The activists were running out of options. Negotiations with officials in the city of Minneapolis hadn’t yielded an agreement. They’d lost in court and at City Hall.
They feared the city’s demolition of an old warehouse just off Hiawatha Avenue — still known by the name of its former occupant, Roof Depot — would be an environmental health disaster for the East Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis. It’s a claim that city officials, regulators and judges haven’t found persuasive.
So at 7 a.m. last Tuesday, a group of at least 30 neighbors, Indigenous rights activists and environmentalists opened the fence, lit a sacred fire and pitched a dozen tents. They planned to occupy the site, hoping their presence would block the city from razing the property.
“We come in peace,” said Betty Burns, an Ojibwe 25-year resident of nearby Little Earth, a Native-preference public housing community. “We didn’t come to hurt nobody, but you people are hurting us, and you don’t see that.”
“This prayer and this ceremony is for our people and for the community … We’re not going to leave until our demands are met,” said Rachel Thunder, a leader in the American Indian Movement, as demolition opponents put out calls for supplies to prepare for a multi-day act of civil disobedience.
Just 12 hours later, around 90 Minneapolis Police officers arrived to clear the site. They arrested six people, including Thunder.
And the fight over the land is not yet over.
What’s at stake
The short-lived occupation last week was only one of the latest dramatic moments in a saga over this property that has been unfolding over almost a decade.
Minneapolis officials have had their eyes on the Roof Depot site even longer — since at least 2001. The city bought it for $6.8 million in 2016, hoping to expand the neighboring existing public works yard onto the property. The city’s waterworks operation supplies water to 500,000 people in Minneapolis and eight suburbs. Public works officials say the aging water yard in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood, where staff repair and store equipment and vehicles, is in desperate need of replacement.
Residents have their own vision for the property. In 2015, leaders of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute crafted a plan to build an urban farm in the old warehouse, flanked by residential and commercial spaces — creating a new economic hub for a low-income, majority-BIPOC neighborhood. Residents say they had funding in place, but that the city’s strong-arm tactics prevented them from acquiring the property.
“We had some hope” in the urban farm plan, said Joseph Bester, a lifelong East Phillips resident. “People would be able to grow sustainable foods and have a sense of community and be part of something greater than themself. You’d like a little pride.”
Environmental groups also worry the city’s plan will literally unearth health risks: The soil under the warehouse still contains toxic arsenic from a long-shuttered pesticide factory. City officials contend crews can handle demolition without releasing contaminants. The East Phillips neighborhood group doesn’t buy this, and has rebuffed the city’s offers to share the site in part because demolition remains part of the plan.
Mayor Jacob Frey has kept the project moving forward, issuing a pivotal veto in March 2022 after the latest of several council votes to delay the project.
Activists still have some hope after several dramatic twists last week. State lawmakers introduced bills to provide funding that would be a lifeline for the urban farm plan. Then, on Friday, Hennepin County District Court Judge Edward T. Wahl issued an order temporarily blocking demolition to give urban farm advocates time to pursue an emergency appeal.
But Wahl also did not back away from a previous ruling in which he found “insufficient” evidence that the city’s project was unsafe — and some Minneapolis officials, who say state regulators have also reviewed the demolition plans, have grown exasperated at requests for further delay.
“This project will not kill anyone!” City Council president Andrea Jenkins shouted over the din at City Hall on Thursday after a last-ditch motion to block demolition failed and activists in the chamber cried out in anger.
The toxic backstory: Why there’s arsenic under Roof Depot
Understanding the outrage requires understanding the neighborhood’s toxic history — and a racist legacy of overlooking environmental harms to low-income, non-white residents. Urban farm proponents see their plan as an antidote to that toxic past.
“You’re taking this neighborhood and denying them a lot of future economic activity, and the price of the pollution that will come with it — so it’s a double loss,” said Dean Dovolis, board president of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute.
He added: “They’ve received their unfair share of [land] uses that no one else wanted, that always ended up in the poorest communities, the ones that could defend themselves the least.”
In 1938, right next to the warehouse site, a chemical plant opened that produced arsenic-based grasshopper pesticides. When the plant was in operation, wind gusts would kick up powder-like arsenic trioxide and sprinkle the toxic substance in lawns across the surrounding East Phillips and Longfellow neighborhoods. Among other harms, arsenic causes cancer, respiratory problems and liver and kidney damage.
The plant closed in 1968, but the contamination went undiscovered for nearly three decades, until 1994. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded cleanup of surrounding properties began in 2009, and federal monitoring of the site continued until 2019.
