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Residents of the diverse and highly polluted East Phillips neighborhood rallied in downtown Minneapolis Thursday to protest the city’s plan to demolish an aging warehouse that community members want to convert into an urban farm and community resource hub.
Attorneys for the proposed farm clashed with the city at a court hearing earlier that morning, where a city attorney asked that the farm pay a $4.5 million bond to cover the costs of delaying the demolition.
“Urban farm, not toxic harm,” the group chanted outside the Hennepin County courthouse as they held up paper mache bumblebees. The group supports the nonprofit East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, the organization behind the proposed farm.
The nonprofit has fought with the city of Minneapolis for years over the future of the Roof Depot site, an old Sears warehouse located on top of a former federal superfund site that was contaminated with arsenic. Minneapolis bought the site near E. 28th St. and Longfellow Avenue in 2016, and plans to expand an existing public works facilities there.
At the court hearing Thursday morning, lawyers for the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute argued that the city should be prohibited from demolishing the warehouse in February as planned. The city attorney’s office asked Hennepin County District Judge Edward Wahl to order the nonprofit to pay a bond fee of $4.5 million to cover the cost if the city’s plans are delayed.
The case is one of two lawsuits filed by the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute against the city playing out in Minnesota courts. The other lawsuit, currently before the Minnesota Court of Appeals, contends that the city of Minneapolis failed to comply with state law by not producing a cumulative environmental impact statement documenting the effects of the project on local air quality. The case is currently being deliberated, with a ruling expected by March.
The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute is seeking an injunction from the judge to delay the demolition until after the court of appeals makes its ruling. The city wants to go forward with the demolition.
Activists want to see the injunction granted, but the city’s proposed bond “makes it much harder,” said East Phillips Neighborhood Institute organizer Joe Vital. The institute wants to use the existing structure for its urban farm, a community business and job training center, and affordable housing.
The bond is needed to cover the costs of any delay, which would otherwise be shouldered by the public, Minneapolis assistant city attorney Mark Enslin told the judge.
“Those costs are borne by city residents,” he said.
Elizabeth Royal, an attorney for the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, told Sahan Journal the requested bond amount was outrageous and unheard of.
The city proposed a compromise plan that would give the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute development rights for a project on 2.9 acres of the 7.5-acre site in 2021. But the city has no intention of selling the group the warehouse, Enslin said.
Minneapolis has received bids on the demolition, Enslin told the court. The City Council’s vote on the bid has not been scheduled.
A key question before Judge Wahl is whether the demolition will unduly cause pollution in the area. Supporters of the urban farm say demolition could release arsenic and other chemical pollutants into the neighborhood, which experiences higher levels of pollution and related diseases, such as asthma, than other areas of Minneapolis.
“Any additional pollution is likely to cause even more harm,” said Jessica Blome, an attorney for the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute.
Minneapolis officials said they have contracts with professional firms to limit potential pollution, and are doing everything they can to make the process safe for the neighborhood.
East Phillips has a long-documented history of pollution recognized by city, state, and federal governments. The Roof Depot site is in the arsenic triangle, an industrial area in the Hiawatha Avenue corridor that produced and stored arsenic-based pesticides from 1938 to 1963. It was declared a federal superfund site in 2007, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remove 50,000 tons of contaminated soil in the neighborhood.
In 2008, Minnesota passed a law requiring the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to conduct a cumulative impact screening for facilities seeking an emissions permit in the area. In 2017, the Minneapolis City Council included the East Phillips neighborhood in its Southside Green Zone, a designation meant to improve air quality and increase community control over projects in highly polluted, diverse areas.
The neighborhood is among the most diverse in the state. Seventy percent of residents are people of color, and 30 percent were born outside the United States.
“Minneapolis is doubling down on a plan that would force East Phillips to pay for the privilege of no more pollution,” said Satish Desai, an organizer with the Sierra Club, a national environmental advocacy organization.
The city contends that because the public works project is not seeking an emissions permit, it was not required to complete a cumulative environmental impact statement. Instead, in 2021, Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development submitted a less strenuous review known as an environmental assessment, which found that the project would raise emissions in the air, but not to a level that would require a permit.
The city’s plan to expand its public works facilities at the site would add an 800-space parking garage and a new diesel fueling station for city work trucks, which activists say would increase pollution. The city argues that trucks are already fueling up at an existing fueling station on the site.
“Where we diverge with EPNI (East Phillips Neighborhood Institute) is whether this project adds to the harms to this community or not,” Enslin, the assistant city attorney, said at Thursday’s court hearing.
The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute says it will continue its fight, no matter the judge’s ruling on the injunction and potential $4.5 million bond.