Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Nothing New in Northridge Mall Plan

Is Northridge dispute simply an echo of the drawn-out Menomonee Valley fight?

By - Jun 6th, 2019 11:10 am
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Northridge Mall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Northridge Mall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The pretty pictures released in late May of a redeveloped Northridge Mall, according to numerous sources, are just that: pretty pictures and nothing more. And the company’s strategy in releasing this information appears to mirror that used in a past fight between the city and a private developer.

The mall has been closed since 2003. The Chinese investment group U.S. Black Spruce Enterprise Group 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 city issued a raze order in April and the otherwise silent ownership group is now fighting it, claiming it is working on a redevelopment plan.

But in an interview with Urban Milwaukee, Alderwoman Chantia Lewis said: “the plans that they submitted are the same ones they’ve always talked about with no movement forward.”

“Those renderings were not new,” said Lewis of May 24th filing by Black Spruce’s legal counsel. “I wasn’t surprised because I fully anticipated them to say they wanted to do something. However, we continue to see vandalism and their lack of investment.”

Lewis’ comment sounds similar to something her soon-to-retire colleague Alderman Robert Donovan said to the Milwaukee Business Journal back in 2000 about what later became the award-winning Menomonee Valley Industrial Center on land then owned by CMC Heartland Partners, the successor to the bankrupt Milwaukee Road railroad.

“I find it ironic that all of a sudden now that the city is taking action, [CMC executive Edwin Jacobson] comes to Milwaukee with ideas and suggestions,” said Donovan in 2000. “I’ve never had the impression CMC was a serious partner in working with the city to develop the land to its full potential.”

Donovan was speaking about a retail development plan CMC claimed to be working on. The holding company owned hundreds of acres of land in the Milwaukee area including much of the Menomonee Valley. CMC took possession of the land in 1985 and in 2000 the Menomonee Valley was still a largely forlorn place even though a new baseball stadium, Miller Park, was under construction at the western edge.

CMC, according to public statements from its representatives including Craig Peterson, had planned to develop a large retail complex with regional retailers, restaurants, entertainment clubs and big-box, national retail stores.

“We chose not to play along with their retail fantasy,” said former Mayor John Norquist in 2006. “The company didn’t do anything illegal,” he said. “We simply called them on their bluff.”

“CMC was a not a development company interested in working with the city on something feasible,” said Julie Penman in 2006. “It was a land speculation company.” Penman served for a period as Commissioner of the Department of City Development under Norquist.

But similar to what might happen at Northridge, it took years for the city to acquire the land in the Menomonee Valley.

The firm ultimately sold more than 300 acres of land in Milwaukee County for $20 million without ever developing a project. The city condemned the approximately 140-acre Menomonee Valley site in 2003,  and ultimately acquired it for $3.55 million, spending millions more to clean up the former railroad shops.

The Menomonee Valley is now home to approximately 1,400 full-time jobs under a redevelopment plan led by the city and the non-profit Menomonee Valley Partners.

Plan Renderings

Northridge Mall Today

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