Community organizer Joe Vital explains the reasons behind starting the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, which hopes to turn the property into an urban farm and community hub. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Cassandra Holmes doesn’t want to get her hopes up. 

The 42-year-old resident of Little Earth, the nation’s first urban housing complex with a preference for Native Americans, has been fighting to make her East Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis healthier and cleaner since 2013. 

She sat on a city advisory committee intended to solicit community input on a plan to demolish a massive warehouse known as the Roof Depot. The original plan involved converting it into a large water storage yard for the city’s public works department. The agency responsible for maintaining city streets, sewers, and water mains would consolidate three facilities into the expansion. But Holmes never felt the city listened to what she and other community members thought. 

Today, she says she feels cautiously optimistic. 

The city of Minneapolis purchased the site in the East Phillips neighborhood in 2016 to complete a long-held goal of expanding its Hiawatha public works campus and consolidating services. Trees lining the Roof Depot have been felled in anticipation of a demolition that, until recently, seemed inevitable.

The area remains home to two industrial sources of pollution, the Smith Foundry and an asphalt mixing plant called Bituminous Roadways. It is bordered by major highways like Hiawatha Avenue (Highway 55) and Interstate 94. The Sabo bike and pedestrian bridge looks down on the site. 

Resistance came from Holmes and other residents of East Phillips, one of the state’s most diverse neighborhoods–and, perhaps not coincidentally, one of its most polluted. They envisioned the 230,000-square-foot structure hosting organic urban farming, local businesses, and affordable housing. They saw a green future in an area so blighted that in 2007 it was declared a federal superfund site.

Neighbors began planning the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm in 2015. Members of the Native American, Somali, Latino, and other local communities found common ground and interest. The group presented the plan to the East Phillips Improvement Coalition at the neighborhood organization’s annual meeting in 2015 and received unanimous support. They found investors and lobbied their state representatives resulting in a 2016 grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to help plan the project.  

“We always knew we wanted something that was beneficial to the community and would bring in jobs and housing and food,” Holmes said.  

The community’s dreams have been written on cardboard signs attached to a chain link fence (topped with barbed wire) that rings the building. Phrases like “for our children” and “comida para todos”—food for all–appear in colorful markers. 

For years, their vision seemed hopeless. But on the eve of demolition, a new sense of optimism is emerging. The events of 2020 upended Minneapolis politics. Demands for racial and environmental justice are louder than ever. Now, activists say, more politicians are listening and the Roof Depot demolition is no longer a forgone conclusion. 

“What happened with the murder of George Floyd has opened some hearts and minds about how neighborhoods control themselves,” said Karen Clark, a former Democratic state representative and longtime East Philips resident. 

History of pollution

Holmes was raised in East Phillips. Her family has long ties to Little Earth. She says an aunt is the longest-term resident of the community. Her great uncle, Clyde Bellecourt, was a founding member of the American Indian Movement.  

“Growing up I never knew about the arsenic here,” she said.  

The arsenic triangle sits atop the former CMC Heartland Partners Lite Yard along the Hiawatha corridor. The site produced and stored arsenic-based pesticides from 1938 to 1963. Crews discovered arsenic lingering there when Hiawatha Avenue was reconstructed in 1994. The federal government declared the area a superfund site from 2007 to 2017. The Environmental Protection Agency found unsafe arsenic levels in 600 area homes and by 2011 had removed about 50,000 tons of contaminated soil

In 2013, Holmes lost her 16-year-old son, Trinidad Flores, to a heart condition. Before getting his diagnosis at age 14, he’d been a healthy child, she said. 

Holmes and others realized they were losing young people to issues like heart conditions, asthma, and diabetes. 

Rates of diseases affiliated with pollution are high in East Phillips, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. The area’s pollution level was so high, and issues like asthma and lead poisoning so prominent, that the Minnesota Legislature passed a special law in 2008 to address the problem. 

Clark fought for that law by showing her fellow legislators maps of concentrated disease levels and poverty in the neighborhood. The bill requires that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency conduct a cumulative impact screening for any facility seeking an emissions permit within the neighborhood. 

