Environmental justice activists continue fight against Roof Depot demolition

People sit around a fire
People gather around a fire to stay warm and play a drum at the Roof Depot site on Tuesday. The Minneapolis City Council voted 7-6 to demolish the Roof Depot warehouse in the East Phillips neighborhood.
Estelle Timar-Wilcox | MPR News

Updated: 6:43 p.m.

Activists in south Minneapolis have set up tents to occupy the site of a planned expansion of a city public works facility. They're concerned demolition of the Roof Depot building on the 8.5-acre former superfund site will lead to more pollution in the neighborhood. 

About 50 city residents were on site Tuesday afternoon, setting up tents and asking for supplies to be donated. The city of Minneapolis is moving forward with plans to expand the nearby public works facility on the site, along with a workforce center focused on neighborhood residents.  

People set up tents
Volunteers set up tents and tepees at the Roof Depot site early in the morning of Tuesday.
Estelle Timar-Wilcox | MPR News

Neighborhood residents feel ignored by city leaders, said Mike Forcia, a member of the American Indian Movement.

Forcia said they’ve played by the rules but been ignored by government officials, including Mayor Jacob Frey, who vetoed an alternative to the public works expansion last year. Forcia said the land needs to be controlled by people who live there.   

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“I would like our community to develop it. Give us a chance. We could have an indoor farm. We could have a tiny home village. We could have a place for our community,” Forcia said. “We're always last on the list.”

Residents have also challenged the project in court on environmental grounds. An effort to delay the public works expansion project failed recently at City Hall. 

A banner says urban farm not toxic harm
Banners outside of the Roof Depot site on Tuesday.
Estelle Timar-Wilcox | MPR News

City officials say the Roof Depot building is unsalvageable and unsafe, and its demolition is non-negotiable.

“The city can – and will – demolish the building safely. The city hired third party experts – who have decades of experience and have worked in the East Phillips neighborhood – to assess the building and its surroundings, including the soil underneath and around the building,” a city spokesperson said in a statement to MPR News.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture have approved the demolition plan, according to the statement.

“They have also determined not only can the building be demolished with little to no risk to the community, but also the site will be cleaner post-demolition than it was before,” the statement said.

Protesters hold a banner
Protesters saying they want more of a voice in the future of the former Roof Depot site disrupt a Minneapolis City Council meeting on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.
Jon Collins | MPR News

Residents are concerned the demolition will release pollutants into the air, although city officials say that won’t happen.

East Phillips has a higher rate of asthma and asthma deaths than some of the surrounding zip codes, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Asthma hospitalization rates for children living in the Twin Cities metro area are almost 75 percent higher than for children living in Greater Minnesota, state health department numbers show.

These health disparities are an example of environmental inequity, said Rachel Thunder, who lives in the neighborhood.

“All of these things are because of environmental injustice that's been happening here for decades,” Thunder said. “The city of Minneapolis has actively chosen to put these pollutants and toxins in our neighborhoods, in our communities, versus other areas in the city."

The highest rates of air pollution-related death and disease are found in neighborhoods with the largest percentage of Black, Indigenous and people of color, low-income and uninsured residents and people who live with a disability, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Protesters hold a banner
Protesters saying they want more of a voice in the future of the former Roof Depot site disrupt a Minneapolis City Council meeting on Sept. 22.
Jon Collins | MPR News

The Minneapolis City Council approved a proposal last month that would give the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute three acres of the property to develop. Activists weren’t satisfied and continue to push for a community space. They’ve introduced a proposal to create an indoor farm and resources for unhoused people at the former Roof Depot site. 

“We’re peaceful and we’re prayerful. We come here in a good way,” Thunder said. “We’re not going to stop until what this community and what our people need are met.”

They chose the site to occupy because it’s the most likely area that would be used to bring in demolition equipment, said CJ McCormick, a member of the grassroots activist group Climate Justice Committee.

“The goal is no demolition. The city is saying they have to demolish now,” McCormick said. “In two weeks or so, people are hoping to pressure council on a revote on the issue … regardless of what council does, people are going to keep showing up.” 

The group is asking the city to meet seven demands, including the relocation of the Hiawatha Campus Expansion Project, total community control of the site and funding for an indoor farm. Activists say they’ll continue the occupation until their demands are met.