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Hope in the Arsenic Triangle: A forgotten neighborhood fights with Minneapolis for its future

Zoe Prinds-Flash

Zoe Prinds-Flash

Manifest destiny

In the heart of Minneapolis, just west of the crescent formed by Hiawatha Avenue and the Midtown Greenway, is the East Phillips neighborhood.

For years its residents have lived alongside a spate of heavy polluters. At its southern boundary, the Bituminous Roadways asphalt plant towers over the Circulo de Amigos childcare center. Next door is the Smith Foundry, whose smoke stacks eject metal dust and fly ash into the sky above densely packed housing.

At the corner of 28th Street and Hiawatha is a five-acre plot known as the Arsenic Triangle. Decades ago, chemical companies produced arsenic- and lead-based pesticides here, stockpiling raw materials uncovered on the ground. Wind and rain swept toxic particulates into nearby yards, poisoning the soil for miles around. The site eventually became a Superfund.

East Phillips is also home to Little Earth of United Tribes, the nation’s only Native housing project. Along with north Minneapolis, its residents suffer from some of the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations in the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The fact that one neighborhood faces such a daunting array of health hazards makes environmental justice the force behind residents’ desire to exert control over development in the area.

Zoe Prinds-Flash

Zoe Prinds-Flash

Longtime resident Karen Clark, Minnesota’s first lesbian state representative, passed a bill in 2008 forcing new developments to study their contribution to pollution in East Phillips as a condition of permitting. The law since barred a wood-burning power plant from breaking ground.

Three years later, the neighborhood association designed and delivered its own recreation center after persuading the Legislature to part with $3.5 million. The East Phillips Park Cultural and Community Center was Minnesota’s first building completed under a state program to achieve net zero energy use by 2030.

Afloat with triumph, the East Phillips Improvement Coalition (EPIC) began to entertain a quixotic vision. They would oust the heavy industries. Establish a futuristic neighborhood with a hyperlocal green economy. Give the people a sense of control.

In 2014, an opportunity presented itself.

Across from the houses on Longfellow Avenue was a roofing supply distributor known as Roof Depot, a warehouse wrapped in sandy brick and topped with an iconic red water tank. It was for sale.

EPIC was enamored. They began to negotiate with Roof Depot’s owners not just to prevent another polluter from moving in, but to recreate the building. Meetings with East Phillips’ Native, Somali, and Hispanic residents sparked a storm of ideas.

Two indoor farms would be the anchor tenants.

Chad Hebert of the Urban Farm Project supplied vegetables to local restaurants for 10 years before shrinking industrial space forced him from his southwest Minneapolis warehouse. Roof Depot posed a second chance. He would relocate to East Phillips and provide traditional, hands-in-dirt jobs.

An aquaponics operation emphasizing walleye and strawberries, designed by Welch farmer Clarence Bischoff, would be its high-tech counterpart.

Little Earth representative Cassandra Holmes had her heart set on building 28 units of low-income apartments on the roof, interspersed with personal gardens and solar panels that would form the largest array in the state.

Meanwhile, activist Jose Luis Villasenor, whose nonprofit Tamales y Bicicletas uses gardening and bike repair to cultivate hope in young people, longed to open a cafe and bike shop where neighborhood teens could flex their entrepreneurial muscle.

With the sprawling complex at their disposal, the community could host English language classes, Villasenor says. They could build an industrial kitchen for the many people who do cottage catering for extra money. There could also be a retail outlet for local artists.

EPIC planned to meet the owner’s $5 million asking price by lobbying the Legislature and currying interest among tribes and real estate investors. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development threw in $320,000.

Dean Dovolis of DJR Architects, a commercial designer who lives in East Phillips, drew up concept plans.

Then a formidable rival emerged.

Carol and Brad Pass, Karen Clark, Steve Sandberg, and Cassandra Holmes are some of the core drivers behind the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, the community’s vision for Roof Depot.

Carol and Brad Pass, Karen Clark, Steve Sandberg, and Cassandra Holmes are some of the core drivers behind the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, the community’s vision for Roof Depot.

