Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Northridge Owners Appeal Raze Order

City wants to redevelop vacant mall citing inaction, safety concerns, but ownership objects.

By - May 3rd, 2019 04:12 pm
Northridge Mall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Northridge Mall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The fight over the future of Northridge Mall isn’t likely to be a short one.

The city issued raze orders to the three mall properties in early April citing security concerns and a failing structure. The three properties, owned by a China-based investment group, make up the majority of the approximately 900,000-square-foot vacant shopping mall near the intersection of W. Brown Deer Rd. and N. 76th St.

But mall owner, US Black Spruce Enterprise Group, submitted a letter to the city this week indicating it will appeal the raze orders. The letter, from the group’s attorney Eric Hatchell of Foley & Lardner, requests a meeting with the city and makes clear the ownership group’s intent to appeal the demolition to the city’s Standards and Appeals Commission.

“During this meeting, Black Spruce can update the city on its projected timetable and further development plans for the Northridge property,” Hatchell writes in the letter. “Black Spruce wants to work collaboratively with the city and would prefer joint discussion instead of contested litigation regarding whether the city has met the requirements of Wisconsin law allowing it to raze the Northridge property against Black Spruce’s desires.” The attorney’s letter indicates the ownership group will be in Milwaukee in late May and would like to meet with city officials.

The mall has been closed for more than 15 years, but the city has been hamstrung in its ability to pursue redevelopment because Black Spruce has declined to rehab the property or accept different purchase offers, said Mayor Tom Barrett in early April.

“Today we are saying no more,” said Alderwoman Chantia Lewis at a press conference in early April announcing the city is condemning the building, a precursor to demolition.

Her stance hasn’t changed. In response to Black Spruce’s latest claim, Lewis told Urban Milwaukee Friday: “They have said this nine times since I’ve been elected, so I’m not expecting too much more. I think the city of Milwaukee deserves more.”

Black Spruce’s letter indicates the group has made investments in security at the mall. “Black Spruce shares the City’s frustrations regarding the vandalism at the Northridge Property. Black Spruce has made significant investment to address these issues, including adding additional private security and maintenance at the property. The company is currently pursuing additional security and camera systems to help additionally address these issues,” writes Hatchell. Lewis and Barrett expressed frustration with the number of break-ins that were occurring at the mall following a 2017 video that featured the mall’s interior.

Black Spruce acquired the former mall in 2008 and announced plans to create a trade market for Chinese companies to sell their products to American consumers. But that project has not moved forward, much to the frustration of city officials.

“The investment company that owns the mall has been very difficult to deal with,” said Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux in late 2017. “They have not been a good steward of the property, but they also have not been a good communicator.”

A simple array of figures from the acting Department of Neighborhood Services Commissioner Thomas G. Mishefske illustrates Marcoux’s claim of poor stewardship. The property was acquired by Black Spruce for $6 million in 2008 and includes almost 900,000 square feet of mall space. But today the building portion is assessed for only $81,000 and needs $6 million in repairs said Mishefske. The roof is failing, scrappers have illegally stripped many of the mechanical systems and the masonry is in disrepair. The cratering assessment and growing repair costs place it far below the 50 percent threshold of assessed value the city must meet before issuing a raze order.

The cost of the demolition, which Mishefske estimated could range from $10 to $12 million before environmental abatement is considered, would be added to the parcel’s property tax bill and if it remains unpaid could allow the city to seize the building in property tax foreclosure.

The mall opened in 1972 and closed its doors in 2003. Northridge failed for a number of reasons, including a lack of direct freeway access, chain bankruptcies, the cyclical nature of malls and a negative perception created following Jesse Anderson‘s murder of his wife in a mall parking lot and the subsequent false claim that the couple was attacked by two black males. The mall’s competitors, including Mayfair, Brookfield Square, Southridge and Bayshore, have all received substantial public subsidies to help finance updates in the years since Northridge closed.

Menards and Pick ‘n Save were brought in as new retail anchors, with outward facing stores, shortly after the mall closed. The Pick ‘n Save grocery store closed in 2015.

Should the city acquire the mall, it could merge the land from the mall with land freed up from demolishing the attached former Boston Store building. The city recently submitted a grant application to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation for $250,000 to support demolishing the vacant department store.

Bill Penzey, owner of Penzey’s Spices, bought the former Boston Store building in 2013 and attempted to acquire the rest of the mall, with the support of the city, for a corporate headquarters and warehouse for his company. He wasn’t able to reach a deal on acquiring the mall and donated the Boston Store property to the city in December 2017. The city has also acquired the ring road that surrounds the mall.

A design charette, intended to create a shared vision for the space, was led that year by UW-Milwaukee and the city. It identified future uses for the mall including an open-air retail market and industrial development.

For more on the value of the mall and it’s history, see “What’s it What Worth: Northridge Mall.”

Northridge Mall – April 2019

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