Environmental justice advocates continue fight against East Phillips public works hub


Advocates who opposed the plans say they are still fighting, even though the city of Minneapolis is moving forward with plans to build a public works facility on the Roof Depot site in East Phillips.

On June 30, the city approved a resolution to proceed with the development.

The city proposed a site that would consolidate city public works facilities, including a fuel station and parking garage. This would raise vehicle traffic which, according to the city, would cause asthma. East Phillips Neighborhood Institute organizers claim this will reduce vehicle emissions in an already asthma-prone area. This group has advocated for a large urban farming site.

The group held a press conference outside Minneapolis City Hall last week. Its organizers voiced frustration at the city, saying that the city had “not negotiated in good faith.”

MinnPost emailed Sarah McKenzie to inquire about the status of negotiations. She wrote that talks are ongoing between the city, East Phillips Neighborhood Institute and there was no additional information on the negotiations.

East Phillips Neighborhood Institute
An illustration of the indoor urban garden proposed for East Phillips.

Pollution of the Air

This site is located at 1860 28th St. E., and 2717 Longfellow Ave. S. It’s in an area with high levels of pollution.

A site at the Phillips’ eastern edge produced and stored arsenic-based insecticides from 1938 to 1963. The Environmental Protection Agency discovered unsafe levels of arsenic in 600 homes and had removed approximately 50,000 tons of contaminated soil by 2011.

The community’s health is directly affected by pollution. According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MN Department of Health), East Phillips has high rates of asthma and other diseases related to pollution.

East Phillips’s asthma rates are two-times higher than the state averagespan styling=”font weight: 400 ;”>. The statewide asthma hospitalization rate for children aged 0-17 was 5.9 per 10,000, while it was 15.6 per 10,000 in East Phillips.

East Phillips Neighborhood Institute is concerned about these issues and wants to know what the plan is for electric vehicle fleets and how trucks and traffic will impact air quality.

In 2008, the state passed a law to reduce pollution levels in the area. The city also recognized the area’s air pollution when it added the neighborhood to the Southside Green Zone category.

Advocates feel the neighborhood is treated differently to other parts of the city.

span style=”font weight: 400 An empty warehouse in Northeast is transformed into a microbrewery or fancy coffeehouse, or fashionable office space. At the press conference, Satish Desai, a Sierra Club volunteer, said that East Phillips grabs empty warehouses with eminent domain to build a parking lot that will pollute the neighborhood.

He believes it all comes down to environmental racism.

It’s not about what’s in the heart of the mayor, any other official or anyone else. It’s all about power and systems. They know that if they try to transfer this to Kenwood, the residents there are too well-connected, too wealthy, and they know how to use the levers of power. They thought they could move it to East Phillips,” Desai stated.

According to the city, although the land was purchased in 2016, discussions about purchasing it from Roof Depot began in 2001. According to the city, the goal of the project was to merge the Public Works Water Distribution Maintenance and Meter Shop operations from three locations into one facility. This facility will replace the existing Water Distribution facility that is not up-to-code.

Nearly 71% of East Phillips’ approximately 4,700 residents are people who identify as Indigenous or people of color.

About 40% of the residents are Latino. 22.5% are Black and 10% are Indigenous.

Many of these residents are immigrant families who have experienced displacement. Joe Vital, a East Phillips resident who is also an organizer for East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, stated that climate change and its effects on health can be traumatizing.

Vital stated that Vital’s style=”font weight: 400 My father, who came from Puebla (Mexico), to seek job opportunities,” “I can relate to that. Coming from somewhere where you have had to struggle for survival, to come to this place where the air has its own struggle to survive.

MinnPost photo taken by Ava Kian
Joe Vital, East Phillips Neighborhood Institute’s organizer, said: “We want everyone to know, especially East Phillips residents that we are still negotiating. We are still fighting to create a plan that will ensure the sustainability of this area’s environment.

“The city hasn’t negotiated in good faith”

The Roof Depot building was purchased by the city in 2016 with the intention of demolishing it. The institute sued the city in 2020 alleging that it had failed to comply state law that required permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The city produced an environmental assessment. It found that the increase in pollutant emissions would not cause new permits, but that it would have an adverse effect on the environment.

East Phillips Neighborhood Institute has created an alternative plan to the site that includes an city farmspan styling=”font-weight 400 ;”>,” and brought it up in negotiations with the city. Vital stated that Jason Chavez, a council member, and Emily Koski were allies to the institute throughout the process.

Chavez suggested that construction and demolition be stopped in March. The motion was approved by the Council, but it was vetoed by Mayor Jacob Frey. Chavez issued a statement at the time stating that the pause would have been centered on “Black, Brown and Indigenous working rights” and given the urban farm proposal a chance.

East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, along with other advocates, met with the city on June 3 to present their proposal. They met again June 27. Vital stated that although they did not reach an agreement, the city passed the resolution on June 30, to allow construction of a public works hub on 5.5 acres. An outreach and training facility will be built on 8 acres. The institute will receive 3 acres for a community site.

The city council marched and congratulated themselves on a job well done and the accomplishment of its mission. We want everyone to know, particularly East Phillips residents that we are still negotiating. Vital stated that we are still fighting for a plan for the future environment in that region. This is not a final deal .”

A list of terms was approved by the city for a memorandum on understanding (MOU). This included giving East Phillips Neighborhood Institute three acres of land after demolition. The resolution also asks that the institute drop all future and current lawsuits.

Advocates are most concerned about residents’ health. Vital stated that advocates were not satisfied with the solution, particularly because it doesn’t protect against future environmental concerns like arsenic exposure due to the depot’s demolition.

The resolution states that the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute will have exclusive rights to the three-acre site for 24 months. It was established on July 1, 2022.

The city stated in its resolution that the expansion site would have certain attributes such as “remediating and/or embedding contamination like arsenic soil, improving water quality and being built “solar-ready.”

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