Water is life

Unbeknownst to the people of East Phillips, in 1991 Minneapolis devised a long-range plan to relocate its water yard to Roof Depot.

The city’s water division maintains more than 1,000 miles of underground water main, which move 55 million gallons from the treatment plant in Fridley to faucets in Minneapolis and seven surrounding cities daily.

Delivering water and treating sewage are among the most essential of city services. No one could forget the failure of Flint, Michigan to provide for its residents.

Yet most of the field crews and vehicles are housed in a 120-year-old building in northeast Minneapolis with crumbling walls and no elevator. As climate change intensifies flooding, stressing sewer systems, Public Works anticipates needing to boost its emergency response. A new water yard was overdue, says Lisa Cerney, deputy director of Public Works.

The agency owns a bulky parcel just north of Roof Depot, where the city’s street sweeping, pothole patching, and snow plowing is based.

Taking over the rest of the block would allow the department to consolidate a new headquarters in a central location. Most of the space would be converted to parking and storage for fire hydrants, pipes, and manhole covers. Having supplies and vehicles in one spot would reduce the city’s carbon footprint, improving coordination for the next 100 years.

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute’s concept would give Public Works most of the Roof Depot space. The city’s plan guarantees no space for the neighborhood.

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute’s concept would give Public Works most of the Roof Depot space. The city’s plan guarantees no space for the neighborhood.

It would also set off a domino effect of other important upgrades.

Demolishing the old water yard would make room for a new Fire Station 11. Built for horse and buggy and surrounded by traffic-throttling cul-de-sacs, the northeast station logs some of the fire department’s worst response times. Vacating the old fire station would allow the city to replace it with commercial space.

In 2001, long before Roof Depot’s owners implied a readiness to sell, the city eagerly presented itself as a prospective buyer.

Back then, allowing the ordinary people of Minneapolis to participate in decisions affecting their lives wasn’t the progressive imperative that it is today. East Phillips’ neighborhood association had no inkling of Public Works’ designs for the building. Neither did Clark, then serving her 20th year in the Legislature.

Jose Luis Villasenor, a gang interrupter mentoring teens at Holy Rosary Church at the time, says he certainly would have known if the city made any effort to inform the neighborhood.

The result was that by 2014, when Roof Depot’s owners finally decided to move, two equally determined buyers with wildly different concepts had wedded their hopes to the same building.

Collision course

Purportedly populist Minneapolis council members are prone to speaking loudly of their commitment to community engagement. The way the East Phillips group saw it, here was an opportunity for the city and the community to set a national example in democratic development.

Residents condensed their plans to fit in 3 acres, leaving 4.5 for the city—nearly twice the space it had in Northeast. Still, they met resistance as city staff began to accrue extra ambitions for the site.

One was to build a training facility. Public Works expects to face worker shortages as employees near retirement. With 80 percent of its workforce white or from outside Minneapolis, it offered a chance to recruit homegrown residents of color.

New hires currently study at union centers in Hinckley and Lino Lakes, says Tony Kelly of City Employees Local 363. The distance poses a barrier to what are supposed to be entry-level jobs. If Minneapolis built classrooms and an industrial sandbox for trainees to practice driving snowplows and Bobcats in East Phillips, they could take the light rail.

Additional space could also be used to warehouse the police department’s ever-increasing evidence stores, the election department’s ballot machines, utility vehicles, repair shops, and spare parts.

In fact, the city’s appetite for storage was bottomless. Its list metastasized at a rate suggesting the community should quickly abandon hope for any space.

East Phillips’ representative on the City Council, Alondra Cano, refused to support the city’s purchase without a commitment to work with residents. Storage was but a passive use of land with so much potential, she argued.

With the exception of the bitterly disputed Southwest Light Rail, overriding a council member’s command of her own ward is rare. The city usually makes a point to avoid forcing unwanted development down a neighborhood’s throat.

Nevertheless, a majority was prepared to make an exception.

