Above photo: Protesters gathered at the Roof Depot site in the East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis on Tuesday night to oppose its planned demolition. Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune.
Police move in.
East Phillips neighborhood activists said direct action was a last resort in their opposition to the city’s plans to build a new Public Works facility.
Minneapolis – East Phillips neighborhood activists, including residents of the Little Earth of United Tribes housing complex for Native Americans, snipped the fence barring public access to a city-owned vacant building Tuesday morning and set up more than a dozen tents.
But by late evening, police had swarmed the site, clearing the camp, fortifying the fence and arresting at least two of the activists.
The activists were protesting plans to raze the former Roof Depot warehouse and build a new Public Works facility for water maintenance staff, their equipment and vehicles that include a new diesel fuel station and roughly 800 parking spaces.
“This is a fight that can’t stop,” said Rachel Thunder, a leader in the local American Indian Movement and one of those arrested but soon released Tuesday night.
The contested site is in an area of concentrated heavy industry, where historical chemical manufacturing scattered arsenic across residential yards that was cleaned up in 2019 via the Superfund process. Residents say they are concerned that demolition of Roof Depot would stir up long-buried contaminants.
“We have kids that are young that have died from heart problems that don’t have heart problems in their families,” said Jolene Jones, who lives at Little Earth. “Don’t expect us to sit calmly while you’re going to put more pollution in the air. No, we’re not going to allow that. … This is where we’re making a stand.”
With stockpiles of firewood, carpeting, water and food, the activists battened down in preparation for a long occupation despite a looming storm that could dump up to 20 inches of snow on the Twin Cities. But by 9 p.m., a “heavy police presence” had taken control of the site, a spokesperson for the activists said.
City spokesperson Casper Hill said no demolition date has been set.
The city has a Remediation Action Plan detailing demolition methods, management of potential contaminants and dust monitoring. It has been approved by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
“There are very small amounts of arsenic in the soils on the Roof Depot site, in line with naturally occurring arsenic levels in Minnesota soil,” Hill said in a statement. “There will be continuous monitoring of any dust by the demolition. … The building when it is demolished will be taken off site and out of the neighborhood to an approved demolition landfill.”
The city and East Phillips environmental activists have been fighting over Roof Depot since before the city bought the site in 2016. The group East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) wants to redevelop the warehouse into an urban farm. Over the years, many divided City Council votes and a mayoral veto have stopped and restarted the city’s plans while EPNI lawsuits in district and appellate court held up construction.
In late January, the City Council voted 7-6 to approve demolition, which was expected to begin the week of Feb. 27.
On Feb. 6, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed that the city’s environmental assessment worksheet for the project was adequate, dealing a blow to activists who had hoped to subject the city’s project to more rigorous environmental review. A week later, District Judge Edward T. Wahl denied EPNI’s request to stop demolition, reasoning that “potential” to disperse contaminants throughout East Phillips is not enough to grant a temporary injunction.
EPNI has appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“We have followed all of the protocols and the system’s way of handling things,” Thunder said. “At this point, enough’s enough.”
Historic disinvestment and zoning that concentrated heavy industries in the neighborhood have residents viewing the Roof Depot fight as just the latest chapter in a long saga of environmental racism.
Vinny Dionne, a homeless outreach worker for the American Indian Community Development Corporation, said he planned to occupy the Roof Depot site for as long as it takes. He said he views beating the city project as protecting his neighborhood. And he has the vacation time.
“This will affect the future for our children,” he said.
Mayor Jacob Frey has offered EPNI 3 acres of the site for community development, including a job training center to benefit the neighborhood, provided they drop the lawsuits and allow the warehouse to be demolished and the Public Works facility built. The activists have so far rejected that offer.
They demand total relocation of the city’s project and community control of the Roof Depot site.