Karen Clark, executive director of the Women’s Environmental Institute and EPNI member, explains a map detailing the history of pollution in the East Phillips neighborhood. Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Pollution rates generally fell in the Twin Cities during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, but rose in East Phillips, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The levels of particles less than 2.5 millionths a meter in size (PM2.5) rose 25 percent between March and June 2020, the agency found. These are the tiny particles that studies connect to the development of asthma in children and increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from  cardiovascular disease, according to the American Lung Association.

“A lot of these things haven’t changed,” said Joe Vital, an organizer from East Phillips who chairs the Minnesota DFL’s Native Peoples caucus. 

East Phillips is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the state. About 71 percent of its roughly 4,700 residents are people of color or Indigenous, according to Minnesota Compass. Nearly one third live below the poverty line. East Phillips is a traditional landing ground for immigrants in Minneapolis. Today it has a large population of East African, Latino, African American, and Native American residents. 

“East Phillips was generated by the city to be a place for the undesirables,” Vital said. 

The Minneapolis City Council recognized the area’s plight when it voted to establish the Southside Green Zone in 2017. The zone consists of East Phillips and the adjacent Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The designation created five priorities for the area: encouraging self determination and accountability; improving the quality of the air and soil; boosting healthy food access; stimulating a green economy while preventing displacement of residents; and easing energy cost burdens in housing. 

Advocates for the urban farm believe their project achieves all those goals. The city’s vision doesn’t align with its own Green Zone policies, the group says. 

A good parking spot for heavy trucks? 

Peering down from the Sabo bridge, Dean Dovolis points out rows of parked blue pickup trucks owned by Minneapolis Public Works. The trucks are parked around shipping containers and neat assortments of equipment. 

The city plans to expand that facility, adding more heavy trucks and material storage to the area. It would become a central hub for public works by relocating the main water distribution maintenance and meter shop from northeast Minneapolis. Operations for city sewer and fleet services would also be consolidated into the facility. 

“Once they do this, it’s there forever,” Dovolis said. 

East Phillips Neighborhood Institute organizer Dean Dovolis talks about his hopes for the future of the Roof Depot property. Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

The city of Minneapolis has wanted the Roof Depot site for decades. Public works officials first identified it as a potential site in 1991, according to city documents. The city’s present goal is to expand its current Hiawatha campus to consolidate water distribution and maintenance operations with sewer and fleet services. A centrally located site will make services more efficient and responsive, the city believes.

Asked about the need for the facility, representatives for the public works department directed Sahan Journal to fact sheets about the project. 

The project would replace today’s 100-year-old water distribution facility in northeast Minneapolis and move staff into offices that comply with modern handicap-accessibility standards. Minneapolis public works distributes more than 55,000 gallons of water to residents of the city and eight suburban communities everyday. Water would not be treated at the site, but it would house crews and equipment to maintain the 1,000 miles of water mains, 8,000 fire hydrants, and more than 100,000 water meters on the municipal system. 

The campus would include a job training facility, which the city says will create opportunities for residents to get quality jobs with good benefits. The expansion includes a multi-story parking garage. Solar panels would be installed on the roof. 

The city bought the building for $6.8 million in 2016, Hennepin County property records show. About $11.5 million from the water fund has been spent on the project so far, including architectural fees, according to a city spokesperson. 

An alternate vision

Sears built the Roof Depot building as a massive warehouse in 1947. Dovolis, an architect by trade, says the structure is solid, with a relatively new roof and windows. Tearing it down would be a waste, he said. 

The East Phillips Improvement Coalition, a neighborhood group, were in negotiations to buy the building for $5.4 million in 2016, Dovolis said. 

Minneapolis officials were unaware of other offers to buy the building, a city spokesperson told Sahan Journal. The city denied that it used or threatened to purchase the site through eminent domain, a procedure where the government buys a private property for public use, sometimes without the seller’s agreement. 

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute sprung up in 2019 to further pursue the urban farm project. Representatives from the neighborhood’s many communities: African Americans, East Africans, Latinos, and Native Americans, joined together to form the nonprofit organization.

The vision is to convert the massive warehouse into a community-owned site for indoor hydroponic and aquaponic gardening–a growing method that feeds plants using the waste produced by farmed fish. In East Phillips, the plan would allow Indigenous residents to farm walleye, and use the waste to feed vegetation. 

