By Ethan Duran
and Steve Schuster
[email protected] and [email protected]
Milwaukee-based Phoenix Investors submitted a purchase agreement Friday to buy the former Northridge Mall from China-based Black Spruce Enterprise just hours before a Milwaukee County Circuit Court hearing.
The Chinese company, which had plans to turn the mall into Asian marketplace, was held in contempt of court yet again Friday.
Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge William Sosnay was not impressed Friday when three principals from Black Spruce yet again failed to show up in his Milwaukee courtroom.
“It’s ironic this was scheduled on St. Patrick’s Day, because you’ve raised my Irish,” the judge said to attorneys from both the city and Black Spruce.
Odalo Ohiku, an attorney for the city of Milwaukee, said the unexpected news was a classic “delay tactic.” Friday’s hearing was for the city’s request to take over ownership of the former mall.
Judge Sosnay found the three directors in contempt of the court and fined them $1,000 per day, on top of previous contempt fines, for previously failing to appear in court.
Previously, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge William Pocan had ruled against Black Spruce in a 2020 trial, but the Chinese company appealed.
The Wisconsin Appeals Court then sent the case back to the trial court. On Dec. 15, 2021, President Joe Biden nominated Pocan to serve as a United States District judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, so Sosnay took over the case.
The city of Milwaukee and Black Spruce have been in litigation for years and the owners of the Chinese company have now racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fines, according to court officials.
Attorney Mark Foley, who was representing Phoenix Investments, asked the judge to adjourn court for 45 days to perform due diligence and said his client would secure the property and perform landscape work. The attorney also asked for a 10-day closing period.
Foley works for von Briesen & Roper, which represented and then sued Black Spruce in the past for nonpayment. The judge said the history between the two parties could be a conflict of interest.
Judge Sosnay said the investors’ plans didn’t address the city’s raze order or previous liens given to Black Spruce.
The mall would be “renovated and not torn down,” under Phoenix Investments’ plans, Foley said.
“If (Phoenix Investments) cannot reach an agreement with the city that’s acceptable to the court or an order from the court that would reverse the raze order, then I don’t believe they would go forward with this. They don’t own the property and don’t have a right in regard to razing it,” Foley said.
“I don’t expect them to come in and start bulldozing the property as you perform your due diligence, but I won’t go backwards in this case … We’ve already had a hearing and we’ve dealt with that issue,” Sosnay said.
Judge Sosnay said he would grant the adjournment to better understand the ownership transfer.
A representative of Phoenix Investments LLC could not be reached for comment prior to publication.
The company has a diverse portfolio of investments throughout the United States, according to the company’s website.
When asked why Black Spruce Executive Director Li Yang didn’t appear in court, attorney Christopher Kloth said his client allegedly had trouble arranging childcare during the week of Spring Break. Kloth is representing Black Spruce before Sosnay, while Hansen Reynolds is representing Black Spruce in its appeal.
The court ordered $109,000 owed by Black Spruce to be purged on or before Oct. 31, 2022, but daily fines would continue as previously ordered, court records showed. The court also ordered Black Spruce to provide names and addresses of its president, directors, agents or all three within one week.
The next hearing will be held on April 14 at 10:30 a.m.
The city put out a public bid on Wednesday to demolish the Boston Store at 7700 W. Brown Deer Road on the southern end of the former mall. Milwaukee has owned the building since December 2017.
The city wants to demolish the vacant department store to “reduce its liability as the property owner and demonstrate for nearby residents and businesses that we are doing our part to address this nuisance,” a spokesperson for the city said.
Northridge Mall was built in 1972 and closed its doors in 2003 after a number of incidents. Even after the mall’s closure there were a number of fires at the mall as recently as last year.
The former mall, which was no stranger to headlines, was perhaps most famous for the Jesse Anderson murder. In 1992, Anderson and his wife, Barbara, went to dinner at T.G.I. Fridays outside of the mall. Barbara Anderson was stabbed multiple times and Jesse lied to police claiming that two black man committed the crime. It was later discovered that Jesse Anderson had in fact stabbed his wife five times. He was convicted of murder and later killed in prison on the same day Jeffrey Dahmer was killed.
Milwaukee Attorney Gregg Herman says he remembers walking through the mall in the shopping center’s early days.
“It was truly a beautiful mall,” Herman recalls, noting that after Anderson, “The mall was still gorgeous, but empty.”