But the neighborhood still lives with the fallout. To this day, East Phillips sees elevated rates of asthma, childhood lead exposure. Nearby highways contribute to slightly higher rates of air pollution. Activists have also called for the closure of two other nearby industrial polluters currently in operation: the Bituminous Roadways asphalt plant and Smith Foundry ironworks.
Council member Jason Chavez, who grew up in the ward he now represents, has tearfully recounted eating vegetables his family grew in the contaminated soil to save money. The family received a letter warning about arsenic — but in English, he said. Chavez’s family spoke Spanish.
Burns developed asthma in 2004 — not long after she moved to the neighborhood.
If Roof Depot’s demolition goes forward, Burns said, “All of this poison here is going to go to Little Earth over there, and it’s going to kill all of our children. We have enough poison as it is.”
The demolition: Is it safe?
Numerous assessments have concluded there are still “elevated concentrations” of arsenic in the soil beneath the Roof Depot warehouse.
The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute contends that so long as the building’s concrete pad remains undisturbed — as their urban farm plans call for — the arsenic will remain sealed safely underneath. (Aside from that, Dovolis said, the urban farm plan would cost less if they could refurbish the warehouse instead of build a new structure; the city contends the building is “unsalvageable.”)
But Minneapolis officials contend the warehouse’s demolition can proceed safely.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Agriculture have blessed the city’s plan, which calls for tear-down crews to wet all surfaces with water to prevent arsenic-laden dust from kicking up, and dispose of contaminated soil and debris off-site. Six air monitors on the site’s perimeter would sniff for toxic chemicals every second, and send an automated alert if contaminant levels spike. Regulators would also monitor the demolition.
“This is industry-standard for how these types of sites are cleaned up,” said Steve Jansen, a vice president at Braun Intertec, the environmental consulting firm the city hired to draw up the plan. He also noted that arsenic levels of the Roof Depot site are significantly lower than on the neighboring property, where the pesticide plant was located: “I view [arsenic] as a minor issue on this property.”
“Not only can the building be demolished with little to no risk to the community,” read a statement from city spokesperson Casper Hill, “but also the site will be cleaner post-demolition than it was before.”
As part of a lawsuit to stop the demolition, University of Minnesota professor emeritus Edward Nater, an expert in soil pollutants, submitted an affidavit concluding the city’s risk assessment isn’t realistic.
“It is inevitable that demolition will carry with it the unintended consequence of dispersing these contaminants around East Phillips,” Nater said.
But Wahl, the Hennepin County judge, concluded Nater’s testimony was “insufficient” to conclude that “contamination is certain or even likely, particularly given the city’s retention of soil remediation experts to clean up the site.”
This month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Minneapolis officials’ environmental analysis of the project — produced in response to outcry from East Phillips neighbors — was neither slapdash nor biased, and that city officials do appear to be considering how to handle problems with contaminated soil during the project.
But Dovolis contended these legal losses came after “narrow” rulings in which judges focused on the legal and procedural merits of stopping the project, rather than attempting to weigh the true environmental risks: “It would’ve been a very different analysis.”
The City Council’s role: Five years of head-spinning twists and turns
As the activists have pleaded their case over years, Minneapolis City Council members have gone back and forth about how to handle the Roof Depot property. Let’s lay out a few of the inflection points.
- 2016: City acquires the property
Back in 2015, Dovolis said the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute had lined up $5.7 million in funding commitments to buy the Roof Depot site and move forward with the urban farm plan — but then city officials swooped in with an offer of $6.8 million for the property.
At the time, council members Andrew Johnson and Alondra Cano said city staff had done more than out-bid the neighbors: They alleged staff had dangled the threat of taking the property through eminent domain if Roof Depot’s owners sold it to the neighborhood group.
“I have serious concerns,” Johnson said in February 2016, “about considering eminent domain as a tactic to essentially intimidate them into working with us.” (City spokesperson Hill said Johnson’s characterization wasn’t accurate.)
The sale still went through on a 9-4 vote. The four votes against the deal? Johnson, Cano, Cam Gordon… and then-council member Jacob Frey.
- 2021: Council throws the brakes
Despite neighbors’ misgivings, Minneapolis’ plans for the public works campus essentially churned ahead until April 2021 — six months after the neighborhood groups sued the city — when council members voted to suspend work on the project, recognizing the city’s stated policy of “declaring racism a public health emergency.”
Here, city officials offered what they framed as a compromise: set aside one-third of the Roof Depot property — roughly three acres — for community development, maybe even by the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute. In October 2021, the city council voted narrowly, 7-6, to resume the project based on this offer.
But Cano, who represented East Phillips at the time, was among those opposed — and residents themselves never got on board.