The plans grew to include spaces for a farmers market, local small business, a cafe, a bike shop, and affordable housing units. A large array of solar panels would go on the roof, providing clean energy to the building and neighborhood residents. 

“This is a model that could really create a good national precedent,” Dovolis said. 

Dovolis, who designed the project, said it would require a $6.9 million investment to make the vision a reality. The proposal calls for 28 two-bedroom apartments, which would become available for low-income residents. 

He estimates 1,000 jobs could stem from the building. If fully occupied and successful, he suggests the building could generate hundreds of  millions of dollars worth of economic development over 10 years. 

Funding would come from a variety of sources. A nonprofit called SHIELD—launched by NFL players Drew Brees, Demario Davis, and Josh Norman—has expressed interest in contributing funds. The project also hopes to get funding from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Hennepin County, and City of Lakes Community Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that helps Minneapolis residents own their homes. 

“This is not fantasy. This is a very real proposal,” Dovolis said.  

Legal battle

In 2020, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute filed a lawsuit against the city alleging it failed to comply with Clark’s state law requiring permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Shortly after, the city agreed to produce an environmental assessment. In February, the city released the 1,087-page document. 

The assessment found the addition would increase pollutant emissions in the area, but not at levels that require new permits. Emissions from vehicles would also rise in the area with the new construction. The city says consolidating its public works facilities under a modern, more efficient building would decrease emissions across the rest of Minneapolis. 

That offers little assurances for the people in the area. The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute and other environmental groups have drawn attention to the assessment and rallied support. 

Jay Eidsness, an attorney with the nonprofit Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, says the assessment fails to account for the unique diversity and historic levels of pollution in East Phillips. In a written comment submitted to the city, the organization argued that Minneapolis is failing to account for environmental justice or climate change. 

“They’re making all these grand statements about green zones and all these problems, but they’re going to continue these projects that do the opposite,” he said.  

The assessment received more than 1,000 public comments in March, an “unprecedented” number, according to a city spokesperson. The assessment was scheduled to go before a city council committee for approval on April 20, but the volume of comments has delayed the process until May 4. 

A new hope

Minneapolis planned to demolish the building and begin construction this year. But activists say the political climate has shifted. With municipal elections on the horizon, city council members and candidates have been increasingly pledging to support their goals. 

 “I truly believe if we weren’t having an election year, we wouldn’t be in this situation right now. We’d be struggling,” Vital said. 

Signs and protest art hangs on the fence bordering the former Roof Deport property. Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins told the group that if they found a buyer, she would support them. 

A buyer has emerged. A firm called Argo Fund One has agreed to become a private investor, according to a letter of intent obtained by Sahan Journal. Argo would offer $6.8 million to  purchase the property, Dovolis said. The firm plans to develop a 60,000 square foot indoor hydroponic farm at the site, according to the letter. 

Jenkins could not be reached by press time, but her staff confirmed that she would vote to support giving the community control of the space. A growing coalition of council members has agreed to support Jenkins, and the group will meet with others this month. 

Mayor Jacob Frey voted against purchasing the Roof Depot site in 2015 as a member of the city council. He told Sahan Journal in a statement that the city council has invested significant money and staff time into the project over the years. 

“If the council has identified a viable path for recouping the taxpayer money expended and providing a similar number of good paying jobs to the neighborhood, I would be open to a new proposal,” Frey said. 

The mayor’s statement implies the group would need to find additional funding to bridge the gap between $6.8 and $11.5 million (which includes the city’s water fund spending) to make their vision a reality. 

Getting the city council to reject the assessment would be the first step in halting the public works project. From there, neighbors are hoping for a city council ordinance that will require Minneapolis to suspend the Hiawatha campus expansion, identify a new site for the facility, and work with East Phillips residents to develop the parcels. Area Council Member Alondra Cano has written a draft of the ordinance, which was obtained by Sahan Journal. Cano’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Activists see the delay as a chance to rally more support for their cause, and a step toward making their own vision a reality.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect a more precise definition of when a portion of East Phillips was declared a federal superfund site.

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...