“A greater purpose had been identified,” says councilmember Kevin Reich of northeast Minneapolis, chair of the Public Works committee and the department’s biggest advocate. “It was just sort of an overwhelming need from the city’s operational perspective.”

In a 2015 council meeting flooded with East Phillips residents bearing protest signs, Cano made an impassioned plea for the city to stop hoarding ancillary uses for Roof Depot. She asked that land not required for Public Works’ original purpose be reserved for community self-determination.

“I am not here to create problems. I am here to represent people who have been disenfranchised for centuries in this country,” she said in a moment of frustration. “This is why the most low-income area of our city, the most diverse area of our city, also happens to be the most polluted. That is not by accident. That is by design.”

Reich’s counter was simple: The city had manifold needs, and the people of East Phillips lacked ownership.

“It’s a municipal facility. We didn’t go into this, spending a lot of public dollars, to do a development deal.”

The vote was split, but ultimately the council decided that the community could have whatever space the city had no use for. That was effectively nothing.

Instead, city staff viewed the training center as a sufficient offering to East Phillips.

“Our best success for a diverse workforce, for bringing people who are not part of a traditional stream of folks coming into the city as workers, is bringing training programs,” says Mark Ruff, Minneapolis’ chief financial officer. “We felt that was a reasonable compromise.”

Fundraising was no competition. The city had the $6.8 million the lot was valued at on hand, along with the power of eminent domain.

Bob Friddle, Minneapolis’ director of facilities design and construction, became the project manager. RSP Architects, his former employer, was hired to design it.

Rough concept plans were drawn. But before they could be delivered to the City Council for a final vote, staff was expected to demonstrate a genuine effort to engage the community.

Starting in the summer of 2017, Friddle assembled a handful of representatives from East Phillips to participate in a “Guidelines Advisory Committee.”

There, he presented the slim possibility that the city could free up 1.5 acres. It could take the form of a leafy border; residents could weigh in on landscaping. Alternatively, it could be a single-story building with parking sold or leased at market rate.

In any case, the city’s plans demanded demolition of Roof Depot, while its preservation was the only scenario in which the community could afford space.

“It’s much easier for startup companies to work with existing buildings, and the building’s in excellent condition,” says East Phillips architect Dean Dovolis. “If you level it, you’ve lost that asset, so then you have to create a new building. So you’ve then doubled, tripled your cost.”

On August 9, 2017, halfway into the fourth GAC meeting, residents argued that Rep. Karen Clark’s 2008 pollution law applied to the 19 diesel trucks Public Works intended to move to the neighborhood.

Friddle disagreed. The trucks would move throughout the day, he pointed out, and thus had no need of state pollution permits.

From a back row, Clark attempted to explain the intent of her law, which was to take stock of every pollution source entering East Phillips.

According to numerous witnesses, Friddle was apoplectic. He strode toward Clark with his finger raised, berating the 72-year-old lawmaker that she didn’t know what she was talking about. She would leave the meeting in tears.

“I pushed out of my chair because he walked so threateningly toward me that I felt threatened,” says Cassandra Holmes of Little Earth, a committee member. “I do carry mace, and I thought, ‘I’m going to mace this man. What the hell is he doing?’”

“Everybody said it was almost like an assault,” recalls EPIC president Carol Pass.

An exodus ensued as the Native American delegation followed their legislator from the room. The GAC never convened again.

Clark never launched a complaint, fearing that it might propel her to center stage in what had become an agonizingly entrenched controversy. Friddle declined multiple requests for comment.

“You have an attentive community that historically has been ignored, that’s willing to work with the city on strategies to make the neighborhood of East Phillips more sustainable,” says Tamales y Bicicletas’ Jose Luis Villasenor.

“We need clean water, but that can coexist with the community’s vision as well, and this is a great opportunity for the city to do that. But I don’t think it’s trying. It’s hard for them to share power.”

Bitter machinations

Anew year rang in a new City Council professed to be the most radically liberal government in Minneapolis history.

