East Phillips activists appeal Roof Depot demolition to state Supreme Court

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On the day workers were supposed to begin demolishing the long-vacant Roof Depot building, the debate over its future in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood continued.

A neighborhood-led grassroots movement has been protesting the demolition of the Depot for years over pollution concerns.

At this point, multiple judges have ruled the city properly studied and addressed those concerns, and the project is good to go. The last stop is the Minnesota Supreme Court, and this month, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) requested its opinion.

In the meantime, the demolition is on hold after a Hennepin County District Court judge granted an injunction to EPNI activists on Friday.

One of those activists, Nicole Perez, would rather spend her time flipping pancakes — which is what she was doing before speaking with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Monday — but she became outspoken when the city solidified plans to demolish and replace the Roof Depot building in the neighborhood she cares for.

“I’ve never done any of this before. I’ve never been an activist,” Perez said.

One way she tends to the health of her community is making breakfast twice a week for elders and kids alike in East Phillips, home to a largely Native population. The demolition and transition into a public works facility with vehicle storage could put the health of those groups at risk if it causes a drop in air quality.

“Our kids are sick. We cannot take any more pollution,” Perez said.

The Depot and the adjacent Smith Foundry sit in what former state Rep. Karen Clark referred to as an arsenic triangle in a neighborhood the city acknowledged has been disproportionately affected by pollution.

“We documented the asthma, childhood lead poisoning, the cardiac problems, the arsenic underground and the traffic,” Clark said, describing pollution findings she presented to the Minnesota Legislature more than a decade ago.

The former lawmaker, who lives in East Phillips, passed legislation in 2008 heightening the environmental studies and standards required for projects with pollution potential in neighborhoods like hers.

“Everybody has asthma, or their grandkids, or themselves,” Perez added.

Perez said her granddaughter suffers from asthma, and she knows multiple elders with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who regularly attend the twice weekly neighborhood breakfast.

At this point, a Hennepin County District Court judge and the Minnesota Court of Appeals have given the city the green light, saying it has satisfied state environmental standards.

EPNI argues the courts are wrong, and a week ago, the organization asked the state Supreme Court to be the final judge.

In a statement Monday, the city called the demolition of the Roof Depot “non-negotiable.”

City leaders cited the conclusion of independent experts that “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.”

Clark said the city hasn’t satisfied her law and said it’s possible courts have so far misinterpreted the 2008 legislation.

“And I’m counting on the Supreme Court to enforce the state law when the city somehow thinks that they’re above the law,” Clark added.

There are two next steps 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS is tracking.

The first is the demolition, which remained on hold Monday while the Court of Appeals reviewed the Hennepin County Court’s decision to allow the city to move forward. The second is on the environmental impact study.

As of posting, there was no timetable as to when — or if — the Supreme Court will get involved. The absolute earliest that decision could be made is Wednesday.