By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jul 01, 2024 at 11:31 AM

Urban Spelunking is brought to you by Nicolet Law

Fifty-two years after opening, the end is near for the former Northridge Mall, as Veit’s bid for the demolition of the mall, which closed in 2003, was accepted by the City of Milwaukee.


So, while my visit on Monday was not my first to the closed mall, it’s likely to be the last, as demolition is expected to be wrapped up next year. After removal and abatement of hazardous materials and cleanup inside this summer, mechanical demolition of the structure itself should begin in autumn or winter.

Then, by late 2025, the roughly 58-acre former mall site north of Brown Deer Road and west of 76th Street should be ready for redevelopment.

It will be the largest piece of available land in the city.

Central atrium.

Hopefully that new phase for the land will generate the same kind of excitement that the creation of the mall did more than a half-century ago.

Northridge was developed and built – like its predecessor, Southridge, which opened in 1970 – by Michigan-based mall developer Taubman Centers, Inc. and local partner the Kohl family.

Both malls were designed by architect Wah Yee, whose practice was located, like Taubman, in the Detroit suburb of Southfield.

Although its namesake passed away in 2009, Wah Yee Associates is still designing commercial buildings and another of the malls they likely designed (check out the skylights), Lakeside Mall in metro Detroit, is closing.

east atrium
The east atrium.

Northridge was the focus of much discussion in the years leading up to its construction, which occurred in conjunction with the Northridge Lakes residential development and a planned, but never built, freeway.

The new mall was 900 feet long, with a total of 1,338,331 million square feet, slightly less than its twin, Southridge, which had 1,420,000 square feet of floor space when it opened.

The mall’s anchors – Boston Store, Gimbels, J.C. Penney and Sears – covered a total of 665,617 square feet.

Boston Store
The old mall-facing Boston Store facade.

Interestingly, unlike Southridge, Northridge did not have a Kohls Department Store located within. Instead, that was included in a strip mall nearby that also had a Kohls food store.

While Wah Yee was the architect of record, newspaper accounts at the time pointed out that more than 100 architects and designers did work on Northridge, including its interior decoration, and the architecture of its department stores and smaller shops.

All that work was overseen by Taubman’s VP of architecture James MacShara and his assistant William Hiotaky, who were architects, as was, interestingly, Taubman namesake A. Alfred Taubman, for whom the college of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan is named.

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The 30-year-old James Smith was Taubman’s architectural coordinator for the Northridge project. It was on his desk that tenants were required to drop their designs and working drawings for approval.

Taubman always had the final say, according to Smith and Hiotaky.

Boston Store utilized architects from Cincinnati, while Gimbels hired a New York-based firm,  J.C. Penney’s tapped Grand Rapids architects and Sears’ team was in Chicago. Milwaukee architect Sheldon Segel was also included to “help deal with local problems.”

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Monthly progress gatherings were held at Southridge and as many as 30 people attended these meetings.

“Mr. Taubman was the dreamer and it’s up to architect Wah Yee and his staff to translate it into working plans and drawings,” Hiotaky told one newspaper.

The mall opened in phases beginning on Aug. 2, 1972.

On that rainy Wednesday, thousands of shoppers turned out to check out the new mall.


The rain took a break, allowing a small parade to take place, following by a performance by the Continental Youth Band in the mall’s center court where dignitaries, including Mayor Henry Maier and his wife Mary Ann – “looking fresh, trim and fashionable” in her “first public appearance since she recently announced that she would not vote for George McGovern for president” – Alfred Taubman and Sidney Kohl of Kohls and others were on hand to cut five ribbons.

Four ribbons, one in each corner of the stage and representing the four anchor department stores were cut – as one vertical ribbon at center-stage – with the assistance of beauty contest winners from around the state.

The Northridge Starlets, snug in their “green and white hotpants outfits,” staffed information booths to answer questions and help shoppers.

Early photos of the mall. (PHOTOS: Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library)

A long line snaked through Gimbels where 7,500 free roses were being given away, and another line formed at Tiffany’s, near Sears, for free bread.

