East Phillips organizer Joe Vital speaks at a rally outside the Hennepin County courthouse on December 15, 2022. East Phillips residents won a historic agreement to buy the site from the city. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Update: The bonding bill with funding for the project passed through the Legislature Monday.

Residents of Minneapolis’ diverse and historically polluted East Phillips neighborhood won a historic victory Saturday when the city agreed to sell the long-contested Roof Depot site to an organization that hopes to create an indoor urban farm, housing, and community hub.

The city will sell the Roof Depot site, a former Sears warehouse that was slated to become a Minneapolis public works campus, to the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute for $3.7 million, officials confirmed this weekend. The deal was reached among the city, institute members, and lawmakers representing Minneapolis who fought to award $6.5 million to the city this year intended to cover costs associated with the public works campus planning.

“We are excited,” said Cassie Holmes, an institute board member and longtime resident of East Phillips. “I imagined we’d be in this position; I just didn’t think it would take this long.”

Holmes grew up in Little Earth, a Native American community in the East Phillips neighborhood. She has worked for environmental justice in the area since 2013, when she lost her son, Trinidad Flores, to a heart condition associated with pollution. She sat on committees, attended meetings, met with politicians, and was a party to a lawsuit, all of which involved years of battling Minneapolis for community control of the 7.6-acre site.

The deal requires the institute to raise the $3.7 million by September 7, according to a news release from the state DFL. Should the group successfully raise those funds, the state will award an additional $5.7 million in 2024 to help cover taxpayer money spent planning for a new public works water yard on the site.

“We deeply appreciate the Minneapolis delegation’s assistance in reaching this historical deal to invest in a visionary model for public health and economic development in Minneapolis,” said Dean Dovolis, president of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute. “This is a win both for the community and for Minneapolis. Both will benefit economically and socially, and we look forward to our collaboration to build a great project we can all be proud of.”

Legislators aid in historic deal

Lawmakers representing Minneapolis encouraged the city to reach a deal with the institute, and agreed to provide funding in this session’s capital investment bonding and tax bills that will pay the city to plan its public works water yard elsewhere. The tax bill passed the House and Senate on Sunday. The bonding bill passed Monday before the legislative session deadline.

Dovolis said legislators made it clear to city leaders in negotiations that they needed to reach an agreement with the institute if they wanted full funding for other Minneapolis budget requests.

“I am pleased to see the state and the city partnering together to find solutions for the people and families who live and work in my district,” said Representative Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis. “With a third of East Phillips residents living below the poverty line, the community is in great need of affordable housing, investment in jobs and infrastructure, and sustainable development. While this project will be a long road, I’m thankful we were able to make progress on this investment in our community. I am confident the vision for the Roof Depot will one day become a reality.”

“I’m thankful we were able to make progress on this investment in our community. I am confident the vision for the Roof Depot will one day become a reality.”

Representative Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis

Hodan and Senator Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, who represent the area, fought for a bill that would have awarded $20 million to the institute to buy the site from the city. Last month, city officials announced they were willing to sell the site for $16.7 million, the amount they say has been spent in public money on acquisition, maintenance, and planning. Instead, lawmakers will fund the city directly to move the public works project.

“The city’s goal since the start of this process has been to build a facility that allows us to continue to provide clean water to the people of Minneapolis,” Mayor Jacob Frey said in a prepared statement. “This agreement would move us closer to that goal, address community wishes, and avoid double charging Minneapolis property taxpayers.”

Residents fought for years

East Phillips residents began planning their indoor urban farm vision in 2015, and attempted to buy the site at the time. But the city of Minneapolis 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.

Two versions of the Minneapolis City Council wavered over the years, at times appearing ready to move forward with the project, and at other moments working toward a compromise with East Phillips organizers. The city offered the community group several deals, including provisions for three acres of land to build an urban farm. But organizers held firm.

”We weren’t going to settle for any less,” Holmes said.

Activists called for Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to come out of his office to meet with elders of the Little Earth housing complex on Thursday, February 23, 2023. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The fight for the Roof Depot site 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.

For years, East Phillips residents shared data on the high rates of asthma, heart disease, and other pollution-related illnesses that persist in the neighborhood. They told painful and personal stories of coughing children and relatives who died young.

Through the years, East Phillips residents have shared painful and personal stories of suffering due to high rates of asthma, heart disease, and other pollution-related illnesses.

Home to highways and industrial sites, the neighborhood has some of the worst health outcomes in Minnesota, state data show. The area was largely declared a federal Superfund site in 2007, which stemmed from an arsenic factory adjacent to the Roof Depot site.

“Throughout this process, I have been inspired by the community’s organizing and their vision for a sustainable and community-driven project,” said Representative Samantha Sencer-Mura, DFL-Minneapolis. “The city and state working together on a solution is an important step in the right direction. I believe any development needs to be reflective of the diverse communities that call East Phillips home, and I am committed to working with the Minneapolis delegation to ensure the community’s vision can come to fruition.”

Now the institute will be charged with raising the $3.7 million in just four months. Dovolis said he is optimistic about that process. The group has previously lined up significant investors. It has support from a hydroponic and aquaponic agriculture firm, and local business leaders such as Afro Deli owner Abdirahman Kahin.

But implementing its vision will take time and money.

“We know we have a lot of work to do,” Holmes said.

Holmes said she is grateful for the work so many East Phillips community members contributed over the years. She credited leaders like Carol Pass and former state representative Karen Clark for their persistence. Battling City Hall often left Holmes feeling sad and physically ill, she said. Holmes and other community members took time off work and from their personal lives to fight for a healthier future for their children and future generations.

”I don’t think they understood the toll it took,” she said.

Andrew Hazzard is a staff 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...