Minneapolis, MN — It’s been a long road to ownership of the hotly contested Roof Depot site for the residents of the East Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis, and they recently cleared one more hurdle in their way.
On November 8, the City of Minneapolis accepted a guarantee from East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) of their contribution of $3.7 million, effectively sealing EPNI’s end of the deal to purchase the Roof Depot from the city and launch next steps toward their vision for the site.
The battle over the Roof Depot began nearly eight years ago in the Minneapolis city government as residents and activists fought to stop the city from demolishing the existing building to construct a new water distribution facility. The Roof Depot is a former industrial manufacturing and storage site containing a slew of environmental and health hazards, including lead, asbestos, and arsenic.
Opponents to the demolition project said that the city’s plan would release a balloon of pollutants into the surrounding area along with contaminating groundwater, continuing a long history of environmental neglect that has led to adverse health effects for residents, such as high rates of asthma and elevated levels of lead in blood.
Joe Vital, a community organizer with EPNI, said of city officials, “They’re not considering the human impact of the city’s assessment. They’re just going off of permitting levels, what is accepted, what is allowed.”
Instead of a public works facility, the environmental justice-centered group of neighbors who make up EPNI proposed building a massive community center — the centerpiece of which is an indoor farm — with the goal of boosting access to local produce, green space, and economic opportunities in East Phillips, where a majority of residents are people of color and over a quarter currently live below the state poverty threshold.
EPNI tried to buy the property from the city for years in order to implement their urban farm vision, even after the City of Minneapolis outbid them and secured the Roof Depot for $7 million in 2016.
During a long, heated fight with the city, EPNI suffered a string of defeats as they bounced between chambers of local government and court systems trying to halt demolition for long enough to have a chance for their vision to be realized. Meanwhile, their campaign was gaining traction across the city.
Occupation of Roof Depot Marks a Turning Point in EPNI’s Campaign
Eventually, advocates for the urban farm project decided that they had exhausted their options, and the only form of recourse left to them was to stage an occupation of the site before it was too late.
“Playing nice isn’t going to make them come to our side. We’ve tried appeasing them with stories of us losing family members, we tried to appease them with compromises, and nothing is enough for them,” Vital said.
Early in the morning of February 21, as the first flakes of a snowstorm were starting to fall, activists entered the Roof Depot site. They held ceremonies, lit a spirit fire, and settled in to camp there with the intention of physically blocking construction crews from demolishing the building, as they were slated to do on February 27.
They issued a series of demands for the city to abandon the public works project, give the site to the neighborhood, and to financially support the indoor urban farm plan.
Rachel Thunder, a member of the American Indian Movement and resident of East Phillips, laid out the demands in a speech to supporters and press that were gathered at the site.
“Minneapolis is acting on environmental racism that will further the genocide of Indigenous people and community members in South Minneapolis. If action is not taken by the city to meet all of our demands for justice, community members of East Phillips and close partners are prepared to maintain our current occupation of the Roof Depot.”Rachel Thunder
The occupation only lasted until that evening when dozens of police officers arrived to remove everyone from the site, arresting several people, including Thunder. Nevertheless, the events of February 21 signaled an inflection point in the trajectory of EPNI’s campaign.
Significant Win in the State Legislature Supersedes City’s Reticence
That same week, just before demolition was to begin, a Hennepin County District Judge issued an injunction to delay construction until a decision was made on a pending lawsuit that EPNI had brought against the city regarding the Roof Depot site. The pause was enough for the neighborhood institute and its supporters to regroup and turn the tides in their favor.
They took the fight to the Minnesota legislature, where they lobbied state officials to support a bill co-authored by East Phillips’ Representative Hodan Hassan (DFL-District 62B) to assist EPNI with costs of purchasing and developing the site. By May, the bill had passed through the chambers of state government and reached the desk of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who agreed to allow the sale to proceed.
A new agreement with the State of Minnesota, the City of Minneapolis and the East Phillips Neighborhood which will pave the way for neighborhood control of the Roof Depot super fund site is set to be approved at the #mnleg on May 22. [Report from Feb. '23] https://t.co/Ow8wfesBIZ— UNICORN RIOT (@UR_Ninja) May 21, 2023
Vital attributed the sudden success to two factors: “Friends being in places of power, including Hodan Hassan as chair [of the House Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee] and community power.”
The price tag of the Roof Depot ran to $11.4 million, which included reimbursing the city for what they had already spent in preparation for the demolition project, as well as associated costs of relocating the new public works campus.
EPNI was held responsible for $3.7 million of those dollars, which they raised through individual donations and investors. The difference is supposed be covered by the state of Minnesota via a grant to the city. The sale is set to close on July 15, 2024 as long as all parties can provide the necessary funds by that time.
“Words are one thing, coming out with the bills is another,” Vital said. He added that he trusts the state to make good on their funding promises, but he said, “if not, we showed up here, we’re going to show up there.”
The Vision Moves Forward
The fight with the city may have been settled, but much of the work is just getting underway. EPNI has now turned its focus toward achieving the neighborhood’s vision for what to make of the former Roof Depot. Regular community meetings have generated a wealth of possibilities for a place to serve the neighborhood’s needs and provide paths toward the future that residents want to see.
Plans include the centerpiece indoor aquaponic farm, restaurant and retail space, artists’ studios, and a new building with affordable housing units. During a celebratory block party in June 2023, lead architect Dean Dovolis shared with Unicorn Riot some of the plans and blueprints of the site.
All of these plans, pending the $10 million for renovations and $12-15 million for new construction that EPNI is trying to secure, will be built within and around the existing building in order to keep the environmental contaminants sealed in place, and not wafting into the surrounding neighborhood. According to EPNI, renovation of the main building will be complete by the summer of 2025.
At first, EPNI will be the sole owner of the property, but Vital said that they plan to transfer it into a shared ownership model soon thereafter. That model places one-third in the hands of the commercial tenants of the building, one-third owned cooperatively by residents of East Phillips that choose to participate, and the remaining third with outside investors.
“We’ve heard so much from the public about private investment superseding the community’s voice and control, so we’re going to open that up and make that a priority,” Vital said. “This community deserves everything, and we won’t accept anything less.”
This particular battle is moving on, but EPNI has shown that they aren’t done fighting to make their neighborhood safe from industrial pollutants. Two days after the Roof Depot deposit deadline, many of those same activists held a rally outside Smith Foundry, an iron processing plant which sits directly across the street from the Roof Depot, advocating for it to be shuttered after it was reported by the EPA to have repeatedly violated the Clean Air Act between 2018 and 2023.
These violations include emitting twice the amount of air pollution allowed, as well as broken ventilation and air filters. A City of Minneapolis report found that Smith Foundry is a source of airborne lead, and according to the EPA report, shows that the amount is over the permitted levels.
“We couldn’t even celebrate for one day before we needed to be out here,” Vital said to the crowd gathered. “We’re going to green our neighborhood because East Phillips, for too long, has been a place of exceptions for pollution. But now we’re going to make this an exceptional zone together.”
Cover image contributed by Ellie Zimmerman.
Past coverage providing further context:
EPNI board member Cassie Holmes shared with Unicorn Riot some of the history of the East Phillips community dealing with the Roof Depot site.
In late January 2023, the Minneapolis City Council voted 7-6 that the Roof Depot site was to be demolished.
In February, Daniel Schmidt, an organizer with the EPNI’s Communications Team, spoke on the history of environmental racism in Minneapolis, including the origin of the arsenic plume that lays dormant underneath the East Phillips Roof Depot site.