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Judge’s ruling forces Black Spruce to tear down long vacant Northridge Mall

The vacant Northridge Mall stands on West Brown Deer Road in the city of Milwaukee recently. Milwaukee city officials last week argued that mall owner U.S. Black Spruce Enterprise Group had created conditions at the mall that contributed to the death of Victoriano Diaz, who was electrocuted in July. (File photo by Rick Benedict)

The vacant Northridge Mall stands on West Brown Deer Road in the city of Milwaukee recently. Milwaukee city officials have argued that mall owner U.S. Black Spruce Enterprise Group had created conditions at the mall that contributed to the death of Victoriano Diaz, who was electrocuted in July. (File photo by Rick Benedict)

A judge on Wednesday ordered the owner of the long-dilapidated Northridge Mall to tear the property down, siding with Milwaukee officials who had called for the former shopping center to be razed more than a year ago.

The mall has largely sat abandoned on Milwaukee’s northwest side since being closed in 2003. For years, a Chinese investment group called U.S. Black Spruce Enterprises has owned the property, contending it plans to turn the mall into an Asian Market.

Those plans never materialized, and the mall has fallen further into disrepair, become a site o vandalism and illegal dumping and contributing to the death of a maintenance worker who was killed by an electric shock last year when inspecting a high-voltage transformer that had been cut open. In April 2019, city officials filed raze orders to compel the demolition of three buildings that make up the mall, prompting Black Spruce to sue.

In a decision on Wednesday, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge William Pocan found the city was within its rights in ordering the mall torn down. State law allows cities to issue raze orders when the cost to repair a property is more than 50% of its value.

“For all three buildings, the costs to repair far exceed 50% of the buildings’ value, making the repairs presumptively unreasonable,” Pocan wrote.

The decision forces Black Spruce to tear down the property immediately — a project that could cost between $10 million and $18 million.

The cost of redeveloping the building could be even higher and far exceed the property’s assessed value of $2 million. Tim Bolger, a construction inspector in the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services, estimated that it would cost about $11.5 million to redevelop all three buildings that make up the mall — a sum that doesn’t include the costs of graffiti removal or environmental remediation, which could push the price of refurbishing the building even higher.

An engineer with the Sigma Group testified in court that lab tests of materials at the site has revealed the presence of asbestos.

Although Li Yang, executive director of Black Spruce, argued in court testimony that his company planned to turn the property into an Asian market, she acknowledgedd that neither the company, nor herself personally, has ever redeveloped a property anywhere. Additionally, Black Spruce has no employees who live in the U.S., she said.

Pocan wrote that the company’s plans for the Asian market are “more of a vision at this point,” rather than an advanced project.

“While Black Spruce states 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 in moving forward with this idea,” Pocan wrote.

The ruling directs Black Spruce to take steps to take down the mall “immediately,” sparing Milwaukee the cost of a demolition project that the city acknowledged in testimony it cannot afford.

City officials praised the judge’s ruling. In a statement, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the former mall had become a threat to the health and safety of those who live near it.

“I appreciate all the efforts of city departments and the City Attorney’s office to bring this court case to a conclusion,” Barrett said. “The Northridge Mall site has great potential, and I am hopeful that potential can be realized in the not-too-distant future.”

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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