When Project for Pride in Living (PPL) considered building an affordable housing complex on a site in north Minneapolis that once housed a dry cleaner, they figured they might run into some problems with the property. “We discovered there was some arsenic in the soil and … a soil gas, which is hazardous if you breathe it in,” said Abbie Loosen, a project manager for PPL.
The process of evaluating the site, which included background checks on the property and sampling the soil, ran PPL roughly $20,000, and that didn’t involve the actual cleanup process. Luckily, PPL was able to tap into a Hennepin County grant pool that enables developers to investigate old properties for potential environmental hazards without having to spend their own money.
The idea is to incentivize companies to redevelop old, unused industrial lots — also known as brownfields — that may be too toxic for redevelopment as is by taking away some of cost burden. And for years, the county and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has been divvying out hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to developers, like PPL, to do just that.
Now, the MPCA is boosting those efforts with a $300,000 federal grant that they’ll use to target brownfield sites in historically underserved neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul. “We just want to help these contaminated properties be put back to productive use,” said MPCA spokesperson Walker Smith. “And we’re interested in focusing on these areas because they’ve been possibly overlooked in the past.”
Funds in demand
The new MPCA grant pool is being modeled after what Hennepin County has been doing for years, said Martha Faust, executive director for Minnesota Brownfields, a nonprofit that will be partnering with the MPCA to delegate the new grant funds.
Such funding has long been in high demand. Since 2013, Faust said, Minnesota Brownfields and Hennepin County have distributed $900,000 in grants to developers for brownfield site assessment and cleanup. “It’s been a runaway success,” Faust said of the Hennepin County brownfield grants, “and we have been asked by these same developers, who work throughout the metro area, if there’s a similar program outside of Hennepin County.”
Chris Wilson, PPL’s senior director for housing development, agrees with Faust’s assessment. Their organization, which focuses on building affordable housing across the Twin Cities, has been using brownfield grant money from the county for more than four years, he said. “I don’t think we’ve done anything in the last 15 years that hasn’t had some kind of pollution,” he said. “So, we really need those funds to figure out what our [toxic] exposure looks like.”
Cookie Cart, a small bakery and youth education nonprofit in north Minneapolis, also tapped into the Hennepin County brownfield grants last year for nearly $10,000, said executive director Matt Halley. They used the money to make their building more environmentally friendly and install a new trash enclosure for waste, recycling and composting, he said.
As for the MPCA grant pool, Faust said, it won’t be available to organizations until this fall, but she expects it’ll be as successful as what they’ve been doing with the county, and will likely be tapped by a number of different organizations. “Anything from charter schools to nonprofits, to businesses like daycares,” she said. “It really runs the gamut.”
A renewed effort
Over the last five years, the MPCA has taken a renewed effort to addressing issues facing underserved communities, or what many are now calling environmental justice — a term used to describe the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on low-income families and communities of color.
The new MPCA brownfields grant pool is part of that effort, said MPCA Environmental Justice Coordinator Ned Brooks. “We’re trying to look at all our program areas and trying to make sure, when we can, to prioritize lower income communities and areas where there’s more people of color,” he said. “This is a great example of that.”
So far, the MPCA has identified more than 100 potential brownfield sites across in north Minneapolis and St. Paul that could be redeveloped after being cleaned up, MPCA’s Smith said, and they’re hoping to prioritize developers that have the communities’ best interests in mind.
Many of these sites in areas like north Minneapolis and north St. Paul, have had long histories with industrial zoning, but haven’t had a chance to properly clean up those lots, Smith said. Hopefully, by addressing some of those issues, he said, the communities can make larger strides towards economic development and environmental safety. “It’ll be a good chance to jumpstart redevelopment in some of those areas,” he said.