The City of Milwaukee's three-year campaign to demolish the former Northridge Mall — the site of four recent fires — got a glimpse of a possible end game Monday.
A 2019 city condemnation order, which in March was overturned on appeal, has been scheduled for review at an Oct. 3 hearing by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge William Sosnay.
The judge said he wants the matter resolved promptly.
"This has gone on for too long," he said.
Sosnay also found Northridge owner U.S. Black Spruce Enterprise Group Inc. in contempt of court for failing to keep the deteriorating mall secured under a 2019 judge's ruling from when Black Spruce sued the city to overturn the raze order.
Sosnay ruled in favor of the city after hearing testimony from Fire Chief Aaron Lipski as well as a city building inspector and a member of Milwaukee Police Department's command staff.
Lipski and the others testified that Northridge is a hazard to firefighters who've fought four blazes there in July and August, as well as police officers responding to trespass calls and those who trespass against the mall.
Northridge's conditions include broken doors that have allowed people to enter the property, according to the city's witnesses.
Sosnay called the testimony "very disturbing," and said Black Spurce has "done little or nothing" to secure the mall.
He gave Black Spruce until the end of Friday to secure the property. If the company doesn't meet that deadline, Sosnay will fine it $2,000 a day until it complies with the order.
Northridge, totaling around 100 acres north of West Brown Deer Road and west of North 76th Street, closed in 2003.
It was sold in 2008 to U.S. Black Spruce, an affiliate of a Chinese investment group.
Black Spruce says it wants to create a trade mart for Chinese companies to sell clothing, toys, furniture and other items to U.S. retailers. But no work has been done at the site, and the city in 2019 issued a condemnation order.
That could result in the city acquiring Northridge, demolishing the mall and selling its land for new development, which could include light industrial projects.
Similar projects have redeveloped other nearby former big box stores, including a Walmart, Target and Toys R Us.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge William Pocan in 2020 dismissed the company's lawsuit challenging a city raze order.
Black Spruce has failed to keep Northridge in compliance with building codes, and evidence shows the deteriorating buildings "pose significant safety and environmental hazards," Pocan wrote in his decision.
The ruling also cited the company's lack of solid redevelopment plans for Northridge, and called its proposal "more of a vision at this point."
The condemnation order demands Black Spruce demolish the 900,000-square-foot building because it's dilapidated and a threat to public safety.
State law allows a raze order when the estimated cost of repairs exceeds 50% of a building's value.
The preliminary repair cost estimate is $6 million, according to the city Department of Neighborhood Services. The building's assessed value is just over $81,000.
But the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in March ruled that Pocan's decision was improperly based "on the cost to repair the buildings to make them compliant with code requirements for developed buildings open to the public when their current intended uses are as vacant, unoccupied buildings that are closed to the public."
As a result, the city's estimated cost included repairs to heating, plumbing and electrical systems needed to open the buildings to the public — instead of more limited work, according to the decision.
Officials from the Department of City Development and Department of Neighborhood Services testified before Pocan that Black Spruce provided only conceptual plans for redeveloping the site, and hasn't applied for building permits.
Li Yang, Black Spruce executive director, testified that Black Spruce initially presented to city officials a light industrial proposal involving processing grain products.
She said Black Spruce began working on the trade mart proposal after then city Development Commission Rocky Marcoux told her the city would not approve the industrial proposal and would only approve a commercial proposal.
The trade mart proposal's speculative nature meant that the city's cost estimate for the property should be based on maintaining the mall as a vacant site, said the appelate court ruling.
Sosnay on Monday referenced that ruling — telling the City Attorney's office to follow the guidelines "so we're not taking a trip to the Court of Appeals again."
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee's stalled Northridge Mall demolition sees possible end game