The Roof Depot site in Minneapolis' Southside Green Zone, an environmental justice community where diverse residents face high levels of pollution. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

The city of Minneapolis Wednesday officially approved the sale of the long-contested Roof Depot site to a neighborhood group planning to turn the warehouse into an indoor urban farm, housing, and community hub. 

The $3.7 million purchase of the site, a former Sears warehouse in south Minneapolis, by the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute came after years of protests, legal fights, and advocacy. The agreement, part of a deal brokered by state lawmakers this summer, gives the group the ability to formally seek tenants and put its vision into action.

Cassie Holmes, a longtime East Phillips resident who sued Minneapolis over environmental and health concerns about the city’s plans to convert the site into a public works facility, said she could barely believe that the deal was done. 

“I actually thought I was going to pass out,” Holmes said. 

Through the lawsuit and the media, Holmes shared the story of losing her son, Trinidad Flores, to a heart condition in 2013, when he was just 16. She learned that her neighborhood was among the most polluted in the state, resulting in well-documented health disparities and high levels of heart and respiratory disease, according to state data, and believes that damaged her son’s health.

Last week, Sahan Journal reported on several federal Clean Air Act violations at a metal foundry adjacent to the Roof Depot site that resulted in years of high lead and particulate matter pollution in East Phillips. 

“It feels like this heavy weight has been lifted,” Holmes said. 

In May, the Legislature approved $12.2 million in funding to help secure a deal for the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute to buy the site. The deal awarded $6.5 million to the city in 2023, and agreed to provide another $5.7 million in 2024 if the Institute could raise an additional $3.7 million to finalize the purchase. 

The city confirmed Wednesday that the institute had its share of the financing in place in the form of a guaranty. 

“Now we can start working with the community and get this thing built,” said Dean Dovolis, president of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute.  

A rendering of the East Phillips urban farm project. Credit: Image courtesy of East Phillips Neighborhood Institute

The group hopes to transform the 230,000 square foot warehouse into an indoor farm with hydroponic and aquaponic gardening, room for about 20 local businesses and organizations, and affordable housing, all capped and powered by a massive rooftop solar array. They are pursuing an ownership arrangement in which the community would control two thirds of the site and outside investors the remaining third. 

The project is being designed by Dovolis’ architecture firm, DJR. 

East Phillips residents began planning an indoor urban farm in 2015, and attempted to buy the site at the time. But the city had planned to expand its public works campus in the neighborhood for decades, and purchased the warehouse in 2016 for $6.8 million. The city planned to consolidate water services on the site, and was slated to demolish the 230,000-square-foot warehouse.

The institute fought the city in the courts and built public support through protests and appeals to other local elected officials. 

“The momentum just kept building for it, and was relentless,” Dovolis said. 

The fight escalated this winter after the City Council narrowly voted to go ahead with demolishing the site. Protesters from East Phillips and allies from the American Indian Movement occupied the area on February 21. Days later, a Hennepin County judge granted a temporary injunction that delayed the city’s planned site demolition to allow the institute’s lawsuit to be heard by the state Court of Appeals. The delay allowed state legislators to get involved in negotiations.

The institute will officially close on the property in June 2024, when the Legislature is expected to pay out the remaining $5.7 million to the city. 

Holmes and Dovolis say they know it will be challenging to put the group’s vision into place. But they’re inspired by the resilience of their community. Fighting with the city over the years took a toll, but Holmes said she felt like something good had to happen for the neighborhood. 

“East Phillips is really something,” Holmes said. 

Dovolis said he’s been impressed with the state of the building. He’s already thinking about what comes next. 

“Now, we actually get it built and make it real,” Dovolis said. 

Andrew Hazzard is a reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew returned...