Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Northridge Mall Suffers Fourth Fire In A Month

Fire chief and mayor are fed up. Lawsuit to demolish building has critical hearing Monday.

By - Aug 11th, 2022 05:13 pm
Northridge Mall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Northridge Mall. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The city’s fight to demolish the long-shuttered Northridge Mall continues to play out in court, but at least one arsonist continues to light the structure on fire.

The property, owned by China-based U.S. Black Spruce Enterprise Group, suffered its fourth fire in as many weeks Wednesday night. “Every one of these is an enormous drag on city resources,” said Fire Chief Aaron Lipski, in full protective gear, at a press conference outside the mall Wednesday night. “There is nobody maintaining this property. There is nobody responsible for this property. There might be an owner on a piece of paper. That’s not the same, not when my firefighter’s lives are at risk.”

The Milwaukee Fire Department previously responded to fires on July 16, 19 and 24. Two of the fires have been two-alarm blazes, requiring additional firefighters to respond. Lipski said the nature of the 900,000-square-foot complex, with different structures and building materials, makes any fire particularly dangerous to firefighters. He said veteran firefighters described the July 19 blaze as one of the hottest they had ever experienced.

“If I sound irritated tonight, then you’re hearing me,” said Lipski. “There are zero smoke detection systems, zero functioning fire suppression systems in this building. This is wildly unacceptable.”

In April 2019, city officials gathered outside the mall to announce a plan to issue a raze order on the property, a potential precursor to acquiring the property. Then-area Alderwoman Chantia Lewis said a legally-filmed, 2017 video inspired a wave of vandalism and trespassing.

Based on social media posts, the building has again become a magnet for urban exploration. All the fires are assumed to be set by trespasser, because the building has no electrical or gas service, Lipski said.

“The whole northwest side is without emergency coverage right now as we’re out here putting out fires in a pile of rubbish,” said Lipski.

Security at the mall was improved after a maintenance worker was killed by a high-voltage transformer in an electrical box at the mall in July 2019. The electrical box was previously damaged by scrappers, the Milwaukee Police Department said. A civil case is still open from that incident.

But the city, in an emergency court filing, says that security isn’t being maintained. The next hearing in Black Spruce’s suit to block the city’s raze order is scheduled for Aug. 15.

“We’re going to be taking some action on this. Don’t ask me what that is. It will be something,” said Lipski.

“I share the concern expressed last night by Chief Lipski,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson in a statement Thursday. “The repeated fires and the continuing endangerment of our firefighters is unacceptable. The city is in court and we are actively working to end this situation.”

Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge William Pocan ruled in the city’s favor in a 2020 trial, but Black Spruce appealed the ruling.

In March, the Wisconsin Appeals Court sent the case back down to the circuit court. In a written decision, it said Pocan improperly ruled that the cost to repair the buildings should be based on what was needed to open them to the public, instead of more limited repairs to maintain the buildings as vacant.

Black Spruce is now represented by attorney Christopher M. Kloth, a partner at McDonald & Kloth. The last firm that represented Black Spruce withdrew for breach of contract.

State law allows a raze order to be issued when repair costs exceed 50% of the building’s value. The Department of Neighborhood Services estimates repairs would cost $6 million and the attached buildings are only assessed for $81,000. The underlying 46.5 acres of land are assessed at more than $2 million.

The mall closed in 2003. Black Spruce acquired the approximately 900,000-square-foot building complex for $6 million in 2008. It has proposed creating an Asian marketplace, but those plans have never advanced.

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 and the ring road. But it would first need to be able to demolish the mall, and then to seize the property via property tax foreclosure if the taxes go unpaid. City officials previously said the ownership group has let back taxes accumulate, only to pay them as the city was preparing to act.

Northridge opened in 1972. The mall failed for a number of reasons, including a lack of direct freeway access, chain bankruptcies, the cyclical nature of malls and negative perception created following Jesse Anderson‘s murder of his wife in the mall’s 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.

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 2018. The city also acquired the ring road that surrounds the mall.

Menards and Pick ‘n Save were brought in as new retail anchors after the mall closed, but Pick ‘n Save closed in 2015. Those buildings are not included in the Black Spruce property, nor are the outlet buildings. Menards is now pursuing redevelopment of the Pick ‘n Save property, but the Board of Zoning Appeals rejected its initial proposal.

2019 Photos

3 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Northridge Mall Suffers Fourth Fire In A Month”

  1. Colin says:

    Shouldn’t it be “suppression” not “impression” ?

  2. nickzales says:

    Something needs to be done about these fires and this public nuisance now, not later. The City should have been seeking an injunction after the second fire. Whatever happens on Monday will take time, and there could be another appeal. The Fire Department and the people of Milwaukee can’t wait for that.

  3. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Colin – Yes. You can blame the reporter and not the chief for that.

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