On that day, 51 stores opened in the $50 million mall, with a total of 130 stores expected to be operating in the following months, employing a total of about 4,000 workers. Many of those were due to open around Oct. 1, although some were expected to be a bit later.

Three movie theaters also opened later.

On day one, it was noted that some in the business believed that it marked the first time in the U.S. retail history that four major department stores opened simultaneously.

The papers also noted one other difference between Northridge and Southridge:

The 24-foot-tall bronze and polished stainless steel sculpture, called “Fountain of Illusion” – designed by UC-Berkeley sculpture professor and internationally known” sculptor Harold Paris – was “reported to be quieter than Southridges.”

Everything has been quieter at Northridge – which had undergone at least one major makeover in its lifetime – than at Southridge since the former was shuttered in 2003.

west atrium
West atrium.

The Sears store at the west end was torn down in 2004 and replaced with a Menards and a Value Village occupied the former Boston Store until 2013 before that part of the mall was sold to Penzey’s. Penzey’s transferred its portion of the mall, which it never occupied, to the City of Milwaukee in 2017.

The remainder of the mall, owned since 2009 by a Chinese-based company, was obtained by the City of Milwaukee this past January in a tax foreclosure.

Inside, the place is a mess.

I visited in 2012 and back then, it just looked like a closed mall. With some tenants and a bit of clean-up, it seemed like it could be reopened if someone had wanted to do that.

Not anymore. Now it’s a disaster.

Vandals have come in smashed windows, store facades, fixtures, tiles. They’ve set fires. One video online shows them pouring some sort of accelerant down one of the staircases and setting it ablaze.

Charred remnants of a fire.

Even the skylight windows have been broken, which means water has for at least a few years poured in when it rains. So, there’s mold everywhere.

When strippers tore open walls to get pipes to sell for cash, they likely exposed the friable asbestos within.

“This is what it looked like when the city acquired it,” says Benji Timm, a project manager for the Department of City Development. “People were getting in here, vandalizing, running around filming videos. For some, it was a playground. For some, it was an opportunity to make money. But obviously it's a serious health and safety issue, too.


“So that's the primary reason the City took it. When there's a fire, the building fills with smoke and the firefighters can't see anything. Then you have all the debris in the floor, there's utility pits over by the fountains, so you never quite know what you're getting into. So this not only a health and safety issue for residents and kids and vandals and people who are getting in here, but also for first responders who are trying to keep everybody safe.”

On my 2012 visit, the place felt eerie. As if all of humanity disappeared and this former retail landscape was all that survived. But, now, it feels like a place that can’t go away quickly enough.

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Sure, there are hints of its past: signs for Mrs. Field’s Cookies, Lerner and Things Remembered. And you can see the central areas where folks met up and compared purchases, benches where they took a load off. The skylights, seen from the interior of the building, are quite beautiful.

But, clearly this place has long since left behind its useful life.


So, what’s next?

“None of the buildings themselves will remain,” says Timm. “Everything you see will come down.

“However, there are a few kind of iconic blue steel structures in the center atrium area, the elevator shaft, as well as some kind of pagoda structures inside. We're going to try and save those and hopefully reuse those for some project in the future. We don’t know what that is yet, but just to hold on to something.”


The demolition phase will take about a year, says Timm, noting that the asbestos remediation alone will take up about half that time.

In the meantime, the city continues to engage the site’s neighboring business and residents, Timm adds.

The plantings aren't what they used to be.

“We launched a website a few weeks ago, actually two websites,” he says. “There's one website that can be found on the City of Milwaukee's webpage that speaks to what's going on right now at Northridge. It's a project based website that gives a timeline, sets expectations and describes what's happening now.

“Then there's also a website that allows people to submit their ideas for what this could be, as well as submit their memories and help us determine what next steps are going to be. There’s a lot of nostalgia associated with this property.”

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So, what does the city hope it will be?

“A positive, healthy redevelopment for the City of Milwaukee that transforms this area,” says Timm.

“We're just going to be getting into the next steps in the planning process and market analysis in the next couple months. We've been focused on health and safety aspects right now, and then we'll be moving into the planning aspects in the future soon.”

For more stories on Northridge Mall, click here.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.