East Phillips Neighborhood Institute Urban Farm Project In Peril

(Note: Circumstances are changing fast. We are far from finished in the fight for justice in East Phillips. To stay current check directly with EPNI: https://www.eastphillipsneighborhoodinstitute.org/ )

The East Philips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) is proposing an exciting community project in the vacant Roof Depot site in their neighborhood. The neighborhood is vibrant, strong, and diverse with community members from around the world. It has a large population of people of color, with thirty percent Native American residents.

The predominantly lower-income community of color has suffered from environmental racism with unhealthy pollution. Vehicle-related pollution and other facilities that create pollution have made for extensive toxic waste that has built up over the decades. For example, a large store of arsenic in the ground was left from a past pesticide plant. Levels have far exceeded the “safe” maximum in the past and are still very high today. The neighborhood was once identified as a superfund site by the EPA and subsequently received effective but hardly complete remediation.

“Toxic environmental pollution impacts our health,
and we have some of the worst racial health
disparities in Minneapolis. It’s imperative for
our future and our children’s future that we
stop the City’s project and have our day in court.”

—EPNI website

The Urban Farm Vision

For over a decade, ENPI has envisioned converting the now-vacant 230,000-square-foot Sears Roebuck distribution center known as the Roof Depot to an urban farm. EPNI has designed a project that would serve as an indoor aquaculture and agricultural center for growing nutritious food for the residents. The project would also provide many other services, such as expanded sponsorship of a program for at-risk youth who may have never seen a garden before. The facility would also house numerous businesses whose activities promote a healthy environment and community. Ten businesses have already submitted letters of support to the city with a commitment to establish operations on-site.

Beyond its agricultural functions, the project would serve as a neighborhood center with numerous other purposes, such as a 50,000-square-foot union training center, a community kitchen market, and a general training center. In addition, EPNI would petition the city to build affordable housing in the surrounding area. 

East Phillips resident Joe Vital said: “Roof Depot can be a healing center that reconnects youth to the land and serves as an economic incubator that invigorates the entrepreneurship of the neighborhood, all while running on renewable energy. Above all, by not demolishing Roof Depot, we are engaging in harm reduction by protecting our community from increased pollution.”

The neighborhood-based Little Earth Community, the largest urban Indian community in the U.S., would create approximately 1,000 environmentally-friendly jobs. It’s estimated to generate $600 million in economic benefits over 10 years for the East Phillips community, as well as becoming a vibrant neighborhood center. Additionally, the building would belong to the community and would foster inter-generational wealth.

Other plans

While the City of Minneapolis initially supported the project, the council pivoted and voted to buy the building for $6.8 million in 2016, undercutting the neighborhood’s proposal with the threat of eminent domain. The city intends to convert the site into a storage and maintenance facility for the Water Department, which would add to the pollution in the neighborhood. This would add 400 more vehicles (many diesel) and a parking garage, bad for both the neighborhood and the environment. In addition, tearing down the building would expose the extensive remaining ground-based arsenic, potentially endangering residents further.

Ironically, the city-sponsored project would be in violation of the Clark-Berglund Act—a state law requires municipalities to consider cumulative pollution, not just that from a single source. For example, instead of just measuring emissions from a smokestack, the municipality would be required to consider the effect of the total emissions-producing sources, such as vehicles. Yet, for reasons unknown, Minneapolis considers itself exempt from this law.

A ray of hope

On March 10, the Minneapolis City Council reconsidered the water facility the previous Council had already approved. Eight of the thirteen members voted to put that project on hold and further consider EPNI’s proposal.

Councilman Jason Chavez, who represents the neighborhood, was quoted in a Star Tribune article as saying “People in my ward have been asked if they want clean air or clean water, that their ZIP code will determine who gets to live and who gets to die.”

A step back

The hope was short lived. Mayor Frey vetoed the proposal on March 11. While his veto didn’t kill the project, his conditions for support are onerous, including a finance plan to repay the $14 million of Water Fund money already spent by the city by mid-July. On March 24, the City Council voted 7-6 to allow the mayor’s veto to stand. While upholding the veto doesn’t change anything, we had hoped that the council would overturn the veto, a decision that would be in our favor.

Another ray of hope

The EPNI has taken legal action to stop the City from moving forward with its plans for demolition of the Roof Depot building on the site. A judge asked the City to present a compromise plan by April 22nd, ahead of a mediator’s decision on April 26th. Thus far the City has been unwilling to listen to the needs of the neighborhood. 

How you can help

EPNI encourages city residents to contact the mayor and demand justice for the East Phillips neighborhood. Call him at 612-673-2100 with two demands:

  • Do not demolish the Roof Depot building

  • Enter into good faith negotiations with EPNI to make the urban farm project a success

If you don’t live in Minneapolis, you can still help. At the state capitol there is a bill that would provide funding for the neighborhood's vision. Call your state representatives and senators and tell them to support House File 4116/Senate File 3786. EPNI has also requested funds from the state to finance the project. Please contact your representative to encourage her to support the measure.

Donations help too. The EPNI may need additional legal services as it develops and promotes the project. To support them directly go to the EPNI website or contact one of the following:

Dean Dovolis: deandovolis@gmail.com 

Cassandra Holmes: 612-296-9499, cassandra_tridani29@yahoo.com 

Steve Sandberg: 612-483-2941, steve@stevesandberg.com

Sierra Club Role

The Sierra Club’s Clean Energy Team is partnering with EPNI to support this community-led fight. We understand that our work is tied together—that when we force the City and power to be accountable to the people—we are building the sustainable, life giving future we all want. To stay up to date on this and other Environmental Justice fights, sign-up here.