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

The city of Minneapolis said Friday it is willing to sell the Roof Depot site to community organizers seeking to build an urban farm if the group can secure funding from the state Legislature. 

It’s the latest development in the years-long fight over a former Sears warehouse in the diverse and heavily polluted East Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis. The city bought the site in 2016 with intentions to expand its public works campus in the neighborhood. The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, a local nonprofit, wants to convert the building into an indoor urban farm, housing, and community hub. 

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute announced the city would sell them the 7.6-acre site for $16.7 million. A city spokesperson confirmed that Minneapolis would sell the site if public dollars invested in the project were reimbursed by the group. 

“This is a win for the land-back movement, for our community, and sets a national precedent for community-driven initiatives in urban areas overcoming environmental racism. The power is with the people,” said Rachel Thunder, an East Phillips resident and member of the American Indian Movement. 

“This is a win for the land-back movement, for our community, and sets a national precedent for community-driven initiatives in urban areas overcoming environmental racism.”

East Phillips activist Rachel Thunder

City officials met with members of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute and House of Representatives members from Minneapolis Wednesday to negotiate a potential deal for the site. Legislators involved in the meeting did not immediately return messages seeking comment Friday morning. 

“City leaders did participate in a meeting Wednesday with EPNI at the request of state legislators. The City has been open to selling the Roof Depot site to the community if the Waterworks Fund could be repaid,” the city said in a statement Friday morning. 

The city’s statement references a provision laid out in Mayor Jacob Frey’s March 2022 veto of a City Council decision to pause the public works project, in which he said he would support a land sale if the city were reimbursed. However, in multiple court hearings, lawyers for the city have said Minneapolis had no intention of selling the site.  

The city of Minneapolis has spent $16.7 million on the site and had planned to demolish the warehouse and build a new water yard there, a city spokesperson said. The city bought the property for $6.8 million in 2016, according to Hennepin County property records. 

To purchase the site, the organization will need to secure funding from the Legislature, which is in the process of completing omnibus spending deals this month as the session deadline looms in May. 

A bill proposed in the Legislature by Representative Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, and Senator Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, would provide the group with $20 million in funding for the site. But the legislation would need to be included in the Capital Investment omnibus bill, which would then need to pass through the House and Senate. Text of the Capital Investment Omnibus bill has not been published. 

A long fight could be winding down

The battle over the Roof Depot site peaked in February, when a group of protesters occupied the site at E. 28th Street and Longfellow Avenue, which was slated for demolition in early March. A Hennepin County judge granted a temporary injunction to block demolition of the building to allow the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute to plead its case before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. 

Minneapolis police confront protestors who occupied the Roof Depot site in south Minneapolis on February 21, 2023. The city cleared the site hours after protestors erected a tent and tipi for a days-long sit-in. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The group sued the city of Minneapolis, arguing that destroying the building would cause irreparable harm. A hearing before the Court of Appeals is scheduled for May 9. 

East Phillips is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Minnesota, and 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. The United States Environmental Protection Agency declared the surrounding area a federal Superfund site in 2007. 

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...