Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Judge Rules Northridge Mall Must Be Demolished

City scores victory in bid to take control of vacant mall.

By - May 14th, 2020 04:17 pm
Northridge Mall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Northridge Mall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A year after the City of Milwaukee ramped up a fight over the future of Northridge Mall, a judge has ruled the vacant complex should be demolished.

“I am very pleased that we have reached this point in the process.  The dilapidated former mall had become a hazard, a threat to the health and safety of people in the immediate vicinity,” said Mayor Tom Barrett in a statement. “The Northridge Mall site has great potential, and I am hopeful that potential can be realized in the not-too-distant future.”

Barrett and other city officials gathered outside the mall in April 2019 to announce a plan to issue a raze order on the property.

The vacant mall’s owner, the China-based U.S. Black Spruce Enterprise Group, had appealed the city’s decision to raze the structures it deems hazardous. A trial was held in January and February.

Wednesday afternoon Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge William Pocan issued a written ruling that the city’s move to raze the property was valid and dismissed Black Spruce’s appeal. He affirmed the city’s opinion that the buildings pose “significant safety and environmental hazards.” The company may appeal the decision.

The property, actually three separate parcels, was acquired by Black Spruce for $6 million in 2008 and includes almost 900,000 square feet of space. The structures were assessed for only $81,000 in 2019 and need $8 million in repairs according to testimony from representatives of the Department of Neighborhood Services. Officials said the roof is failing, scrappers have illegally stripped many of the mechanical systems and the masonry is in disrepair. The low assessment and growing repair costs place it far below the 50 percent of assessed value threshold for repair costs that the city must meet before issuing a raze order.

As part of its appeal Black Spruce submitted renderings of its proposal to convert the mall into a Chinese market. Area Alderwoman Chantia Lewis said the move didn’t surprise her. “The plans that they submitted are the same ones they’ve always talked about with no movement forward,” she told Urban Milwaukee in June 2019. “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.”

Pocan also expressed skepticism of the plan. “While Black Spruce says that it has had meetings for its plans to develop the Asian Mart, it does not have a team or any employees in the United States, which demonstrates the lack of concrete plans to move forward,” wrote the judge.

City officials estimated they would eventually need to spend $10 million to $12 million to demolish the buildings. If Black Spruce does not pay for that work and its existing, overdue property tax bill, the city would move to seize the properties through property tax foreclosure. City officials initiated property tax foreclosure proceedings against the mall owners in 2019 for unpaid 2017 property taxes, but the ownership group has previously paid off back taxes to avoid foreclosure.

The mall opened in 1972 and closed its doors in 2003.

A design charette, intended to create a shared vision for the space, was led by UW-Milwaukee and the city in 2017. It identified future uses for the property including an open-air retail market and industrial development.

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 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, but Lewis said the Menards and surrounding outlot properties provide a base to grow from in the future.

Northridge Mall – April 2019

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