An Indigenous community activist and security guard exchange words at a Minneapolis City Council meeting on February 23, 2023. Activists attended the meeting in hopes of convincing the council to put a stop to the Roof Depot demolition. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Activists fighting to preserve the Roof Depot building for use as an indoor urban farm, housing, and community business hub are turning to the state Legislature and Minnesota’s highest courts for relief. 

The Minneapolis City Council voted in January to demolish the 230,000-square-foot warehouse in the East Phillips neighborhood to make way for an expansion to its Hiawatha Public Works facility. The vacant Sears building sits on a 7.5-acre parcel of land in south Minneapolis near E. 28th Street and Longfellow Avenue. 

That hasn’t stopped the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, the nonprofit behind the urban farm vision, and its supporters from launching an aggressive, multi-pronged strategy that has included litigation, a mass occupation, disruption of a Minneapolis City Council meeting, and the lobbying of state lawmakers.

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute is hoping for victories in Minnesota’s court system while it simultaneously seeks $20 million in funding from lawmakers to buy the building and land. Part of activists’ motivation to save the building is to keep arsenic-contaminated soil trapped under the warehouse instead of being unearthed during demolition.

“We ask you to grant us this critical step toward community self-determination,” activist Rachel Thunder testified at a House committee hearing Wednesday about the proposed funding. 

Thunder is a member of the American Indian Movement, and was arrested and cited by Minneapolis police while occupying the Roof Depot site on February 21 during a sit-in that attempted to block demolition. 

Activists received a boost when Hennepin County District Court Judge Edward Wahl granted the group a temporary injunction on February 24 that postponed the city’s imminent demolition plans so their case can be heard by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Wahl had initially denied the injunction request on February 13, ruling that activists had not proved that the demolition would cause irreparable harm. He revisited the issue when activists asked the Court of Appeals to review his February 13 ruling.

The institute and other groups championing their vision, including the American Indian Movement, have rallied substantial public support in the past month. They’re optimistic the Legislature will appropriate substantial funding to their project, which they believe will allow them to return to the negotiating table with the city to make a purchase offer. 

City attorneys have repeatedly stated in court that Minneapolis is not interested in selling the building to the institute. 

Activist Rachel Thunder stands in front of a red tipi that was erected on the Roof Depot site on February 21, 2023, during a mass sit-in that attempted to block the demolition of a vacant warehouse on the property. Thunder is an East Phillips resident and Plains Cree First Nations member. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Seeking support in St. Paul

Representative Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, held a hearing Wednesday for a bill she sponsors that would grant the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute $20 million. Hodan represents the East Phillips neighborhood and introduced a similar bill the last two sessions. 

She’s hopeful it will pass this year, and told her colleagues at an Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee hearing that the urban farm project would be a major economic boon for her district. 

“This farm will support its residents well,” Hodan said. 

Multiple East Phillips residents who have played roles in the institute’s project and the protests against the city testified in favor of the bill at Wednesday’s hearing. 

The institute’s vision would construct a large rooftop community solar garden, create deeply affordable housing, and bring an estimated 200 to 400 jobs to the neighborhood through the farm and small business space, testified Dean Dovolis, chairman of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute. 

Minneapolis City Council Member Robin Wonsley also testified, asking lawmakers to step in where she said the city had failed. The East Phillips neighborhood deserves a just and sustainable future, an emotional Wonsley said. 

“You all, our state lawmakers, are literally our last hope,” she said. 

Legislators voted to advance the bill to the House Capital Investment Committee, where a hearing is anticipated to be held within two weeks. The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute is hopeful that the amount appropriated will be increased to $100 million in that committee, Dovolis said. 

If the bill passes there, it can go to the full House for a vote. State Senator Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, is carrying the bill in the Senate. 

Funding from the state would vastly improve the chances of successfully negotiating with the city to buy the building, Dovolis told Sahan Journal.

A red tipi was erected outside a vacant Sears warehouse on the Roof Depot site in south Minneapolis on February 21, 2023. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Pending legal cases

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute has two related legal cases working their way through Minnesota’s court systems. One case is asking the Minnesota Court of Appeals to review Wahl’s February 13 ruling in district court initially rejecting the injunction. Another case is asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to review a Court of Appeals decision about Minneapolis’ environmental assessment of the Roof Depot site. 

The institute filed a lawsuit against the city in district court in June 2020 that led to Judge Wahl’s February 13 and 24 rulings. That lawsuit is still active, and has a tentative trial date set for April 2024. 

The lawsuit is asking a judge to make Minneapolis file an environmental impact statement, comply with state air permitting policies, and to protect the 14th Amendment rights of East Phillips residents to life and liberty, citing historical pollution in the neighborhood.  

When Wahl granted the temporary injunction on February 24, he ordered lawyers for the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute to request an expedited review of its case before the Court of Appeals. 

The institute is complying with Wahl’s request, said institute attorney Elizabeth Royal. But the group also wants its initial lawsuit to go to trial, and is still seeking discovery documents—also known as evidence—from the city of Minneapolis, she added. 

”[The institute’s] interest is to have this go on as long as possible so we can proceed with the case,” Royal said. 

The Court of Appeals is obligated to take on any case brought before it, but not required to work on any given timeline, said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. 

Prior to filing the lawsuit, in January 2020, the institute presented the city with a petition asking Minneapolis to complete an environmental assessment worksheet, which was released in February 2021. The City Council approved the worksheet as adequate and determined a more rigorous environmental impact statement was not necessary. Through a seldom-used process of Minnesota court procedures, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute contested the City Council decision directly to the Court of Appeals. 

On February 6, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city. Now, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute is petitioning the state Supreme Court to review that decision, Royal said. 

The group believes the lower courts are not properly considering a 2008 state law that calls for regulators to consider cumulative impacts in the area, according to Miles Ringsred, an attorney for the institute. The petition contests whether the city can act alone in producing and approving the environmental assessment worksheet, and whether the city properly considered environmental justice factors. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the courts to set a higher bar for environmental standards and regulations,” Ringsred said. 

The Supreme Court is not obligated to take cases, said Daly, who has argued cases before the court. Typically, the court will decide whether to hear a case within 90 days of receiving a petition requesting a review. If the court decides to take the case, attorneys have 60 to 90 days to file briefs before arguments are heard in court.

It can take months for the state Supreme Court to issue a ruling after hearing arguments, Daly said, adding that the entire process from petition to decision typically takes more than six months.

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...