Look inside Roof Depot Warehouse shows 'bones are strong'

Despite the $6.5 million authorized by the legislature to begin the process of turning the vacant Roof Depot warehouse in South Minneapolis into an urban farm with retail and residential space, few people have seen inside the 230,000-square-foot structure in the last decade.

Until now. Last year the City of Minneapolis conducted a video inspection of the structure to document its condition. FOX 9 obtained the video through a public records request. 

"I knew, because the nature of the building – steel, concrete, and brick -- that it would be relatively safe from decay," said Dean Dovolis, president of the board of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI), which saved the building from the wrecking ball.

Dovolis had a brief tour of the building five years ago and said he was relieved by what he saw on the video.

"You can see the bones. Very strong, very simple. And that’s the beauty of this building," Dovolis said.

A Silent Tour

The eight-minute, silent walking video tour, shows the gutted offices and showrooms of the former business, Roof Depot. 

Copper thieves appeared to have stripped the building’s electrical system. But Dovolis said the offices and showroom account for only a fraction of the space, about five thousand square feet. 

The prize is the large warehouse space itself, and Dovolis said the video shows the cavernous space has "held-strong."

There are some water puddles on the warehouse space floor, presumably from leaks in the roof. 

The video lingers on several bent columns supporting the warehouse structure. 

Dovolis said the City of Minneapolis has argued those bent columns indicated a possible structural failure, but he disagrees. He believes the columns can simply be braced.

"That’s forklift damage, no big deal to repair," he said while watching the video. 

Inside the Roof Depot warehouse building (City of Minneapolis / Supplied)

Built to Last

Built in 1949 as a Sears-Roebuck warehouse, the building was reportedly designed to last one hundred years. 

The area has a long history of industrial pollution.

Adjacent to Roof Depot is a separate property, a former pesticide manufacturer, which was designated as an EPA Superfund site in 2007. The soil is contaminated with arsenic 13 feet below the surface. 

The City of Minneapolis purchased the site in 2016 and wanted to demolish the building as part of a plan to consolidate its Public Works Department, which has facilities scattered around the city.

The demolition and construction would have required mitigation of arsenic contaminated soil. 

That made it a tough sell in East Phillips, one the most racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Minnesota, which also has some of the highest levels of asthma and heart disease, according to state and federal health reporting.

Pretty Far Gone?

City officials have previously said the Roof Depot building was "unsalvageable and unsafe" and once called its demolition "non-negotiable."

In a Zoom call with FOX 9 in February, Minneapolis city officials and members of the environmental remediation firm hired by the city, Braun Intertec, described several issues with the site and the obstacles for any alternative plans for an urban farm. 

During that interview, city officials said demolition of the building would not affect the arsenic below the ground surface. Arsenic has not been detected inside the building.

"There’s no electricity, there's no water, which means there's no heating, there's no air conditioning," said Barbara O’Brien, director of Property Services for the City of Minneapolis.

"In short, the building is pretty far gone," she said.

‘They Banded Together’

For EPNI the building is a blank canvas of possibilities, from an aquaculture urban farm, a community garden, space for a recording studio, and a bicycle repair shop that would face out on to a bike trail. It would also involve some kind of retail and residential living space.

But it almost didn’t happen. The building was scheduled for demolition in March.

EPNI filed a lawsuit against the City of Minneapolis and in February a Hennepin County judge issued a temporary junction prohibiting demolition.

Dovolis credited the work of activists, including some key members of Black Lives Matter, who helped catalyze the issue. 

Activists occupied the site at E. 28th Street and Longfellow Avenue, shouted down Minneapolis City Council members at a confrontational meeting, and were largely successful in framing the Roof Depot project as a symbol of the city’s intransigence versus a neighborhood’s collective will. 

But it was state lawmakers, specifically the Minneapolis delegation, who held the cards and the checkbook. 

"They banded together, and basically said, if you don't support Phillips, Minneapolis, we won't support you," Dovolis recounted. 

With hundreds of millions of state funds at risk, the city agreed to sell the site in April and began negotiating with EPNI.  

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Roof Depot renderings 1/6

Shape of the Deal

Slipped into a broader legislative spending bill earlier this month was $4.5 million for the City of Minneapolis to abandon its plans with the Roof Depot and to look for a new location, and another $2 million in earnest money for the urban farm. 

The deal still has plenty of moving parts. EPNI has until September 8 to raise $3.7 million, which Dovolis is confident the group can secure.

Next year the legislature will need to reimburse the City of Minneapolis $16.7 million its already sunk into the project and to repay a municipal water fund.

EPNI will still need to raise another $10 million for the renovation of the building including restoring the electrical work, heating, air conditioning, and what could turn out to be expensive roof repairs.

There are still big questions about the project, like will the roof support a massive array of solar panels? 

And not least of which, what about the arsenic below? Dovolis says it is safer to leave the contamination where it is. The planned aquaculture farming doesn’t require soil. 

"Why disturb what doesn’t need to be disturbed? And that was our belief all along," Dovolis said.

The Waiting

Dovolis doesn’t believe there will be a problem with fundraising. He said philanthropic and non-profit resources are eager to be a part of the project.

There are federal funds and grants available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) geared towards urban farming and issues of equity and diversity that the project will likely be eligible for.

The closing date on the building is a year from now, June 15, 2024, and the plan is for construction to start shortly after.

EPNI is still waiting for the city’s approval to tour and inspect the condition of the building. Dovolis said the city has a few hurdles before they can enter the building, including having $1 million in personal liability insurance.