercial corridor, improving response times, the city says.)

The city then plans to sell the Fire Station 11 site for private development, city documents say. Further, the Water Works site is 2.4 acres, more land than the new Fire Station 11 requires. The city plans to sell the excess land on the Water Works site for development, too.

City leaders silent on equity promises

Soon after the city bought the Roof Depot site, it began making a series of commitments to reduce racial disparities.

In 2017, the city launched its Green Zone Initiative.

Ironically, the city’s Green Zone web page features a video of Cassie Holmes, a Southside Green Zone Board member and vocal critic of the city’s Public Works plans. It reveals the stark difference between the expectation the city created around Green Zones and the actions it’s now taking.

Screen grab from video on city website.

The video is titled: “Self Determination and Accountability.” In it, Holmes, an EPNI board member, stands at the Roof Depot site discussing why Green Zones are important.

… without the Southside Green Zone we won’t have recognition for communities like the East Phillips community that are over polluted. … The Southside Green Zone gives us an opportunity to sit on a board that, I believe, gives voice to concerns like [neighborhood pollution], that we can hopefully reach other people in the government, like the City Council, our city, state, and government staff, so when communities like ours fight for environmental justice and rights, that we are actually being heard.

Cassie Holmes

(The Southside Green Zone Board had no impact on the city’s decisions around the Roof Depot site, according to Karen Clark, a board member.)

In 2019, the city updated its mission statement to include language to “dismantle institutional injustice and close disparities in health, housing, public safety and economic opportunities.” In 2020, the City Council declared racism a public health emergency, committing “to allocate funding, staff, and additional resources to actively engage in racial equity …”

The city has voluntarily put itself in a box and made East Phillips the only option for the Water Works yard, in spite of its racial equity commitments. The city made the box; the city can change the box. It depends on its priorities.

East Phillips already overburdened with pollution

Smith Foundry, an air pollution source just across the street from the Roof Depot.

The Public Works expansion in East Phillips will increase the yard’s parking capacity from 350 surface spaces to 888, including a three-story parking ramp. More trucks will be driving through to fuel up.

The city has minimized the resulting pollution increase. The project didn’t require an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) let alone the stricter environmental impact statement, city documents say.

The city did a voluntary EAW and wrote the Public Work project: “will not significantly contribute to the health burden the residents of East Phillips and surrounding areas already endure.”

The city’s racial equity promises weren’t ‘we’ll only increase your pollution a little.’

The statement acknowledges East Phillips’ current “health burden” and ignores pollution’s cumulative impacts. Area residents already suffer disproportionately from asthma.

Sources of neighborhood air pollution include the Smith Foundry, just across the street from the Roof Depot. Just west of the foundry is Bituminous Roadways, an asphalt plant. Just to the east is the busy Hiawatha Avenue.

The federal government’s news release on its Environmental Justice Index gives the following example how “environmental burden” affects residents’ health. Take two people with asthma. “One person lives in a community with elevated air pollution, and the other person does not. While both people have asthma, the person living in the community with elevated air pollution may be more likely to be hospitalized …”

Bituminous Roadways, another pollution source, is one block from the Roof Depot.

Even if the city’s Public Works plan only increases East Phillips’ air pollution a little, a matter of dispute, the city’s racial equity promises weren’t “we’ll only increase your pollution a little.” The commitment is to reduce disparities, period.

East Phillips residents also worry that demolition and construction on the Roof Depot site will stir up underground arsenic pollution leftover from a former pesticide plant. As of Thursday, EPNI had failed to get a meeting with city consultants to understand how they plan to deal with the arsenic, should the project move forward.

In his Aug. 15 budget address, Mayor Frey said: “Right now in our city – and in our country – a new normal requires deep commitment to race equity. It requires a commitment not just in words but in action.”

In East Phillips, the mayor’s words and actions ring hollow.

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