Dovolis said group members were conceptually willing to share the property, but they wanted a say in how an expanded public works yard would operate. He said the city wasn’t willing to back off plans that would bring 360 new vehicles to the site, along with heavy machinery and a diesel refueling station.
Public works director Margaret Anderson Kelliher said that opponents’ fears about high vehicle pollution are overblown, saying most diesel vehicles will be like Bobcat-style skid steers that won’t generate emissions onsite: “The major vehicles that will be coming in and out of the site are both gasoline-powered or electric vehicles.”
- 2022: A pivotal mayoral veto
After citywide elections in 2022, the City Council’s newly-seated East Phillips representative, Chavez, led a new charge to pause, and potentially cancel, the public works project. His motion won the support of an 8-5 majority — which notably included Jenkins, the council’s more-moderate president.
But the mayor vetoed the council’s action, with Frey urging more discussion about alternatives.
That veto spurred a new offer, first approved by a unanimous City Council vote in June: If the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute dropped its lawsuit, Minneapolis would give the group exclusive development rights over the 3-acre set-aside on the property. The deal also promised “good faith efforts” to add electric vehicle and solar energy infrastructure to the site, along with other commitments on issues of traffic, pollution and community outreach.
“This has been a long road,” Frey said at the time, “but over the last few months we’ve had the opportunity to sit down with a group of people and try to find some areas of consensus, but even have a better and improved route forward.”
But after two negotiation sessions, Dovolis said city officials weren’t willing to back these “good faith efforts” with enforceable targets or firm promises. Residents still weren’t won over.
That’s why — to this day — the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute has not accepted the city’s deal.
“It became a lost opportunity for the neighborhood,” Dovolis said, “in addition to adding additional pollution in an area that’s already been impacted.”
What’s next for the urban farm? ‘Wins vs. wins’
Still at an impasse with the neighbors, on Jan. 23, a narrow majority of deal-fatigued Minneapolis City Council members voted 7-6 to proceed with demolition of the Roof Depot warehouse.
Councilmember Johnson, arguably, was the swing vote.
“I have fought for the community to have a choice,” Johnson said, noting his previous votes to bolster urban farm supporters, and his disappointment that there wasn’t enough support on the council to override the mayor’s 2022 veto. But Johnson also argued that the city’s deal was reasonable, and said he believed the demolition would neither pollute the neighborhood nor end all hope of an urban farm in East Phillips.
Which leads to an important point: Despite all the drama of recent weeks, Minneapolis’ offer to split the property remains on the table.
If the residents drop their lawsuit, the city would grant exclusive development rights for that three-acre site — in fact, the part of the property where the occupation took place — to the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute for two years. Even if the demolition proceeds, the urban farm idea is not necessarily dead.
Last week, DFL lawmakers in both the Minnesota House and Senate filed bills that, if enacted, would issue a $20 million grant to fund the urban farm plan. A House committee will take up the proposal this week.
Friday’s court injunction against demolition also offers a glimmer of hope to the residents as they pursue an appeal. But Wahl cautioned that a state appellate court has already ruled against them, and he urged the two sides to resume discussions about an out-of-court settlement.
“We are still hopeful that the members of [the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute] will reevaluate their position,” Anderson Kelliher said.
At this point, what does a win look like to the residents?
Well, it’s “wins versus wins,” Dovolis said — who says his neighborhood group makes decisions by consensus and majority vote.
“What would be the best? We develop the whole seven acres, work with the city, keep the building,” said Dovolis, who’s an architect and designer. (Keeping the building could shave $2 million off the project cost, he said.)
But at this stage, the activists would pay a high price to acquire the property. In addition to the cost of the land itself, city officials say state law would also require the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute to pay back all of the money spent on designing the public works facility: a total of $14 million, or more than twice the property’s value.
Short of taking control of the property, Dovolis said — in an interview before Friday’s court ruling — the group would be open to a deal with the city that allows residents to ensure public works’ half of the property would be “non-polluting.”
“I think the partial dream is achievable,” he said.
But in the broader sense, Dovolis still wondered why the city’s project needed to be placed here in the first place. He thinks the city could’ve pursued other options, like a facility in Fridley, or renovating the current water yard in northeast Minneapolis.
In East Phillips, residents had a vision for housing, commercial space and a new food source in a historically-marginalized neighborhood. Nearly three-quarters of the area’s residents are Latino, Black and American Indian or Alaska Native; one-quarter live below the poverty line. Why should they be forced to scale back their ambitions, again?
“We matter,” said Mike Forcia, an organizer with the American Indian Movement, during a recent rally against demolition. “And it almost seems like we never matter.”