East Phillips seeks City Council support

A decision is going to the City Council on April 20 about whether to demolish the Roof Depot building and replace it with a public works hub.

Madison+Romain+and+Sage+Brinton+pose+for+a+portrait+outside+of+Carlson+School+of+Management+on+Monday%2C+March+29.+Romain+and+Brinton+are+volunteers+for+the+East+Philipps+Neighborhood+Institute%2C+which+is+advocating+for+an+old+Roof+Depot+building+in+the+East+Phillips+neighborhood+to+be+turned+into+an+urban+farm.

Shannon Doyle

Madison Romain and Sage Brinton pose for a portrait outside of Carlson School of Management on Monday, March 29. Romain and Brinton are volunteers for the East Philipps Neighborhood Institute, which is advocating for an old Roof Depot building in the East Phillips neighborhood to be turned into an urban farm.

Lydia Morrell

After a lawsuit and years of neighborhood pushback, the public comment period for East Phillips roof depot site closed Thursday.

Minneapolis City Council will now decide whether to demolish the Roof Depot building and build a Public Works water treatment facility, or conduct another environmental study of the neighborhood and potential impacts of the project. The proposal goes against East Phillips Neighborhood Institute’s (EPNI) push for an indoor farm with aquaponics for year-round crops, a bike shop, farmer’s market, coffee shop and 28 units of affordable housing.

With the comment period closed, supporters have started pressuring council members to vote against the demolition of the site and sign on to the indoor farm idea.

“One hundred letters to a city council member can make a huge impact,” said Sage Brinton, a third-year University of Minnesota student volunteering with EPNI. “And so I’ve just been trying to, like educate the people around me … because I feel like we can feel pretty powerless.”

University students have found ways to get involved by writing public comments and hosting Zoom seminars to raise awareness of EPNI’s vision for the Roof Depot site and teach students how to write a public comment.

The city acquired the site in 2016, designating it as a place for a water distribution facility that would consolidate three others into one location. After a neighborhood petition in October, the city conducted an environmental assessment and released it for the public comment period.

According to the city, the expansion would bring 100 more work vehicles and equipment — with 500 total vehicles on site. The environmental assessment stated the city could minimize vehicle emissions by shutting off unused equipment or using newer models of vehicles.

EPNI was not satisfied with the results.

“What they missed was they left out the whole health impact of the increased toxic exposure that the city’s project would bring into our neighborhood,” said Karen Clark, a former lawmaker and East Phillips resident.

Clark said the new water distribution facility would bring more employees driving to work and home, increasing the daily air pollution. She added the neighborhood has already faced significant pollution from a factory that spilled arsenic into the ground decades ago.

Minneapolis city staff declined to comment on the Hiawatha Campus Expansion project. City spokesperson Casper Hill said in an email that the public comments “will be collected, categorized and will be addressed/answered.”

Hill said the city’s Community Planning & Economic Development Department will make a recommendation based on the comments and environmental assessment results. Another economic development committee will review it April 20, then, if approved, it will go to the full City Council April 30.

The project needs the approval of the full City Council in order to demolish the building and start construction. If approved, the city puts the project out for public bid and it would take a few months before demolition actually begins, Hill said.

Clark said that now that the public comment period has closed, EPNI is encouraging council members to reject the Public Works project or conduct a more comprehensive environmental study.

“If they’re doing an environmental impact statement and looking at all of the cumulative effects, then we’re convinced that this project is not going to be able to go forward,” EPNI lawyer Elizabeth Royal said.

Ward 8 City Council member Andrea Jenkins was the first council member to publicly announce her support for EPNI’s indoor urban farm plan. Ward 2 city Council member Cam Gordon has also come forward against turning the space into a Public Works facility.

In his newsletter, Gordon wrote, “I am working with the Council Member from that area, Alondra Cano, and other colleagues, to put forward a motion at next month’s committee meeting to stop the demolition, end this part of the project, and start the process of selling this land for another use that would have more community support.”

Regardless of what the City Council decides, Royal said the goal of the ongoing lawsuit between EPNI and the city is to keep the building intact until the court has decided the case, “because the damage is going to be done as soon as demolition starts.”