City’s equity vow withers in Urban Farm dispute

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The city of Minneapolis has made commitments to undoing racism and promoting environmental justice. But some officials apparently intend to comply only if it doesn’t cost money and isn’t inconvenient.

Exhibit A: The Hiawatha expansion of the city’s public works yard at the Roof Depot site in the East Phillips neighborhood. There, the city’s commitment to equity is colliding with its pocketbook. The health and economic well-being of this BIPOC neighborhood hangs in the balance.

East Phillips is a low-income, racially diverse neighborhood that experiences some of the worst racial health disparities in Minnesota due to a legacy of toxic pollution. For years, East Phillips residents, under the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute banner (EPNI), have planned to reduce pollution while creating sustainable economic opportunities and food security. Their vision for a multicultural, community-owned Urban Farm counts on repurposing the 230,000-square-foot steel and concrete Roof Depot building for aquaponics, hydroponics, 750-1,000 new green jobs, training, solar energy, affordable housing, entrepreneurial opportunities and more.

With considerable interest in this effort, the missing piece is site control in order to move forward.

EPNI tried to buy the site in 2015. The city wanted it, too. Needing to improve its Public Works facilities, the city seeks to consolidate operations at its Hiawatha Avenue site, adding departmentwide employees, and a home base for its fleet of diesel-fueled trucks. This would mean demolishing the Roof Depot building.

In 2016, threatening eminent domain, Minneapolis bought the parcel for $6.8 million, borrowing from its water fund to do so.

East Phillips is legally protected from further pollution by state law, and by Minneapolis’ South Side Green Zone, designed to improve the health of communities facing cumulative effects of environmental pollution by supporting environmentally conscious development. This is precisely what the East Phillips Urban Farm plan does.

Furthermore, in 2020 the City Council declared racism a public health emergency. A resolution signed by Mayor Jacob Frey affirms Minneapolis’ commitment “to eliminating racial disparities, improving our environment and promoting social well-being.” Further, the city “will recognize the severe impact of racism on the well-being of residents and city overall and 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. …”

The EPNI Urban Farm plan fits these goals.

Yet it’s been a back-and-forth struggle. In March, the City Council voted to allow EPNI’s plan to proceed on an 8 to 5 vote, one short of a veto-proof majority. Mayor Frey vetoed it. In his veto letter, Frey stated that in order to move forward with his approval, EPNI would need to develop a formal proposal on the redevelopment (by June 30!) including strategies to:

  • Pay the city’s $14 million water fund debt.
  • Secure development and operating capital (with no guarantee of site control).
  • Remediate the site (from past arsenic pollution).
  • Identify alternative locations for Water Works needs.

Frey’s response seems designed to appear reasonable while ensuring the Urban Farm’s failure.

The requirement that this low-income, BIPOC neighborhood pay the city’s debt effectively demands a $14 million ransom for the right to breathe cleaner air. If anything, shouldn’t the city be offering reparations for decades of harm?

Nor is it East Phillips’ responsibility to identify an alternative Public Works location. Ironically, that department’s own internal analysis said it would be cheaper to redo the Water Works plant on its current northeast Minneapolis site than to expand at Hiawatha. This cost-saving measure has yet to be considered by the City Council.

Recall Minneapolis’ promises to “allocate funding” and “actively engage” in the work of racial equity.

So far, Mayor Frey has avoided meaningful engagement with the community. He’s put the burden on EPNI to fix mistakes of the city’s own making. He’s reneging on core city commitments. And real options to solve the city’s fiscal responsibility are being ignored.

It’s time Frey and city staff rolled up their sleeves, engaged the community in a genuine way with a realistic pathway to success, and lived up to Minneapolis’ commitments for racial justice.

Cassandra L. Holmes is vice president of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute. Joe Vital is a community organizer. This article is submitted on behalf of the EPNI Board, allied organizations and community members.

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