Politics and Government

'We don’t want compromise': East Phillips residents oppose plans to demolish Roof Depot

Protesters hold signs
Protesters gather at Minneapolis City Hall ahead of a City Council meeting on Thursday about the Roof Depot site.
Jon Collins | MPR News

Updated: Jan. 27, 8 a.m.

Despite opposition from neighborhood activists, the Minneapolis City Council voted Thursday to approve a contract to demolish the former Roof Depot site in south Minneapolis. Neighborhood residents have been pushing for the site to be used as an urban farm and community space, but the city has planned to build an expanded public works facility there. 

Councilmembers did unanimously approve a compromise deal, which would give the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute the rights to develop three acres of the site and a workforce training and outreach center at the public works facility in exchange for dropping lawsuits challenging the project. But that proposal still needs to be approved by the neighborhood group’s board.

Councilmembers Jason Chavez and Andrew Johnson were the authors of the compromise motion. Johnson said the details in the proposed compromise were worked out through talks with Mayor Jacob Frey’s office and representatives of the neighborhood group. 

“It will address concerns with overall pollution in the neighborhood,” Johnson said, prioritizing tree planting, environmental remediation at the site and traffic calming in the neighborhood.

He said it will also include a commitment to pushing for state funding for a “state-of-the-art, indoor urban farm.” Johnson said it was because of the benefits for the community in the compromise package that he “reluctantly” voted to approve the demolition contract.  

The somewhat contentious council meeting was interrupted repeatedly by protesters. As the council members filed out after the 7-6 vote to approve the demolition contract, some in the mostly white audience shouted “shame” and accused council members, most of whom are people of color, of racism.

Protesters hold signs
“All I can see is a bunch of dust going up and falling down on our homes,” Nicole Perez said. “It’s not going to be the mayor’s home or the lady who voted against delaying this, it’s going to be our homes. When they’re sitting comfy at home living their lives, we’re going to be getting sick.” 
Jon Collins | MPR News

Council Member Robin Wonsley, who voted against the demolition contract, said city council members have declared racism a public health emergency, but were missing an opportunity to put those words into action.  

"This action continues to show just how disconnected city leadership is from the realities of working-class people,” Wonsley said. “Leaders in this city think that this course of action is good for everyone involved, while it's our residents who are fearful that the city is literally about to poison them."

Council President Andrea Jenkins voted for the compromise proposal, but also supported a contract for the demolition of the building on the site, which the council passed despite neighborhood opposition.  

"I believe that racism and environmental racism has created significant health impacts in many, many communities,” Jenkins said. “So, I absolutely recognize and understand the very real concerns that folks are bringing forward today." 

After the vote to approve the compromise deal, Jenkins told residents in the council chambers that she “hopes that the community will be able to support this as well.” 

“We don’t want to compromise,” a person in the crowd yelled. 

Jenkins responded that she “recognizes that some people don’t like compromise, but that is how the world works.” 

Protesters hold a banner
The sometimes contentious council meeting was interrupted repeatedly by protesters. As the council members filed out after the 7-6 vote to approve the demolition contract, some in the mostly white audience shouted “shame” and accused council members, most of whom are people of color, of racism.
Jon Collins | MPR News

Another motion to delay the demolition contract was proposed by Chavez but failed by one vote. Chavez ultimately voted against demolition.

Nicole Perez is a resident of Little Earth, a housing complex serving indigenous people near the former Roof Depot site. Her 3-year-old granddaughter suffers from serious asthma, and Perez is worried that the demolition of the building on the former Superfund site is going to make health conditions worse in the already-polluted neighborhood. 

“All I can see is a bunch of dust going up and falling down on our homes,” Perez said. “It’s not going to be the mayor’s home or the lady who voted against delaying this, it’s going to be our homes. When they’re sitting comfy at home living their lives, we’re going to be getting sick.” 

Perez said the vote was her first time in the council and proved to her the futility of appealing to city government. She'd told councilmembers earlier that the lack of faith in the system is why most people protesting were white. 

East Phillips Neighborhood Institute Board President Dean Dovolis said his group will bring the city’s proposal to a community meeting for feedback. That will be followed by a vote by the group’s board. 

Dovolis said developments at the council hearing, including the close split on the votes, showed some promise for the group’s vision for the site, which originally included an indoor urban farm, a community market and space for the homeless, among other projects.

“We’re going to fight this on three fronts: In the civic action, as you witnessed today; in the negotiations … and in the courts,” Dovolis said. “We are really just beginning with the movement of what this project could represent.” 

The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute is planning a rally and healing circle near the site on Sunday. Dovolis expects rulings on the group’s lawsuits in about a month.

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