Minneapolis agrees to environmental review before key UHT vote

by Colleen O'Connor Toberman

Plant life has been slowly returning to Upper Harbor Terminal since most uses of the former shipping port have ceased. A recent commitment by Minneapolis leaders will ensure that future plans for this site are given a more thorough environmental review. (Photo by Tom Reiter for FMR)

In a win for community advocates, the city of Minneapolis has agreed to complete a full environmental review of the Upper Harbor Terminal (UHT) project before bringing the development plan to a city council vote.

City leaders originally intended to vote on the coordinated development plan in February 2021, and then, following that vote, complete the environmental review (the Alternative Urban Areawide review, or AUAR). This rushed process meant that the council wouldn't know the extent of environmental impacts before approving a plan.

FMR has long raised concerns about this timeline, knowing that an approved coordinated plan would make it less likely for the city to give full consideration to significant changes to the project, even if the AUAR raised red flags. We believe that the long-standing environmental injustices inflicted on North Minneapolis make it even more crucial that any development in the community (on the shore of the Mississippi River, no less) should meet a high standard of environmental quality. 

Earlier this month, Community Members for Environmental Justice (CMEJ) and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) told the city that the city's intent to approve a development plan without environmental review was illegal under the Minnesota Environmental Protection Act. In response, the city has stated that it will delay any vote on the coordinated plan for the time being.

It shouldn't take the threat of a lawsuit to get Minneapolis leaders to study a major project's environmental impacts before voting on it. City leaders have consistently rushed the UHT planning process, and we're happy that they've been forced to slow down to comply with a bedrock environmental law.

Development plan still raises many concerns

The environmental review will study multiple development scenarios, examining impacts such as air and water quality, traffic and vehicle emissions, and noise. Community members have consistently raised concerns that the project's design, and particularly the noise and traffic associated with a 10,000 person-capacity outdoor concert venue, will add to the disproportionate environmental burdens North Minneapolis already bears.

This process will delay the city council's vote on the project until fall of 2021. In addition to conducting a full environmental review, we hope that the city will use this time to fill in the many gaps in the plan, provide more concrete information about the project's costs and benefits, and respond to community concerns. 

Roxxanne O'Brien, a North Minneapolis resident and organizer for CMEJ, stated: "It is good to see the City of Minneapolis following bedrock environmental laws by not proceeding with the vote until environmental review is completed, but there are still serious concerns about how the current proposal will change our community.

"The city needs to study alternatives during this environmental review and take seriously concerned community voices to make sure UHT does not become a repeat of the history of environmental and economic pain in the Northside. We do not want to see our community members displaced, left out of the economic benefits of large development projects or continue to be separated from the mental health, recreational and spiritual benefits of the Mississippi River."

Join us in advocating for a better UHT

Read more about this victory in MCEA's press release or this Star Tribune article

Become a River Guardian to hear from us about more opportunities to act when city and state leaders are making important Upper Harbor Terminal and river-related decisions.

For more about Upper Harbor Terminal, follow our UHT Twitter account, check out our blog, or contact Colleen O'Connor Toberman, River Corridor Program Director, at ctoberman@fmr.org or 651-222-2193 x29.