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Roof Depot ‘deal’ looks more like a mayor running roughshod over East Phillips community

Instead of an arsenic remediation plan, the city released a lengthy report from 2020 about how the demolition would occur.

This rendition provides a view of what the Roof Depot site could look like if it were developed in the community vision.
This rendition provides a view of what the Roof Depot site could look like if it were developed in the community vision.
DJR Architecture

On June 30, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution to advance its Hiawatha Campus Expansion project in the East Phillips neighborhood. This project aims to demolish the former Roof Depot building and build a consolidated Public Works campus for the city.

The project centralizes equipment storage and refueling for hundreds of utility trucks and heavy diesel equipment and adds a 400+ slot parking ramp. The resolution approved a list of terms for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) proposed by the mayor to the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI), providing a three-acre parcel of land on the property after demolition.

EPNI, largely led by East Phillips area residents, has worked diligently for years to stop the demolition project, which they say will further endanger the health and well-being of community members. They envision repurposing this building as a resource with which to create green jobs and development that would strengthen the community.

At council meetings, the city and the mayor hailed this “deal” as a beacon of hope in a tumultuous time and a celebration of the power of good-faith negotiations. They described how our heroic mayor swooped in after years of deadlock and developed a solution approved of by the community, the council and the city. Unfortunately, there is no such deal.

EPNI and the community have welcomed negotiations, but neither has approved the deal outlined in the MOU. Though some council members have acted in good faith, this negotiation has been marred by a city-controlled, inflexible process: a strongly limited scope of discussion, restrictions on who can participate, and a continuing lack of consideration for the community’s principal concern — to stop additional environmental harm. 

The East Phillips neighborhood, one of the most diverse in Minneapolis, is located within the Southside Green Zone, part of the city’s own initiative to advance environmental justice. Levels of pollution are some of the highest in the state, causing disproportionately elevated rates of respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological illness for adults and children. The building sits atop an arsenic plume, and its continued presence helps keep the arsenic in the ground. This arsenic previously caused the Environmental Protection Agency to designate the area a “Superfund Site,” prompting immediate soil removal from over 600 homes.

In late May, EPNI received word that the mayor wanted to meet about the project on June 3. It quickly became apparent that the circumstances surrounding the meeting would be strictly controlled. EPNI representatives were invited to watch a pre-recorded video of the inside of the building, with a preface about the dangers of its condition.

After the viewing, EPNI President Dean Dovolis, an architect with years of relevant experience, asserted that the building could still be effectively and affordably remediated and used, despite contamination from years of neglect from the city. This expertise was ignored.

The mayor and council members present concluded that the building was beyond repair. In my opinion, the goal of these meetings was for the mayor to show EPNI that he had won over the council’s support for the three-acre plan and that it was time for the community to give in. With few legislative options remaining, EPNI agreed to move forward with negotiations on the three-acre project, but only with extensive pre-analysis of the toxic air and soil pollutants and assurances that East Phillips residents would be kept as safe as possible.

Unfortunately, what followed was a series of rushed timelines and broken assurances. The mayor’s office decided that the timeline needed to be accelerated, setting a due date for the MOU of June 30.

They promised to forward the proposed MOU expeditiously, but did not do so until June 25. They offer three acres with exclusive development rights, yet they want EPNI to drop all current and future lawsuits without any guarantees against future environmental contamination or harmful environmental health impacts. Instead of an arsenic remediation plan, the city released a lengthy report from 2020 about how the demolition would occur.

Jeff Diamond
Jeff Diamond
EPNI requested a delay of the June 30 council vote to review relevant documents and make proposed changes to the MOU. The city indicated they might allow the extension, but ultimately refused. EPNI requested updates to the MOU to reflect a series of changes that had been tentatively agreed upon, such as a framework for a legal settlement and guarantees regarding community protection from arsenic and other toxic pollutants. The city again refused.

The city aims to promote a false image of an agreement with EPNI and the community. They have neither. I believe they are intentionally obstructing and promoting a false sense of a done deal so that they can blame EPNI when their “deal” does not move forward.

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Minneapolis residents should be aware of this politicking and urge the city to change course and resume good-faith negotiations. EPNI hopes to build a bright future for the East Phillips neighborhood. They have fought for almost a decade to prevent these harms and will not stop fighting now. If the city shares these goals, they must re-start negotiations and find a way to ensure the safety of the people of East Phillips.

Cassie Holmes, an EPNI Board member and Little Earth Resident, put the matter plainly to the mayor when she asked, “We don’t want to bury any more babies, do you?” It is again time to allow community members such as Cassie to weigh in and help decide the next course of action.

Jeff Diamond is a graduate student, a resident of the Longfellow area of Minneapolis, a volunteer with the MN350 Food Systems Team and a volunteer with EPNI. His opinions do not reflect the official opinions of EPNI.