East Phillips Group Finalizes Landmark Agreement to Purchase Roof Depot Site — Sahan Journal
The city of Minneapolis on Wednesday formally agreed to sell the long-disputed Roof Depot site to a neighborhood group that plans to turn the depot into an indoor urban farm, housing and community center.
The $3.7 million purchase of the site, a former Sears warehouse in south Minneapolis, by the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute came after years of protests, legal battles and advocacy. The agreement, part of a deal brokered by state lawmakers this summer, gives the group the ability to formally seek tenants and put its vision into action.
Cassie Holmes, a longtime East Phillips resident who sued Minneapolis over environmental and health concerns over the city’s plans to turn the site into a public works facility, said she could hardly believe the deal had been done.
“I actually thought I was going to pass out,” Holmes said.
Through the lawsuit and the media, Holmes shared the story of losing her son, Trinidad Flores, to heart disease in 2013, when he was just 16 years old. She learned that her neighborhood was among the most polluted in the state, resulting in well-polluted air. She documented health disparities and high levels of heart and respiratory disease, according to state data, and believes that harmed her son’s health.
Last week, Sahan Magazine reported on several federal Clean Air Act violations at a metal foundry adjacent to the Roof Depot site that led to years of high lead and particulate matter pollution in East Phillips.
“It’s like this huge weight has been lifted,” Holmes said.
In May, the Legislature approved $12.2 million in funding to help secure a deal for the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute to purchase the site. The deal awarded the city $6.5 million in 2023, and it agreed to provide another $5.7 million in 2024 if the institute can raise an additional $3.7 million to finalize the purchase.
The city confirmed on Wednesday that the institute had received its share of the funding in the form of a guarantee.
“Now we can start working with the community and building this thing,” said Dean Dovolis, president of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute.
The group hopes to turn the 230,000-square-foot warehouse into an indoor farm with hydroponic and aquaponics gardening, space for about 20 local businesses and organizations, and affordable housing, all covered and powered by a massive rooftop solar array. They follow an ownership arrangement where the community will control two-thirds of the site and outside investors the remaining third.
The project was designed by Dovolis’ architecture firm, DJR.
East Phillips residents began planning an indoor urban farm in 2015, and tried to purchase the site at the time. But the city has planned to expand its public works campus into the neighborhood for decades, and purchased the depot in 2016 for $6.8 million. The city planned to consolidate water services at the site, and the 230,000-square-foot warehouse was scheduled to be demolished.
The institute fought the city in the courts and succeeded in building public support through protests and appeals to other local elected officials.
“The momentum just kept growing, and it was relentless,” Dovolis said.
The fighting escalated this winter after the City Council narrowly voted to move forward with demolition of the site. Protesters from East Phillips and allies from the American Indian Movement occupied the area on February 21. Days later, a Hennepin County judge issued a temporary injunction that delayed the demolition of the planned site in the city to allow the institute’s lawsuit to be heard before the state Court of Appeals. . The delay allowed state lawmakers to participate in the negotiations.
The institute will officially close on the property in June 2024, when the Legislature is expected to pay the remaining $5.7 million to the city.
Holmes and Dovolis say they knew it would be difficult to put the group’s vision into action. But they inspire the resilience of their community. Fighting with the city over the years has taken its toll, but Holmes said she felt something good had to happen to the neighborhood.
“East Phillips is a real thing,” Holmes said.
Dovolis said he was impressed with the condition of the building. He’s already thinking about what comes next.
“Now, we’ve actually built it and made it a reality,” Dovolis said.