MILWAUKEE -- A Milwaukee County judge on Wednesday, May 13 dismissed a civil lawsuit filed by Black Spruce Enterprises in August 2019 against the City of Milwaukee in an effort to stop the planned demolition of the former Northridge Mall.
The lawsuit sought "temporary and permanent injunctive relief" from Milwaukee County Circuit Court against the City of Milwaukee's raze order for the former mall.
In April 2019, the city issued raze orders to Black Spruce for the property, citing vandalism and the fact that the cost to repair the property exceeds its value -- something the company and its Milwaukee law firm Foley & Lardner disputed, filing a formal appeal in late May, saying the orders for demolition came as "a surprise to Black Spruce -- unilaterally issued with no prior warning."
In early June 2019, Black Spruce released renderings -- with plans to turn the property into an Asian market -- hoping to reopen the facility in spring 2021.
"For 10 years, they did absolutely nothing, and so we feel that this may be, and we don't know for certain, this may be something to stave off the raze order. We simply don't know," said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in response to the renderings.
Black Spruce appealed the raze order to the Standards and Appeals Commission, which affirmed the raze order based on city ordinance, which says demolition is allowed "if the cost of such repairs would exceed 50% of the assessed value," if repairs are deemed unreasonable and the building is declared a public nuisance.
The civil lawsuit said the presumption that repairs were unreasonable was rebuttable, but noted the Standards and Appeals Commission refused to hear evidence regarding this.
Black Spruce received the order denying the appeal from the commission, finding the raze order reasonable, on July 26, 2019.
The suit noted that 30 days after a decision from the commission, a company impacted by a raze order can apply to the circuit court for a restraining order to prevent the building from being razed -- which is what Black Spruce did in August 2019.
The lawsuit said state statute says while an old or out-of-repair building can be ordered to be razed, the statute says, "if the building can be made safe by reasonable repairs, order the owner to either make the building safe and sanitary, or raze the building, at the owner's option."
The suit noted that the City of Milwaukee adopted alternate provisions in its Code of Ordinances related to the razing of buildings, and "the city has no right to order the razing of a building except pursuant to" state statute and city ordinance. The suit said city ordinance states "all unsafe buildings, structures, or parts thereof that are declared to be a public nuisance, endangering life, limb, health, or property, shall be repaired and made safe, or razed and removed."
The lawsuit alleged "the city violated (state statute) and (city ordinance) because the city did not allow the owner to repair Northridge before issuing the raze order."
According to the lawsuit, the city estimated the cost to raze the buildings at $10 million to $12 million, and "if the buildings are razed, the owner will suffer irreparable harm" because the building cannot be repaired or improved.
Black Spruce asked for the following in the suit:
The push to tear down the former Northridge Mall grew after a maintenance worker was electrocuted at the property in late July 2019.
Victoriano Diaz, 37, was working with three friends July 22, 2019 when he stuck his hand in a high-voltage transformer. Those who were with Diaz when it happened said they saw and heard arching, and then saw Diaz shaking before he fell. He told them, “Don’t touch me,” before rolling up into a fetal position, at which point he stopped breathing. His friends called 911. Officials with Black Spruce Enterprise and Incorporated, the owners of Northridge Mall, confirmed Diaz was a maintenance worker who had been working with the company for about a year, and he had hired three of his friends to help with cleaning.
Alderwoman Chantia Lewis said this was the last straw, noting that Northridge, vacant since 2006, has a number of hidden health issues. Lewis pointed to a viral YouTube video, viewed more than seven million times, as a reason vandals have been attracted to the site.
Statement from Mayor Tom Barrett on Wednesday’s court decision:
“I am very pleased that we have reached this point in the process. The dilapidated former mall had become a hazard, a threat to the health and safety of people in the immediate vicinity.
“I appreciate all the efforts of city departments and the City Attorney’s office to bring this court case to a conclusion.
“The Northridge Mall site has great potential, and I am hopeful that potential can be realized in the not-too-distant future.”
Statement from Alderwoman Chantia Lewis after Wednesday's court decision:
"The New9th District, its residents and the city received a welcome and bright ray of light and good news yesterday when a judge ruled that the demolition of the former Northridge Mall should proceed immediately.
"In his decision yesterday (Wednesday, May 13), Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge William Pocan determined the City of Milwaukee’s raze orders were reasonable and that the former mall buildings in the 9th District be immediately demolished by their absentee landlord owner, China-based U.S. Black Spruce Enterprise Group Inc.
"I have made the demolition and redevelopment of the longtime vacant eyesore mall property my top priority and I have partnered with residents and city departments to make it happen. Together we’ve worked hard to keep these promises to the residents, and yesterday’s decision helps bring us one step closer to actualizing the goal -- the goal of a New9th, a revitalized 9th, and bringing hope and steady progress back to the district.
"Black Spruce Enterprise Group has frankly been a nightmare absentee landlord and has only reacted when pushed by our team and the court – and then only at the last second in a stopgap and minimum fashion. The mall has been a vacant, dilapidated and dangerous location for years and they are to be condemned for their shameful tenure and for putting our residents in danger.
"Last, I would like to thank and congratulate the Department of City Development and City Attorney’s Office staff who have worked tirelessly to get the action to where it is now. Their efforts include hundreds of hours of dedicated work on behalf of the city (and residents), and they have been spectacular.
"In the midst of a pandemic it is truly wonderful to get a little ray of light and hope, and I will relish this ruling as we get ever closer to the demolition that is long overdue."