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TTT1832 July 13 White Earth - Vets for Peace

The Roof Depot site has become the focal point of a struggle over community self-determination in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood. East Phillips is a small southside neighborhood, tucked between Lake Street, Franklin Avenue, Highway 55, and Bloomington Avenue. Like the Phillips community generally, the area is home to substantial populations of East African and Hispanic immigrants and is the core of the city’s Native American population. East Phillips is also among the most polluted neighborhoods in Minneapolis, with two highways and several industrial sites causing high concentrations of air pollution and the resulting family health and developmental issues.

The Roof Depot warehouse, originally built in 1947 as the Sears distribution center and more recently a distribution center for roofing materials, became the center of a major controversy beginning in 2014. EPIC, the East Phillips Improvement Coalition, along with neighbors and other organizations, developed a plan to re-use the 7+ acre site for community-driven sustainable activities. The plan along with the relocation of two adjoining heavily polluting industries was seen as a very positive redirection of this prime transit-oriented development site. Their plan gained traction with support from the Native American Community, the Somali and Hispanic communities and other interested neighbors who saw the benefit of what became known as the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm project. The Community sought investors and began negotiating with the owners for purchase.

The City of Minneapolis, which unbeknownst to the community, had for over ten years been planning an expansion of their 8 1/2 -acre Public Works site which adjoins the Roof Depot Site. The expansion would house their water yard and sewer maintenance facility. The City’s plan, as it stood, would completely shatter the Community’s plan to build a nonpolluting industry with jobs for the neighborhood, one that would meet all the criteria of the “Green Zone” concept. The community also objected to the increased traffic, noise, and pollution the City’s plan would bring to their already environmentally burdened neighborhood. With support from CM Alondra Cano, they pushed to stop the purchase. Ultimately, however, in 2015, after the City threatened the use of Eminent Domain, the city council voted 9-4 to purchase and convert the site. CMs Gordon, Frey and Andrew Johnson joined Cano in opposition.

The neighborhood groups came together under the name East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI). With the help of legislation sponsored and passed by Rep. Karen Clark and senators Jeff Hayden and Patricia Torres Ray they received a MN Dept. of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) grant to plan and help develop their East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm project.  They are now attempting to reach a compromise with the City of Mpls., requesting that three of the site’s sixteen + acres be set aside for community use. EPIC commissioned concept drawings of the “community plan” which would use the three-acre space for affordable housing, organic urban food production, a coffee shop/cafe and a bicycle shop on the Midtown Greenway, all producing quality “second chance” jobs for the community. The coalition is also exploring pollution-mitigation mechanisms for the public works facility, such as zero-emission municipal vehicles.

The city’s public works department is currently analyzing their needs and a complete proposal is expected in July. However, in initial meetings, the city has offered only 0.8 acres of space for the community –not contiguous and not sustainable. The City plan is being created with no community input, in contrast with the community plan, which meets every goal of the Green Zone as well as the city’s stated goals for community engagement and environmental & food-justice. The City has ignored their own principals of Community Engagement in this process, which states in part, “Right to be involved – Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process”. (Passed by the City Council in 2007)

Given the turnover on the City Council, East Phillips organizations and their allies – working together informally as the “Roof Depot coalition” – see an opportunity for a meaningful change in favor of the community. This may come through pressure on the public works department in creating the city plan and involving the community, but likely will require the intervention of the city council, either informally or through a vote.

The Roof Depot coalition is seeking help from allies around the city to lobby city councilors in favor of an environmentally just plan that meets residents’ needs. A robust, city-wide push could change the issue landscape and show the city where residents’ priorities lie.

Some links on the history of the issue: