BY CAM GORDON
On March 10, supporters of the East Phillips Urban Farm project were celebrating.
An 8-5 majority of the Minneapolis City Council had just approved a motion by 9th Ward Council Member Jason Chavez which rescinded the 2021 compromise that allowed the city to demolish the Roof Depot building at 1860 E. 28th St.
The motion halted any demolition and construction on the site until the East Phillips neighborhood, and potentially others, could make formal proposals for the reuse of the building.
The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) called it “historic action to review formal proposals for the Roof Depot Building,” adding that “this victory signals that Minneapolis is prepared to begin to undo decades of harm it has caused to neighborhoods like East Phillips.”
But the celebration didn’t last long.
On March 11, Mayor Frey vetoed the Chavez resolution. On March 24, the council failed to get the nine votes required to override it, on a 7-6 vote.
“I’m disappointed in this veto and feel for my community that it continues to have to prove its worth,” wrote Chavez. “We had an opportunity to build the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm.”
In his veto letter, Frey listed many issues that, if addressed, he said could lead him to sign something in the future. These included using the term “suspend” rather than “rescind,” as well as needing more details on how to recover the $14 million already spent on community engagement, design, regulatory approvals, costs, organizational models, sources of funding, environmental remediation, alternative locations for the proposed public facility and more.
And this is only the latest setback in the long struggle between community advocates and the city, and within city government, to resolve how this site should be used in the future.
It is little wonder that the decision is difficult – both sides have admirable goals and strong cases to make.
Supporters of the Hiawatha facility expansion, including city staff, are quick to point out the need to replace a 100-year-old inadequate water distribution facility, the benefits of consolidating staff, and improved and more efficient service for water distribution maintenance, street maintenance and sewer maintenance. It could also remediate pollution, improve stormwater management, be solar-ready and add electric vehicle infrastructure.
One outspoken Southside resident advocating for the expansion is Bob Friddle, former City of Minneapolis director of facilities design and construction in the property services division. Before leaving his job with the city, he was responsible for hiring the design team and construction manager and leading the master planning and design effort between them and public works, overseeing cost estimating, demolition and environmental cleanup planning.
“The mayor and Council members are responsible for the whole city and its care and employees,” he wrote following the March council action. “This plan, which actually originated over twenty years ago in a study in 1990, would allow better care of equipment, employees and better service maintenance.”
Supporters of the EPNI plan envision a model for sustainable and resilient development that includes job training, living-wage jobs, aquaponic year-round food production, affordable family housing, a coffee shop run by neighborhood youth, community kitchen, cultural markets, bicycle shops and more.
“The East Phillips Urban Farm can be a healing center reconnecting Indigenous people to the land, and to help reverse the trauma of ongoing genocide through racist urban planning,” EPNI said in its press release.
The recent actions by the council and mayor still leave issues unresolved. Litigation brought by EPNI is expected to go to mediation in April. The city plans to continue with design work this spring and with demolition of the Roof Depot building late this summer, and the council will need to approve bids for demolition and for the construction planned for 2023.
Chavez is not giving up. “My office is in close conversations with community members in East Phillips, Council Member Johnson, Council Member Koski, Mayor Frey, city staff, and my colleagues on next steps, with a hope of bringing something back at the next full council meeting that will give my community a shot,” he said.
Perhaps now, with a new council and eight council members calling for a fresh look at the project, with the mediation coming in April and with a new director of public works, there is an opening for both sides to compromise and accomplish some, if not all, of their worthy goals.
Two things to start with might be the council’s March 10 resolution and EPNI’s proposal they made in November of 2017 (https://www.eastphillipsneighborhoodinstitute.org/our-current-proposal). That proposal saves and reuses part of the building, buffers the residential neighborhood on the west with new mixed-use development and provides meaningful jobs, a source for fresh organic food, and includes room for a new public works facility.