The longtime vacant former Northridge Mall on Milwaukee's northwest side may finally be coming down.
City officials announced on Thursday morning the Department of Neighborhood Services has ordered large portions of the mall be demolished. The 900,000-square-foot building owned by China-based U.S. Black Spruce Enterprise Group Inc., is beyond the point of repair, said city officials in making their case for the raze order.
The owners have 20 days to demolish the building.
Speaking at a news conference at the mall property, Mayor Tom Barrett said the department has determined the repairs required to bring the buildings up to code would cost more than 50% of the assessed value of the property itself, the threshold at which such demolition orders can be handed down.
In fact, preliminary estimates by the city put the cost of repairs at around $6 million, far beyond the $81,000 in assessed value for the properties, noted DNS commissioner Tom Mishefske.
Mishefske added the owners can appeal the raze order, which would be heard by the city's Standards and Appeals Commission. If the city prevails in that scenario, the order would stand and the owners would have to take action. The owners could also decide to take the case to circuit court.
"It's really going to depend on what the ownership's response to our order is," Mishefske said.
If the order is not appealed yet the owners do not move to raze the property within the 20-day period, the city could then seek an injunction in court to pursue demolition itself.
Mishefske said in that scenario, demolition costs would be added to the property tax bill, and the city attorney's office would make attempts to collect those taxes. The demolition is estimated to cost between $10-12 million. Jeff Fleming, spokesman for the Department of City Development, said city leaders have discussed how it would finance the demolition up front, but nothing has been finalized.
DNS workers have not been inside the mall building owned by Black Spruce Enterprise since around mid-2018. Even so, the department has a long list of repairs that would need to be made to the property in order to bring it back up to code compliance. This includes work on mechanical systems, repairing the distressed building exterior, replacing the roof in its entirety, and abating environmental hazards. What those hazards could all entail is still not fully known by the department.
Meanwhile, the city is moving forward with plans to demolish the former Boston Store building that it already owns at the Northridge Mall site. The city recently applied for a loan from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to help finance the project, with the city putting up $250,000 of its own money to cover a portion of that cost.
Northridge Mall, located northwest of North 76th Street and West Brown Deer Road, opened in 1972, but has largely sat vacant since the shopping center closed in 2003. The mall changed hands between Chinese investors, with the current owners at one time planning a Chinese market at the property. Those plans never materialized.
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 in 2017 gave the property to the city
"Northridge changed from being the gem of the northwest side to a challenge," Barrett said. "I have yet to meet anyone on the northwest side of the city of Milwaukee, or the city of Milwaukee proper, who's happy with Northridge as it is today."
He described the troubled former mall as an issue of health and safety, rather than a real estate issue.
Alderwoman Chantia Lewis, who represents the Northridge Mall property and surrounding areas, praised the move by DNS.
"Today I am proud to say that we are officially taking steps to say we are not tolerating this anymore," she said. "This (property) is a hazard, a nuisance, and we deserve better and we are not going to stand here and take this anymore."
Lewis cited the property as a reason development activity along the West Brown Deer Road corridor has remained stagnant in recent years.