Minneapolis officials are willing to sell the city-owned Roof Depot site to environmental activists rather than build a new public works facility there, if the activists can raise $16.7 million to buy it, Public Works Director Margaret Anderson Kelliher said after a meeting Wednesday.

The meeting of Minneapolis and East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) leaders was called by legislators seeking clarity on whether to advance a tabled bill delivering $20 million to EPNI for an indoor urban farm on the contentious site.

Mayor Jacob Frey would lobby for the state money to help EPNI buy the entire site, Anderson Kelliher added.

The $16.7 million purchase price represents what city officials say they have already spent from the Water Fund — money reserved for water treatment and distribution per state law — to build a public works facility on the site in the East Phillips neighborhood.

It includes the cost of purchasing Roof Depot, preliminary site cleanup, design and engineering, as well as the executed contract to demolish the existing warehouse.

Anderson Kelliher said the activists have the option of purchasing the entire 7.5-acre Roof Depot site, at E. 28th Street and Longfellow Avenue, with state assistance until the end of the legislative session on May 22.

The city is willing to walk away from its project as long as the EPNI bill doesn't hurt its other legislative priorities, such as debt relief for U.S. Bank Stadium and funding for various infrastructure projects.

EPNI's case was bolstered this week when 270 medical professionals signed an open letter to city leaders opposing the facility.

"Structural racism in our city planning has directly contributed to the racial health inequities we see," said Dr. Nathan Chomilo, Minnesota's Medicaid medical director. "Consolidating a diesel fleet into an already polluted, disadvantaged neighborhood will compound our city's racism public health crisis."

The Minneapolis City Council voted last summer to suspend construction of the public works facility at the Roof Depot site in order to give EPNI a chance to finance its vision for an urban farm there. But Frey vetoed the council measure, stating at the time that EPNI needed to lay out how it would replenish the Water Fund.

EPNI has rejected Frey's compromise proposal to share three acres with the community — nearly half the site — so the urban farm and public works facility could be built side by side.

"The mayor has always said that he is supportive and would appear before a committee at the Legislature to support either money for development of three acres, or in this case, the purchase of the entire site by the community," Anderson Kelliher said.

EPNI organizer Joe Vital said it had never been clear to him before that the city would be a willing seller.

"I think there is a way forward," he said. "We need to figure out things with council because they are still under that directive of demolition. Undoing that, moving forward with selling as a new avenue and getting over this hump at the Legislature is a huge, huge fight."

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to review the Court of Appeals' decision that Minneapolis' environmental review of its public works project was adequate. The Court of Appeals on May 9 is slated to review the temporary injunction issued in February to block demolition of the Roof Depot warehouse.

Neighborhood concerns

Organized opposition to the public works facility in East Phillips has been building over nearly a decade — a flashpoint in the fight waged against cumulative pollution by the south Minneapolis neighborhood, which abuts busy Hwy. 55 and is home to a foundry and asphalt plant.

Years ago, a pesticide manufacturer left behind an arsenic Superfund site that required removing the soil from hundreds of East Phillips yards. The area is home to a large Indigenous population and sits within the Southside Green Zone, a group of industrially contaminated neighborhoods where the city wants to reduce pollution.

Officials with the city's sustainability division have acknowledged that city trucks coming and going from the proposed public works plant would raise emissions in East Phillips.

Minneapolis has an existing public works facility north of the Roof Depot site that houses 21 diesel trucks. The facility's proposed expansion would bring 14 more diesel vehicles, along with employees' personal vehicles. Plans include a three-story parking ramp.

In a statement, city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said the city's plans have passed health, scientific and environmental reviews and assessments, "ensuring a commitment that the Hiawatha Campus project is safe for the neighbors."

Anderson Kelliher also cited an affidavit by EPNI's air pollution expert, Gregory C. Pratt, a U professor of environmental health, estimating that "the increase in traffic flow from workers' vehicles would increase air pollution concentrations by only a small percentage."

What he meant, Pratt said, was that employees' cars would result in a relatively small increase in air pollution only because East Phillips already has high traffic levels, given the proximity of Interstates 35W and 94, the 35W/94 commons and Hwy. 55.

Dr. Iris Borowsky, the University of Minnesota's general pediatrics and adolescent health director who works in the Community-University Health Care Center in East Phillips, said she is urging city leaders to talk to doctors about the neighborhood's health.

"There are many with various expertise and a long history of working with the community around health issues," Borowsky said. "So come to our clinic. Come talk with us."