The city of Minneapolis plans to tear down the former Roof Depot warehouse in the East Phillips neighborhood next month to make way for a new water infrastructure maintenance yard. Neighborhood environmental activists, who have been fighting the plans for nearly a decade, hope a judge will grant them a temporary restraining order before the bulldozers come.
Should that happen, the city wants the activists to pay for it. In a district court hearing on Thursday morning, city attorneys asked Judge Edward Wahl to impose a bond of $4.5 million to offset the costs of delaying the city's project.
Barbara O'Brien, the city's director of Property Services, estimated escalating construction costs of $175,000 to $250,000 per month of delay.
"Those are real costs and those costs are borne by the city, the city residents' tax dollars. They have to pay for those costs," Assistant City Attorney Mark Enslin said during the hearing.
Under state law, the party asking for a temporary injunction must post a bond for the payment of potential damages if the opposing party ultimately prevails on the merits of the underlying lawsuit. But East Phillips activists argue that $4.5 million is an unreasonably high sum that they will not be able to afford. For comparison, in the lawsuit temporarily suspending Minneapolis' 2040 Comprehensive Plan, the district court asked a separate coalition of environmental groups to post a bond of $10,000.
Rallying in the falling snow outside City Hall after the hearing, they blamed the city for racking up excessive development costs on a contentious project.
The city of Minneapolis already has a Public Works facility at 1911 E. 26th St., which it has long planned to expand with more offices, a storage yard for water maintenance crews' vehicles and equipment, a diesel fueling station and employee parking ramp. In 2016, it spent nearly $7 million to buy the adjacent property to the south — the Roof Depot warehouse — over the objections of a coalition of neighborhood residents with competing plans to purchase the same building for an urban farm.
The residents are organized as the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI), and they accuse the city of trying to push an unwanted development that would increase traffic and carbon emissions onto a low-income, minority neighborhood already overburdened by heavy industry and air pollution. They are also concerned demolition of the Roof Depot warehouse would displace arsenic contamination beneath the building.
"We're talking about a Superfund site that was cleaned up to a certain level in the past with an expectation that that part of the parcel where the building is located would never be dug up," EPNI lawyer Jessica Blome said during Thursday's hearing. "The demolition and construction of a new building there will cause that soil to be dug up."
Enslin pushed back, saying a demolition plan by geotechnical consulting firm Braun Intertec has been approved by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and would safely remediate the property.
Efforts to reconcile their divergent visions have been unsuccessful so far.
This summer Mayor Jacob Frey and City Council members proposed that the city and neighborhood activists share the 8.5-acre Roof Depot site in a development plan including the new Public Works water yard, an urban farm and a job training center prioritizing neighborhood residents. EPNI hasn't accepted, holding fast to two lawsuits — in district and appellate court — that claim the city hasn't reviewed the potential environmental harm of its project within the context of all the other pollution sources already located in East Phillips.
"This community can't bear any more pollution. It already has the worst health consequences as a result of the traffic, of the asphalt plant, of a foundry, of everything that is already there, not to mention the poisoning from the arsenic at the Superfund site that is still present," EPNI lawyer Miles Ringsred said during oral arguments before the Court of Appeals in late November.
The Court of Appeals has 90 days from Nov. 30 to issue an opinion about whether the city's environmental review of its own project was sufficient.
The District Court trial is scheduled for April 2024.
The Minneapolis City Council still needs to approve demolition bids before teardown can begin.