A new deal may end a yearslong impasse between the city of Minneapolis and environmental activists over the future of a vacant warehouse site in East Phillips.
The tentative agreement would have the city and neighborhood activists share an 8.5-acre site at 27th Street and Longfellow Avenue in a development scheme that would result in a new Public Works facility, job training center and urban farm.
The city would take care of environmental remediation of the entire site. The workforce center would prioritize hiring candidates from within a 2-mile radius for Public Works and other city jobs. Neighborhood environmental activists would receive two years of exclusive development rights over 3 acres — or 35% of the site — to build the urban farm of their dreams. Mayor Jacob Frey said he would personally go to the Legislature and help lobby for state funding.
"This is unprecedented in how we've put together this deal. These are true community benefits," said Frey. "For years, we collectively had been missing each other in the night. This represents a shared resolve to get something done for our community."
The agreement, which is contingent on a final, signed settlement approved by the City Council, represents a marriage of development ideas once thought to be incompatible.
The city viewed the former Roof Depot site as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to consolidate its Public Works water distribution employees and fleet on a centrally located campus, which would help staff reduce carbon emissions overall as it performs maintenance across Minneapolis' sprawling water delivery system. The city had no use for the warehouse — damaged from years of neglect — and planned to tear it down.
Residents of East Phillips, a historically low-income, industrial neighborhood pressed against Hwy. 55, worried that an influx of diesel trucks would add to the air pollution contributing to their highest-in-the-state asthma hospitalizations. Organized as the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI), environmental activists fought to preserve the warehouse and redevelop it into a community-owned urban farm replete with aquaponics, affordable housing and small shops. They have spent more than eight years trying to repel Public Works' plans and are suing the city for a more comprehensive environmental assessment than it has done to date.
Frey and Council Members Jason Chavez and Emily Koski have been negotiating with EPNI in search of a final compromise. Urban farm proponents have in turn held a series of public meetings at the East Phillips Community Center and knocked on more than 400 doors to gather feedback.
"Folks like the compromise deal. ... It is a positive step in the right direction," said community organizer Joe Vital, who stopped short of calling the deal done.
As of Monday evening, EPNI had not received the city's remediation plans. It is a sticking point for residents concerned that demolition could rupture an arsenic plume — believed to be related to historical pesticide manufacturing nearby — that is buried beneath Roof Depot. Residents also want to know how many jobs the training center would create and how soon the city could electrify its vehicles, Vital said.
"We're acting in good faith that the city will come through on these things," he said.
A 2020 demolition plan created by the geotechnical firm Braun Intertec identified the primary contamination risk for construction workers as inhalation of arsenic dust, which the Roof Depot warehouse structure keeps contained.
When the earth is moved, the plan calls for constant air monitoring and dust control, which includes covering debris stockpiles with plastic or foam, and spraying water on excavations with elevated contaminant concentrations.
Public Works Director Margaret Anderson Kelliher said the city aims to avoid disturbing the arsenic plume during reconstruction, and to replace its compact cars, pickup trucks and light-delivery vans with electric models as soon as supply-chain bottlenecks loosen.
"We have lots of purchase agreements right now and so far we are yet to receive anything this year. ... The goal is to move the light- and medium-duty fleet as quickly as possible to 100 percent electric," she said.
Chavez, who represents East Phillips on the council, said the majority of residents he heard from favored compromise in order to get an urban farm delivered for the neighborhood.
"I'm committed to getting the best possible outcome for my community," Chavez said.
A two-week public comment period opened Tuesday and will lead to a City Council vote on June 30. If the compromised plan is approved, the city will issue a request for proposals for demolition of the Roof Depot warehouse.
In return, EPNI must to agree to end all litigation against the city.
Koski had said it would be "a huge win" for constituents, city staff and their unions to have a workforce training center on site — an element of the city's plans that, previously scrapped, now has a chance of being restored.
"I want to make abundantly clear that the council action on June 30 will not be the end of our conversations, our collaboration with EPNI and the Ward Nine community, but rather just the beginning," she said. "It's my hope ... that we can begin to rebuild trust between the community and the city of Minneapolis."