Court proceedings over the mandated demolition of the former Northridge Mall on Milwaukee’s northwest side continued into day two, as the city further detailed the buildings’ deteriorating condition while their owners called into question whether they were given a fair shake by the city.
Hearings commenced on Tuesday for the lawsuit in which China-based U.S. Black Spruce Enterprise, the owners of the former mall, alleges the city of Milwaukee wrongfully issued orders to raze the mall buildings.
Black Spruce owns three separate buildings totaling roughly 883,000 square feet near the northwest corner of West Brown Deer Road and North 75th Street. A fourth building, the former Boston Store, is owned by the city and is slated for demolition. The city issued raze orders for the Black Spruce-owned properties in April. Black Spruce filed a lawsuit after the Standards and Appeals Commission upheld the orders in July.
The city argues it was right to issue the raze orders because of the deteriorating condition of the buildings, while Black Spruce contends the orders were unreasonable and arbitrary.
The morning of Wednesday’s hearing primarily involved testimony by Benji Timm, project manager with Milwaukee’s Department of City Development.
Timm is involved with the city’s planned demolition of the former Boston Store, which it has owned since 2017. During examination by both assistant city attorney Nicole Larsen and Black Spruce’s attorneys, he discussed a number of things related to both the Boston Store building and the Black Spruce-owned buildings.
Mark Foley, lawyer with von Briesen & Roper who is representing Black Spruce, asked Timm a number of questions that would seem to suggest the city has for years had its own plans for redevelopment at the site.
The ownership group has in at least two separate instances shared plans to turn the former mall into an Asian marketplace, though nothing has ever moved forward at the site.
Foley asked about a 2017 design charrette, which says Northridge should be re-purposed for light industrial use and a mixed-use plaza. Timm said that charrette was led by UW-Milwaukee and not a product of the city specifically. Foley countered that the charrette is included on the city’s website.
Foley then asked Timm about city discussions between 2016 and 2018 about rezoning the Northridge site for light industrial uses. Timm said he wasn’t privy to those talks.
Foley also asked Timm whether the city attempted to reach out to Black Spruce prior to issuing the raze orders last April. Timm said he was unsure.
When answering questions from Larsen, Timm said he knows Black Spruce has had discussions with the city about its plans for the site. However, he was unsure that those talks were substantive. Signs a project is real or moving forward typically include a formal submission of project plans and requests, and possible request of financing assistance from the city, Timm said.
Foley made clear that Timm’s response was that he was unsure, not that those talks didn’t happen. Then, responding again to Larsen, Timm said he’d be aware if substantive talks took place between the two parties.
DCD spokesman Jeff Fleming confirmed there have been little to no substantive talks recently between Black Spruce and city development officials over redevelopment of the mall properties.
“In recent years there have been very limited if any discussions with the owners of the Northridge Mall,” he said.
Timm also revealed that samples taken from fire suppressant materials in the Black Spruce-owned buildings were found to contain asbestos. Consultants estimated the cost for asbestos abatement solely for that material would be $4-7 million. That would be on top of the $10-12 million cost to raze the buildings, according to Department of Neighborhood Services estimates.
In response to questions from Foley, Timm revealed that the samples were taken during a walk-through that was led by a property manager on behalf of Black Spruce. Foley asked Timm whether he got explicit permission from Black Spruce to take those samples. Timm said he did not, but during a cross-examination from Larsen he added there was no one else he could contact.
Northridge Mall opened in 1972, but has largely sat vacant since the shopping center closed in 2003.
In 2013, Bill Penzey, owner of Penzeys Spices, attempted to buy the mall out of foreclosure, but that deal fell through when the owners paid off their delinquent bills. Penzey had intended to move his company’s corporate offices to that site and turn the area into a center for food retail, warehousing and distribution.
Penzey instead bought the Boston Store building that same year, and ended up handing over the property to the city in 2017.