The Roof Depot site in south Minneapolis includes a vacant warehouse that the nonprofit East Phillips Institute wants to turn into an urban farm and community hub. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Minnesota legislators are expected to approve funding that could create a path for residents of Minneapolis’ diverse and historically polluted East Phillips neighborhood to take over the contested Roof Depot site from the city.

The move signals the potential resolution of a yearslong conflict between city officials aiming to use the site for a public works facility and community members who want to convert an old warehouse there into an indoor urban farm, affordable housing, and local business hub. 

The nonprofit East Phillips Neighborhood Institute has been fighting the city over its plans to convert a former Sears warehouse into a public works water yard. Minneapolis bought the site in 2016 with plans to expand its Hiawatha public works campus in the neighborhood and construct a new hub for city water services. The group has battled the city in court and municipal proceedings, and pursued funding from the state Legislature to buy the site directly.

Instead, legislators plan to provide funding to Minneapolis for its public works project, with the hope that the city can find a new location for the water yard and reach an agreement with the institute to sell the property, according to Representative Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis. 

Lee chairs the Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee, which allocated $4.5 million to Minneapolis for a water distribution facility in its proposed $1.3 billion capital investment bill

“This allows for an opportunity for the city to do that process,” Lee said. 

An additional $2 million allocated for Minneapolis labeled “Hiawatha campus holding costs” included in the tax omnibus bill is also intended to cover costs associated with the Roof Depot site. 

The final tax and capital investment bills still need to pass through the House and Senate before the session closes on May 22, but are expected to reach the desk of Governor Tim Walz. 

Breakthrough came with news that city would sell

Last month, organizers from East Phillips celebrated news that the city is willing to sell the property to the community. The city requested $16.7 million to cover public funds that have gone into the site and water yard plans. Minneapolis purchased the building for $6.8 million, according to Hennepin County property records. 

While the Legislature’s allocated funding is well below that mark, the institute remains optimistic the funding will provide a path to them to buy the 7.6-acre site. 

“We still have hope and we have a plan,” Cassie Holmes, an East Phillips Neighborhood Institute board member and longtime resident of the Little Earth community, said at a news conference last week.

A bill proposed in the Legislature by Representative Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, and Senator Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, would have provided the group with $20 million in funding for the site. But that measure was not included in the capital investment bill. 

Still, institute leaders say they’ve received support from state lawmakers that will let them move forward with the city. 

“The Minneapolis delegation has been a tremendous help in fighting for this,” said East Phillips Neighborhood Institute president Dean Dovolis.

“The Minneapolis [legislative] delegation has been a tremendous help in fighting for this.”

—Dean Dovolis, head of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute 

A city spokesperson declined to comment on the negotiations, citing the fluid nature of proceedings at the State Capitol. 

The institute is optimistic it will reach and be able to finance a purchase agreement with the city, Dovolis said.

“I think the city has realized this project isn’t going away,” he said. 

A long fight

Residents of East Phillips began dreaming of and planning their indoor urban farm project in 2015, and contested the city’s purchase of the site the next year. Over the years and along with multiple cohorts on the City Council, they’ve delayed plans to demolish the old Sears warehouse to preserve their vision. 

The battle over the Roof Depot site peaked in February, when a group of protesters occupied the site at East 28th Street and Longfellow Avenue, which was slated for demolition in early March. 

Jolene Jones, an organizer with Little Earth Protectors, speaks at an occupation of the Roof Depot site in south Minneapolis on February 21, 2023. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The city and the institute remain embroiled in a lawsuit aimed at protecting the 14th Amendment rights of East Phillips residents to life and liberty, citing historical pollution in the neighborhood. That case is the source of the temporary injunction that delayed demolition of the Roof Depot to allow for the case to be heard by the Court of Appeals. That delay, in turn, allowed time for a deal to be reached with state lawmakers. 

Oral arguments in the case were held May 9. The Court of Appeals has 90 days to issue a ruling. 

On April 18, the Minnesota Supreme Court officially declined to review a separate case brought by the institute determining whether the city’s environmental review process for the proposed public works project was adequate, according to court records. 

The institute argued that the city should not be allowed to declare its own environmental assessment sufficient, and contended that Minneapolis was not honoring a 2008 state law that called for regulators to consider cumulative pollution impacts for new industrial facilities in the area. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city in February. 

East Phillips, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Minnesota, has a long history of industrial and transportation pollution that has resulted in elevated levels of asthma and heart disease, according to state and federal records.

The Roof Depot site is adjacent to a former pesticide factory that produced arsenic. In 2007, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the surrounding area a federal Superfund site. The neighborhood is included in Minneapolis’ south side Green Zone, areas designated as being heavily polluted and home to a large number of people of color.  

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...