Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Judge Rules Northridge Demolition Should Proceed, Despite Appeal

But will it? Mall remains unsecured and derelict.

By - Nov 11th, 2022 02:36 pm
Northridge Mall in August 2022. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Northridge Mall in August 2022. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The situation surrounding Northridge Mall continues to get messier and messier, though Judge William Sosnay keeps prodding for a solution.

On Friday, Sosnay declined to issue an injunction following the latest appeal in the case. Sosnay said that the mall’s Chinese ownership group should commence the court-ordered demolition, and if not, the city should prepare to initiate the demolition itself. He gave the ownership group one week to submit a demolition plan and the city two weeks to submit its own enforcement plan.

But whether that translates into visible action is unclear. Sosnay’s prior prodding, including issuing a $2,000 per day fine, has yet to yield substantial change at the property.

U.S. Black Spruce Enterprise Group is appealing Sosnay’s October ruling that the City of Milwaukee was justified in condemning the long-shuttered mall in 2019. State law allows a raze order to be issued when repair costs exceed 50% of a building’s value, but Black Spruce has argued various technicalities of the issue while city officials contend the property is degrading and the repair cost is only growing. The city argues the buildings are assessed at $81,100 and repair would cost more than $7 million.

“Black Spruce is ordered that they immediately commence the process of razing the properties,” said Sosnay on Oct. 3. He declared the buildings a “public nuisance” and struck down a 2020 restraining order that blocked the 2019 order from being enforced. He also declared Black Spruce to be in contempt.

The specific merits of Black Spruce’s latest appeal are unclear and do not appear in the state’s online courts record system. On Friday, Black Spruce’s legal representatives argued that the firm would see financial harm if the demolition order were to proceed. “Had they not wanted to suffer injury in this business transaction, they would’ve been taking efforts to maintain the property and to secure their investment,” said the judge, as reported by Sean Ryan, during a Friday morning hearing

The judge said the city needs to get ready to act.

“You have to be prepared to address this in the event Black Spruce does not follow through for whatever reason,” said Sosnay.

If Black Spruce does not demolish the complex by itself, the city would need to find several additional million dollars to complete the work. It could then apply that cost to the property’s tax bill, but would need to wait until the taxes are unpaid for multiple years to be able to initiate a foreclosure action. Should Black Spruce still not pay the back taxes, the city could take possession and execute a redevelopment plan. Black Spruce is currently behind on its property tax payments, which Black Spruce executive director Li Yang told Sosnay on Oct. 3 was because the company was waiting to see how the court case played out. Sosnay, in his Oct. 3 ruling, suggested that the city could accelerate its case by filing a tax lien for the unpaid fines.

In a report filed with the court, city officials said the property still isn’t secure and visible signs of break-ins remain. It alleges that the buildings pose an increasing hazard to public safety workers, including police officers and firefighters. The fire department responded to four calls at the building this summer, including one that Fire Chief Aaron Lipski testified posed a great risk for injury or death to department personnel.

Security at the mall was previously improved after a maintenance worker was killed in July 2019 by a high-voltage transformer, but has degraded again and images of people trespassing have been circulating on social media. A civil case is still open from the 2019 death.

The mall closed in 2003 and has been owned by Black Spruce since 2008. The current owners previously proposed creating an Asian marketplace, but those plans have never advanced. The approximately 900,000-square-foot structure, meanwhile, has deteriorated.

The issue has spent years in court. Black Spruce first appealed the condemnation through the city’s internal process before launching a circuit court appeal in August 2019. In May 2020, Judge William Pocan ruled in the city’s favor, only for Black Spruce to appeal the decision. In March 2022, the appeals court said the circuit court needed to review one aspect of its earlier ruling. Sosnay’s Oct. 3 ruling, which was not extensively contested by Black Spruce, concluded that review. Sosnay, in August, added a $2,000 per day fine for not complying with a 2019 agreement to secure the property, including around-the-clock security. That fine remains in effect.

A broker began marketing the property for sale earlier this month.

Black Spruce is represented by McDonald & Kloth attorneys Christopher M. Kloth and Shannon D. McDonald. Kloth started representing Black Spruce this year. The last firm that represented Black Spruce, Von Briesen & Roper, withdrew for breach of contract and is now suing Black Spruce over a pay dispute. Yang testified that the mall is the only property owned by the group in the United States.

August 2022 Photos

April 2019 Photos

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