Mpls advances controversial Roof Depot demolition

September 19, 2022-Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: Activists gather inside the Minneapolis City Council chambers to oppose plans to demolish the Roof Depot site. (Henry Pan/MSR News)

The Minneapolis City Council Policy and Government Oversight Committee on Monday, Sept. 19 advanced without recommendation plans to move forward with demolishing a polluted building in a South Minneapolis neighborhood beset by pollution.

In a 3-2 vote, with Councilmembers Robin Wonsley and Jason Chavez dissenting and Councilmembers LaTrisha Vetaw, Emily Koski and Jeremiah Ellison supporting, the committee advanced an item to solicit proposals for demolishing the Roof Depot building, located at 28th Street and the Midtown Greenway in the city’s East Phillips neighborhood. 

The City plans to expand a Public Works facility located immediately to the north to consolidate its water operations with a 100-year-old site in Fridley. 

Councilmember Wonsley tried, but failed, to delay the vote as she understood the City was to discuss arsenic remediation with the community before the proposal was submitted. According to Wonsley, such a meeting did not occur.

Residents surrounding the site have long opposed the demolition, contending the project and its demolition will exacerbate pollution in one of the poorest, highly polluted neighborhoods in the state. Indeed, the Hiawatha project’s Environmental Assessment Worksheet says the project will increase greenhouse gas emissions by 20%.

“There’s a long history of toxic substances being in this community. And [we have] an opportunity to change that,” said Collie Graddick, an activist who moved out of the neighborhood during the early days of the pandemic. 

The Roof Depot building was built as part of a railyard as early as the 1880s. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the building was used by Reade Manufacturing from 1938 to 1968 to develop arsenic-based pesticides. While an arsenic spill occurred in 1968, it is unclear if production ceased as a result. 

The Minnesota Department of Transportation discovered arsenic contamination on the site in 1994 as it prepared to widen and build an interchange at Hiawatha Ave. and Lake St. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture oversaw cleanup that occurred between 2004 and 2006, part of it done by a developer who bought the site. Arsenic remains present on the site, buried four feet below the ground.

Activists want to repurpose the Roof Depot building as an indoor urban farm. “Creating an urban farm would be an economic boon, as well as greening up the community rather than bringing other toxins into the community. [You could] actually provide food out of that site,” said Graddick. 

Steve Sandberg, who lives two blocks from the Roof Depot site and has been involved with lobbying for an urban farm since 2015, said keeping the building there is better for the neighborhood. “The Roof Depot is keeping those [toxins] sequestered and the City keeps saying that they’re going to tear it down to clean up, but turns out their plan is just to tear it down, take off the top three layers, three feet, without disturbing any of the toxins, and then just cover it back up again,” contended Sandberg.

If the City is able to move forward with its plans, it would include a job training center in response to community input, contending the plant will bring green jobs.

On Thursday, Sept. 22, the full Minneapolis City Council approved the requests for proposals.