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East Phillips neighborhood tries to regain control of Roof Depot site

East Phillips organizers imagined an organic farming project at this site, but the city had other plans.

East Phillips organizers imagined an organic farming project at this site, but the city had other plans. DJR Architecture

The East Phillips Improvement Coalition (EPIC) had big dreams for their Minneapolis neighborhood.

Longtime state representative (and neighborhood resident) Karen Clark passed a bill in 2008 that forced new developments to study their pollution impact before they could get a permit to build. A wood-burning power plant was turned away; a new community center was approved, but with a net-zero energy use goal by 2030.

This local defense mechanism was a big deal for a part of the city that has been suffering under the shadow of polluters for decades. The corner of 28th Street and Hiawatha was less-than-affectionately dubbed “the Arsenic Triangle” after the toxic chemicals that used to be stored there. The Little Earth of United Tribes, a Native housing project located nearby, has seen some of the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations in the state.

EPIC decided to push further. In 2014, the association set its sights on an old warehouse called the Roof Depot. You might know it by the big, classic-looking red and white water tank hovering overhead. Community members envisioned a year-round organic urban farm.

And with how huge the complex is, there could be much more than that: a farmers market, a bicycle shop, a youth-led world cafe, even affordable housing for low-income families. They could build the things they wanted most for East Phillips.

But the city already had other plans. Minneapolis has had its eye on the Roof Depot since 1991 as a possible new location for its nearby water yard. It wants to take over the rest of the block and consolidate water distribution facilities in one centralized location—hopefully limiting the back-and-forth shuffle of supplies and personnel. The current facility is reportedly a century old, too small, and not up to the city’s accessibility standards.

In 2014, EPIC and the city went head-to-head, and the city won, acquiring the site in 2016 for $6.8 million.

A few concessions were made to residents’ concerns. Over 470 jobs, the city claims, will be based out of the campus, as well as a job recruitment facility, which will provide new opportunities for the surrounding areas with historically high unemployment rates. The project would also stick to “green” construction practices wherever possible.

Some East Phillips organizers aren’t satisfied with that answer, including Clark, who has remained involved. In a statement released this week, she argued that demolishing the building and adding the city’s fleet of commercial vehicles would only increase traffic and pollution in a neighborhood already burdened with more than its fair share. That’s to say nothing of the demolition debris, which she worries may release some of those decades-old traces of arsenic.

“We contend this is environmental racism at its [worst],” she said.

Clark says the solution might just be hidden in the law she passed in 2008, the one about requiring pollution impact studies for new developments. The neighborhood has been working with two current legislators—Rep. Hodan Hassan (D-Minneapolis) and Sen. Jeff Hayden (D-Minneapolis)—to pass a new law tightening up those requirements, so they can hold the Hiawatha Expansion Project to stricter standards. Clark has encouraged interested parties to get in touch with them. (Neither Hayden nor Hassan responded to interview requests.)

A spokesman for Minneapolis sent a statement saying the city was “aware” lawmakers had introduced a bill that would “affect the project,” and said staff were “watching the legislative process closely.”

The statement added that the city had "completed one community engagement process" on the project already, and had another planned for this year focused on landscaping.

“When it comes to environmental impacts," the statement said, "the city routinely holds itself to higher standards for construction and operations at our facilities and this project is not exception.”