East Phillips urban farm development pushing forward as funding uncertainty threatens Roof Depot acquisition (2024)

Environmental activists embroiled in a decade-long fight with Minneapolis over a prime slice of real estate in the East Phillips neighborhood are seeing victory on the horizon, as investors and volunteers line up to help realize their dream of an indoor urban farm.

East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) organizers have spent this spring knocking on doors in south Minneapolis, recruiting business tenants and drumming up excitement for redeveloping the former Roof Depot warehouse. A $100,000 federal grant will help EPNI and its partner Cooperative Energy Futures explore building one the nation's largest urban solar arrays on the roof. Another $20,000 grant from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization will help design a stormwater harvesting system.

Pro-bono lawyers from top firms, including Faegre Drinker and Fredrikson and Byron, are helping draft an experimental community ownership model designed to cycle wealth back into East Phillips. Mortenson Construction and Loeffler Construction are offering free pre-construction services.

And while the city had contemplated tearing down the warehouse, the EPNI development team has been pleased to find it in better condition than expected. Though vandals have stripped the building's electrical systems for copper and earlier forklift collisions have dented column flanges, the "bones" of the building are "perfect," said Ahti Westphal of DJR Architecture, who is working to get the urban farm permitted.

"It's nicer than most warehouse storefronts that are new build," he said. "After hearing so much about it, and then going into the building several times, it's like how could [the city] ever rationalize tearing it down? It's given me, personally, a lot of confidence."

But a major step still remains: EPNI must first close on its purchase of the property from the city — a deal that's well on its way but could run into a major obstacle if state lawmakers do not dedicate funding to the project before they adjourn the session later this month.

Roof Depot sale

The Roof Depot site, at 1860 E. 28th St. and 2717 Longfellow Av., belongs to the city, which had long resisted pressure to sell in hopes of demolishing the warehouse and replacing it with a new public works water yard.

After nearly 10 years of protests, costly environmental lawsuits and marathon City Council debates, members of the Minneapolis legislative delegation brokered three conditions under which the city would agree to sell Roof Depot to EPNI for $11.4 million: The Legislature had to secure $2 million toward the purchase price in 2023 (completed), EPNI had to raise $3.7 million in private funds (proof posted last fall) and the Legislature would need to appropriate more money — another $5.7 million in 2024.

Closing is scheduled for July 15. But as the legislative session enters its final stretch, bonding has not been identified for the East Phillips urban farm — which could disrupt the sale.

"Should the funding not be secured as provided in the purchase agreement, the city will not be able to proceed with the sale as planned," warned Minneapolis spokesperson Greta Bergstrom.

Bergstrom said the city has no intentions of resurrecting its water yard project, which faced community opposition partly due to the diesel trucks it would have brought to the East Phillips neighborhood. But if the Legislature doesn't offer up the $5.7 million this year, the city will have to consider doing something else with Roof Depot, given that it costs an average of $250,000 a month just to hold it vacant, she said.

Karen Clark, EPNI board member and a former legislator, urged farm supporters to keep faith.

"You never know all the details until the end," she said of the state bonding process. "Shortly there should be some more information available, but I just ask you to stick with us right now and understand that we are working closely with the city and very supportive legislators who have been our champions."

For now, EPNI is forging ahead with the expectation that it will have enough money to close by this summer's funding deadline.

Aquaponics investors committed to anchoring the building include EPNI board member Clarence Bischoff, who founded Blue Water Farms, and James Beard Award-winner Will Allen of Wisconsin-based Will's Roadside Farms and Markets.

Allen said he was "enthused" by the prospect of moving part of his operations to East Phillips. "It really fits what we're trying to do, in terms of developing indoor farms around the world."

The EPNI development team continues to solicit letters of interest from other would-be tenants and public feedback on preliminary designs incorporating a community kitchen, dance studio, retail, affordable housing and a futsal court.

Under the lead of lawyer Miles Ringsred, they're also shaping a three-pronged community ownership structure comprising a nonprofit and foundation, an investor co-op and business tenants converging under a limited liability company that would make decisions democratically and distribute profits back to the neighborhood through grants.

"It's going to be something that could go across the country and serve as an example," Ringsred said, "for how you can do these kinds of projects with an emphasis on environmental justice, making sure that we're respecting the land and the community that a project like this is going to be moving into."

Environmental cleanup

There are plans to develop the outdoor grounds for gardening, despite the site's well-known arsenic contamination. Decades ago a pesticide manufacturer was among several heavy industries in East Phillips, and pollutants blew across the neighborhood. Hundreds of nearby homes were cleaned up over 20 years as part of a residential Superfund, but the commercial properties were not.

EPNI's outdoor farm coordinator Kieran Morris said they would start by growing edible crops in raised beds made from recycled ash logs donated by Tree Trust Landscape Services, while native plants that aren't for consumption and young trees will be planted directly in the ground. They are conducting ongoing testing, hoping to continuously remediate the soil by tending it.

"Ultimately we want to build bridges with food between people and nature, between once-bitter enemies, between folks doing the same work in different silos and between our youth and a better future," Morris said. "Everything is very fluid currently, but the energy, momentum and expertise is there."

If all goes according to EPNI's plans, it will get entitlements, complete construction and move in tenants by next summer, said DJR Architecture founder Dean Dovolis.

East Phillips urban farm development pushing forward as funding uncertainty threatens Roof Depot acquisition (2024)
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