As Public Works careened toward a master concept plan designating all of Roof Depot for city use, East Phillips residents continued to fight behind the scenes for a place at the table. Neither council member Kevin Reich’s Public Works nor Abdi Warsame’s Ways and Means committee ever permitted the East Phillips residents to speak during official proceedings broadcast to the public.

So EPIC lobbied council members to find another home for Public Works. At one point, councilmember Phillippe Cunningham of northwest Minneapolis offered to adopt the entire project into his ward, where it could replace one of several heavy industrial sites that residents considered nuisance polluters. Council members Andrew Johnson and Cam Gordon spurred their colleagues to broker a compromise.

Yet they were the minority. The city had already spent $16 million and anticipated spending $21.5 million more by the time construction ended in 2021. Public Works did not want to break up its campus.

“I see that when the NFL comes to us, the City Council says, ‘Yes, we can afford giving you millions of dollars,’” Johnson berated colleagues in December. “But suddenly, when one of our most diverse communities comes and says, ‘We would like that support,’ we say, ‘No, we’re sorry. We’re really financially responsible.’”

Cano saw no choice but to concede to city staff’s request for full command of the Roof Depot site. In return, she insisted on the creation of yet another committee. This one would be charged with finding ways for East Phillips to make use of the training center during the weekend and evening hours.

“Approving this today would mean that 80 percent of my workload would be spent on this project just to make sure everything’s moving in this direction,” Cano vowed as several council members congratulated each other on launching a new horizon for East Phillips.

A few were skeptical, including Gordon.

“I didn’t see any of the staff direction really guaranteeing much to [East Phillips],” he predicted. “There was some big hope that this training center would be a plus for the community and for everybody, but it was also laid out as something the city would own and manage.”

The new Hiawatha Advisory Committee was ordered to convene by February. But the deadline came and went without anyone from the city inviting residents to participate. For East Phillips, it was but another unfathomable annoyance.

“They’re bullies and that’s what they’ve done to our community always,” says Little Earth’s Cassandra Holmes. “They feel like they can just run all over us.”

When the HAC finally assembled in late April, the meetings were scheduled for the middle of the day. This allowed city representatives to attend during work hours, but members of the public had to make special arrangements. Holmes was the only person permitted to speak for Little Earth and its 1,500 residents.

Residents were asked to list their priorities. For what seemed like the umpteenth time, they spoke of urban farming, affordable housing, a community kitchen, and a small business incubator—things that require permanent installation and regular access.

It soon became painfully obvious these were an unlikely fit.

“It would be difficult to see,” admitted Tony Kelly of Local 363, who sympathizes with both residents and the city’s ongoing struggle to diversify its workforce.

RSP Architects is considering the feedback before developing a final plan that will be delivered to the City Council later this summer. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will decide if the facility requires any permits. Demolition is expected to begin this year.

As the battle over Roof Depot enters its final chapter, residents say they feel both cheated and wizened.

From afar they watched Spark Y, a youth-oriented indoor aquaponics farm, break ground in northeast Minneapolis. As Reich celebrated his ward’s win, reasserting his commitment to “spur redevelopment of new green industry in areas that have traditionally borne the highest negative impact from concentrated industrial pollution,” they wondered why the children of East Phillips can’t have the same.

Holmes takes the fight over Roof Depot personally because she wants to bring something home for the kids of Little Earth. East Phillip’s Native community is rife with babies born in need of breathing tubes and young people who’ve succumbed to asthma and diabetes, she says. Her son Trinidad Flores was diagnosed at 14 with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which an enlarged heart struggles to pump blood. He endured three surgeries and a failed heart transplant before he died in 2013 at age 16.

“I see this as everyday politics in our community,” says Jose Luis Villasenor. “At the end of the day, inspiring our children to be active agents of change is highly important. So the space and acreage we’re not receiving does not define the work that we’re going to do.”

He’s upbeat, he says, because anything short of a sunny attitude is a quick trip to a dark place.

“We’re still here, still fighting. It just puts a bad taste in our mouths when the city says, ‘We wanna work with you.’”