Environmental justice advocates continue fight over East Phillips public works

While the city of Minneapolis moves forward with plans for a public works facility at the Roof Depot site in the East Phillips neighborhood, advocates who have opposed the plan say they are still fighting.  

The city on June 30 approved a resolution to move forward with the development. 

The proposed site would be a consolidation of city public works facilities that would include a parking garage and fuel station, which the city estimated would increase vehicle traffic, which organizers with the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute say will concentrate vehicle emissions in an already asthma-prone neighborhood. The group has been advocating for a large urban farm for the site.

During  a press conference the group hosted outside Minneapolis City Hall last month, organizers expressed frustration with the city and said the city “has not negotiated in good faith.”

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In a MinnPost email inquiry to the city about the status of negotiations, city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie wrote that conversations are ongoing between the city and East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, and there was no further information to share on negotiations. 

 

A rendering of the indoor urban farm proposed for the East Phillips neighborhood.

East Phillips Neighborhood Institute

A rendering of the indoor urban farm proposed for the East Phillips neighborhood.

Air Pollution

The site, located at 1860 28th St. E. and 2717 Longfellow Ave. S., is in a neighborhood with high pollution levels.

From 1938 until 1963, a site on the eastern edge of the Phillips neighborhood produced and stored arsenic-based pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency found unsafe arsenic levels in 600 area homes and, by 2011, had removed about 50,000 tons of contaminated soil. 

Pollution has clear ties to the community’s health. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, rates of diseases affiliated with pollution, like asthma, are high in East Phillips.

Asthma rates among children in East Phillips are more than two times higher than the state average. In 2019, children ages 0-17 had a statewide asthma hospitalization rate of 5.9 per 10,000 people, compared to a rate of 15.6 per 10,000 people in East Phillips.  

Because of these concerns, East Phillips Neighborhood Institute wants to know the specific plan for the electric vehicle fleet and the impact that trucks and traffic in the area will have on the air quality.

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The state recognized the area’s air pollution in 2008 when it passed a law controlling pollution levels. The city did, too, when it included the neighborhood in the Southside Green Zone category. 

But advocates feel that the neighborhood is being treated differently than other parts of the city. 

“An empty warehouse over (in) Northeast becomes a microbrewery, a fancy coffeehouse or a fashionable office space. But in East Phillips, when there’s an empty warehouse, the city grabs it with eminent domain and tries to put up a parking lot that will bring diesel pollution into this already-polluted neighborhood,” Sierra Club volunteer Satish Desai said at the press conference. 

He thinks it comes down to environmental racism. 

“It’s not to do with what’s in the mayor’s heart or anyone else’s heart, or any other official. It’s about power, and it’s about systems because they know, if they tried to put this over in Kenwood, the residents of Kenwood are too wealthy, they’re too well connected, they know how to work the levers of power. But they thought they could put it over in East Phillips,” Desai said.

Despite purchasing the land in 2016, conversations around acquisition from Roof Depot began in 2001, according to the city. The goal of the project is to combine the Public Works Water Distribution Maintenance and Meter Shop operation from three sites to one facility, replacing the current Water Distribution facility which is not up to code, according to the city.

About 71% of East Phillips’ roughly 4,700 residents are people of color or Indigenous, and nearly one-third live below the poverty line, according to Minnesota Compass.

Around 40% of its residents are Latino, 22.5% are Black, and 10% are Indigenous. 

Many of those residents are immigrants who have already faced displacement. Climate change and its health impacts can be retraumatizing, said Joe Vital, an East Phillips resident and organizer with East Phillips Neighborhood Institute. 

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“My own father came here from Puebla (Mexico) seeking job opportunities,” Vital said.  “I can relate to that, coming from somewhere you’ve had to struggle to survive, to come here where the air is now becoming its own struggle to survive.” 

Joe Vital

MinnPost photo by Ava Kian

Joe Vital, an organizer with East Phillips Neighborhood Institute: “We want everybody to know, especially East Phillips residents, that we are not done negotiating. We are still fighting for a good plan for the future of our environment in that area.”

“The city has not negotiated in good faith” 

In 2016, the city bought the Roof Depot building with hopes of demolishing it. In 2020, the institute filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging it failed to comply with state law requiring permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The city then produced an environmental assessment, which found that the addition would increase pollutant emissions in the area, but not at levels that require new permits. 

East Phillips Neighborhood Institute created an alternative plan for the site, which includes an urban farm, and has brought that to negotiations with the city. Council members Jason Chavez and Emily Koski have been allies to the institute during the process, Vital said.

In March, Chavez proposed pausing the demolition and construction. The Council approved, but Mayor Jacob Frey vetoed the motion. At the time, Chavez released a statement saying the pause would have centered “Black, Brown, Indigenous and immigrant working rights” and given the proposed urban farm a chance.

On June 3, East Phillips Neighborhood Institute and other advocates met with the city to present its proposal. They met again on June 27. Despite not coming to a clear agreement, Vital said, the city approved the resolution on June 30 to move forward with a public works hub to be constructed on 5.5 acres, an outreach and training facility on 8 acres, and 3 acres to be given to the institute for a community site. 

“The city council paraded and congratulated itself on a job well done, and mission accomplished. We want everybody to know, especially East Phillips residents, that we are not done negotiating. We are still fighting for a good plan for the future of our environment in that area,” Vital said at the press conference. “This isn’t a final deal.”

The city’s resolution approved a list of terms for a memorandum of understanding (MOU), including giving East Phillips Neighborhood Institute three acres of land on the property after demolition. It also requests for the institute to drop all current and future lawsuits.

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Resident health is the primary concern of advocates. Vital said advocates are not happy with the resolution, especially because there’s no protection from future environmental concerns, like potential arsenic exposure from the depot’s demolition.

According to the city’s resolution, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute gets exclusive development rights to the three acre community site for a period of 24 months, which began on July 1, 2022. 

As far as the expansion site, the city wrote in the resolution that the project will have certain attributes, including “remediating and/or encapsulating contamination like arsenic in the soil,  improving water quality in the watershed and be built “solar-ready,” among other things.  

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