‘Greening’ the fields

The East Bank Mills project was one of a half-dozen Bridge-area developments and businesses to receive environmental grants this year. Developer Schafer Richardson will use the funds to clean up contaminated dirt and debris from behind the historic Pillsbury ‘A’ Mill.

Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Environmental grants set stage for later development

Though the heyday of railroads and flour mills may be mere memories in Minneapolis, these retired industries have left behind physical remains that new developers have to deal with before they can turn a rail yard or former factory into something new. To encourage redevelopment of previously used properties, local, regional and state government agencies award funds for assessment and cleanup of contaminated sites. Earlier this year, The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), Metropolitan Council and Hennepin County awarded their most recent rounds of grants intended for environmental assessment and cleanup, job creation and tax-base revitalization related to a variety of proposed and ongoing development across the state, metro and county — including many in Bridgeland.

Another round

In January, Hennepin County awarded its 15th set of semiannual Environmental Response Fund (ERF) grants. Of the 20 total grants — totaling $2.4 million — six went toward Bridge-area projects. The idea is to make the properties as attractive for development as previously undeveloped areas, or “green fields,” said Dave Jaeger, county contaminated lands unit supervisor.
There are two types of ERF grants: cleanup and assessment. For example, contaminated soil and debris will be cleaned up at East Bank Mills, the site of the historic Pillsbury “A” Mill and, eventually, one of Minneapolis’ largest and most ambitious redevelopment projects. Meanwhile, Huron Flats in Prospect Park and a vacant parcel near 26th Street and Minnehaha Avenue in Seward were given evaluation funds to find out whether the sites are contaminated and, if so, what kind of cleanup they’d need in order to meet standards for future use. Cleanup requirements vary depending on, for example, whether the site will be for residential or industrial use.

The county program, which began in 2001, is funded by a county mortgage registry and deed tax. Developers, nonprofits, owners or government agencies are eligible for the grants, said Jaeger. Recipients have a year to complete assessments and two years to complete cleanups. As of early March, Jaeger said contracts were in place for about half of this round’s grants. County monies are distributed as reimbursements, not lump sums, he added.

Jaeger said the Hennepin County grants work “hand in hand” with similar grants from the state and Metropolitan Council that, unlike the county’s, must be channeled through a county, municipality, tribe or governmental agency. The City of Minneapolis, for instance, administers metro and state funds — such as DEED grants in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — according to Kevin Carroll, a city staffer who works on brown field grant programs.

Different projects may receive funding from one or more of these sources, added Jaeger. For example, Digigraphics in Seward received grants from all three sources for the investigation and cleanup of the 2.8-acre site at 2639 Minnehaha Ave. S. The three funding sources prioritize projects differently, Jaeger said. A property’s potential to be used as “green space” ranks high for the county, because the state and Metropolitan Council grants have focused on other things — job creation and tax-base revitalization, respectively.

Contaminants at the old mill

East Bank Mills developer Schafer Richardson will use its $283,801 county ERF grant to remove contaminated dirt and debris from behind the historic Pillsbury “A” Mill, Project Manager Maureen Michalski said. They hope to begin removing soil next spring — necessary before they can begin work on the underground parking and “internal street” that will eventually occupy that area.

Those projects are part of “phase one” development, which also includes renovating for mixed commercial and residential use two of the buildings that comprise the “A” Mill, along with a machine shop located behind it. Michalski said this grant will take care of all known remediation needed for phase one. They don’t yet know what cleanup they’ll need to do for later phases, she said, but, given the industrial history of the site, it’s likely they’ll have to do more in the future.

Economy affecting environmental funding?

For the county’s ERF grants, funding is secure for the near future; during its 2008 session, the Legislature renewed funding for the county grants for another five years. And, according to DEED spokeswoman Kirsten Morell, the state expects to continue offering about $4 million in contamination cleanup funds twice yearly into the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, following its recent grant allocation — which included $22,4000 to Digigraphics in Seward — contamination cleanup funding through the Metropolitan Council is on hold right now as the council considers reallocating that money to maintain Metro Transit operations in light of a projected $62.5 million regional transit budget shortfall, Met Council spokesperson Bonnie Kollodge said in an email. That means it will provide no spring funding for contamination cleanup — something it has done twice a year since 1996, according to planner Marcus Martin. The Metropolitan Council is directing people in need of assessment or cleanup funds to the other existing sources, including ERF and DEED grants and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota departments of commerce, agriculture and health.

While the county’s funding is secure for the next several years, the struggling economy is still affecting its awards; Jaeger said the county awarded more assessments than usual during this round, likely because many developers don’t currently have the money to go ahead with construction. While cleanups are most effective in conjunction with construction, county ERF grants provide funding only for removing environmental barriers to development, not for the construction that follows. The practice of “land banking,” or cleaning up a site without a clear plan for reuse, is rare.

Bridge-area environmental grants announced this year

Hennepin County ERF grants

• 2600 Minnehaha Ave. S., $31,000
• Como Student Community Cooperative, $50,000
• Digigraphics, $22,455
• East Bank Mills, $283,801
• Huron Flats, $32,500
• Sydney Hall Student Residence and Dinky Dome, $80,033

DEED contamination cleanup grants

• Sydney Hall and Dinky Dome, $414,760
• Digigraphics, $259,099

Metropolitan Council brownfield cleanup grants

• Digigraphics, $22,400

last revised: May 29, 2009