Over objections of activists, the Minneapolis City Council on Thursday narrowly voted to proceed with plans to demolish the Roof Depot building in the East Phillips neighborhood.
By a 7-6 vote, the council awarded a contract for the demolition of the vacant warehouse as part of a public works facility expansion plan that has drawn opposition for years over concerns of pollution and environmental justice.
The $1.6 million demolition of the abandoned, city-owned building of more than 200,000 square feet at 1860 28th St. E. is slated to begin in late February. But it could still be derailed or delayed by two lawsuits filed by area residents.
Also Thursday, the City Council unanimously approved, with the support of Mayor Jacob Frey, a potential compromise with opponents of the project that includes some of their demands, such as plans to offset pollution with a 3-acre indoor urban farm and increased tree plantings.
The compromise also includes traffic-calming measures and plans to accelerate the city's planned conversion to a fleet of electric vehicles and increase solar power.
A leader of the opposition group East Phillips Neighborhood Institution called that a "small victory." However, the group has yet to formally endorse the compromise, which would require it to end its lawsuits.
A similar potential compromise floated over the summer failed to bridge the divide.
Thursday's meeting was repeatedly interrupted by members of a crowd of dozens of activists, who have lodged similar objections for nearly a decade since the demolition was first proposed.
They argue that the area's well-documented legacy of industrial pollution, including arsenic, antimony and other contaminants in the soil beneath the Roof Depot, would increase hazards to a population full of working-class and poor people of color already beset by high rates of asthma and other ailments.
City officials argue their vision already has the environment in mind.
The city hopes to demolish the building as part of a plan to expand an adjacent public works facility to centralize workers, trucks and equipment that are used to maintain the sprawling network of drinking water infrastructure. That centralization will ultimately reduce pollution from vehicles that now must crisscross the city to gather parts and equipment from several locations, city engineers have said.
The current council has been narrowly split over the issue.
Council Member Andrew Johnson was arguably the deciding vote in Thursday's 7-6 decision to award the demolition contract to Rachel Contracting — and a failed 6-7 attempt to delay that vote until next month.
While Johnson drew nods of approval and cheers when he co-sponsored the potential compromise with Council Member Jason Chavez, he was jeered after he stated his reasons for voting for the demolition.
"I do not believe the specific site plan adds any pollution," Johnson said, acknowledging that opponents and some of his colleagues disagreed.
Those voting in favor of the demolition were Council President Andrea Jenkins, Vice President Linea Palmisano, and council members Michael Rainville, LaTrisha Vetaw, Lisa Goodman, Emily Koski and Johnson.
Those voting against were Elliott Payne, Robin Wonsley, Jeremiah Ellison, Jamal Osman, Aisha Chughtai and Chavez.
Falling one vote short on what appeared to be the last chance to halt the project at City Hall stung opponents.
"Seven to six is painful," said Dean Dovolis, president of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute. "It's like watching a Vikings game where they don't quite pull it out. We had a small victory with the (potential compromise), but we're not done yet."
Elizabeth Royal, an attorney representing the group in its lawsuit in Hennepin County District Court, said a judge's decision on whether to grant the group an injunction to temporarily halt the project could come "any day now."
If they lose that court fight and another at the state appellate level, activists indicated they're prepared to disrupt the the demolition work itself.
"Direct action," said activist Joe Vital when asked what measures would be left to opponents. "And we're gonna need all the help we can get."