Northridge Mall was one of several large suburban malls built in the 1960s and '70s. It was at the far northwestern edge of Milwaukee — at 76th Street and Brown Deer Road. But the glory days didn’t last. The mall closed 15 years ago and has gone into extended limbo.
Most of the buildings remain, but they're empty. It's a big-box ghost town with a chain link fence around it.
The latest Bubbler Talk — our series that allows you to ask WUWM questions about Milwaukee — tackles curious community member questions that involve the now defunct mall.
"When is Milwaukee planning to revitalize the Northridge area?"
Before we answer that question, we explored a bit more about the mall’s history.
The mall was built in 1972, opening in 1973. Many department stores were there — Sears, Boston Store, Gimbels — as well as smaller stores, such as Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour.
More than just a shopping center, Northridge was a teenager’s oasis.
"Of course, I go back to Northridge, back in the glory days! My friend worked at the Marcus Theatres that was inside. I remember being behind the scenes and being in the projection room and really just hanging out, " Milwaukee Alderwoman Chantia Lewis remembers.
Various factors likely led to Northridge's demise. Changing tastes in shopping, more competition from stores in other counties, or in Northern Illinois. Lewis cites one possible reason for Northridge’s decline may have been shoppers incorrectly fearing crime in the area.
In 1992, a white man, Jesse Anderson, falsely blamed two African-American youth for the killing of his wife outside Northridge. Anderson was eventually convicted of committing the murder. He later died in a state prison, in the same inmate attack that killed mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer.
While much of the mall has sat quietly, Northridge was full of laughter and joy at the end of 2017. Last year, YouTube personality Casey Neistat shot a holiday video with about 100 local children.
Even though the video was part of a promotional stunt for a smart phone company, it offered people a rare glimpse inside the mall. At one point, a curtain was pulled back to show a "Winter Wonderland" display that was set up in the otherwise-empty space.
Elsewhere on the former Northridge property, a few businesses opened several years ago, though some have since closed. The Menards home improvement store at the south end is apparently doing well and may expand.
While exploring the Menards parking lot, we met shopper Steve Miszewski. He said he never had a bad time at Northridge and that new life isn't out of the question. "Ah, anything can be re-imagined or re-opened — in some way — it's just who wants to invest there?" Miszewski asked.
For a while, Penzeys Spices planned to open a company headquarters and warehouse on about 150,000 square feet, or about a third of the massive Northridge property. But last year, owner William Penzey gave that land to the City of Milwaukee.
Sam Leichtling, long range planning manager of the Department of City Development, said officials are now looking at a potential mix of light industrial buildings, office space and retail along 76th Street. He added that local people want jobs.
"That's the thing we heard consistently from residents is, we want places on the northwest side that hire people who are living on the northwest side, and you don't have to drive to a surrounding community, " Leichtling said.
Carolyn Esswein is a UW-Milwaukee professor of Urban Planning, who has been helping chart a new course for Northridge. She says green space may be needed to help break up the look of acres of old parking lots.
"Where, if I lived south of Brown Deer Road, up on the hill, I could come down and walk on the weekends. Or I might use a trail system, a public space element that comes along with this, that employees can use during the week, during the day, residents can use as well," Esswein said.
But City of Milwaukee officials say much remains on hold, due to the Chinese couple that owns the rest of the former mall property. A few years ago, the couple's firm, Black Spruce Enterprise Group announced plans to convert that part of Northridge into a trade mart for Asian businesses. Those plans have stalled, though the city says the firm is paying property taxes.
Black Spruce did not respond to our email requesting comment. Alderwoman Lewis, the former mall shopper who now represents the Northridge area, has a message for the Chinese owners: "I've said to them and their liaison, on several occasions, I need movement on this property, you're not going to like me very much, " she said laughing.
Lewis said the city is exploring its legal options and will do what it must do to produce a long-term solution.
More immediately, Lewis is encouraging people to come to a festival on Labor Day weekend in part of the Northridge parking lot. It's called the Notes, Jokes and Hope Music Festival.
She said the Hope part of the event will aim to show positive things can happen again at the old Northridge site.
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