Developer watches Depot Town dream go up in flames

Ypsilanti’s Depot Town district lost one of its most storied and controversial historic structures Wednesday morning when the Thompson Block Building was destroyed by fire.

The blaze, which reportedly began around 2 a.m. and burned rapidly through the building, required assistance from five local area fire departments.

Although the raging flames were extinguished by around five a.m., smoke could still be seen rising from the structure into Wednesday afternoon. Fire officials interviewed at the scene would not speculate on the cause of the fire.

The Thompson Block, located at the northeast corner of Cross and River streets, began life in 1861 as a barracks for local Civil War soldiers.

The barracks were initially home to Michigan’s First Infantry – the Ypsilanti Grays – and later to Michigan’s 14th Infantry and to Company E of the 17th Infantry, which was made up entirely of volunteers from Michigan Normal School. The building also eventually became temporary home to the First Michigan Colored Infantry.

The large building was actually constructed as three adjacent structures, two three-story and one two-story. These three buildings were occupied after the Civil War by the Thompson family and together became Thompson Hardware in 1880, the area’s first bicycle dealer.

The Thompson Block scored another innovation in 1895 when it was converted into Ypsilanti’s first fire station and then was transformed again in 1916 into the area’s first Dodge Brothers dealership.

The sizable structure continued to serve Depot Town residents for decades, but as it had turned 100 years old, the Thompson Block began to show its age.

By the time local landlord David Kircher purchased the building in 1967, the Thompson Block had begun a long and painful chapter in its history as one of the area’s most blighted abandoned properties.

In 2002, after more than three decades of neglect, Kircher was finally sued by city officials to begin clean-up of the Thompson Block. When he refused to comply with the city’s demands Kircher was stripped of the title to the historic property.

But by then, the structure had become a dangerous hulk filled with rotting construction materials and piles of the owner’s garbage, according to the city documents relating to the lawsuit.

Ypsilanti city officials eventually named Barnes & Barnes, a local contractor hired by the city to assist in the property’s renovation, as receiver of the Thompson Block after Kircher failed to pay $187,686 in court-ordered repairs.

Kircher appealed the title transfer of the Thompson Block in 2005, but eventually lost his appeal. In a bizarre twist, Kircher was later convicted of state charges he had illegally dumped waste water from another of his Ypsilanti properties in 2004.

In December 2006, Kircher was sentenced to five years in state prison and charged $1 million in fines for violating Part 31 of Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protections Act.

Kircher was found to have pumped approximately 200,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Huron River from the Eastern Highlands apartment complex on LaForge Road.

Despite the complications surrounding the Thompson Block’s ownership, Ypsilanti city officials insist that Beal Properties, a second contractor hired by the city to clean up the Thompson Block, is now the sole owner of the property.

According to Beal Properties president Stewart W. Beal, by 2006 his company had paid Barnes & Barnes almost $400,000 for sole ownership of the property.

“Beal Properties was contracted to get that structure into compliance,” said Ypsilanti City Council member Peter Murdock in January when asked about the city’s dealings with Kircher and the two local contractors.

“Those buildings were all loaded with junk that had to be cleared out first, and that’s what Barnes and Beal were hired to do,” Murdock said.

“Stewart Beal has control of that property, and we show the title transfer for the Thompson Block occurred on May 16, 2006,” said Ypsilanti city planner Richard Murphy in a phone interview earlier this year.

“Transfer was made from Kircher to Beal because of the $346,000 unpaid city lean,” Murphy said.

By the time Kircher lost control of the Thompson Block in 2006, the property was in desperate need of a complete renovation – and that’s exactly what Beal set out to do.

During the following year, Beal Properties spent almost $200,000 on architectural and engineering design work, eventually emerging with an elegant set of revitalization plans for the historic structure.

“The Thompson Block is a $3.5 million construction project in which Beal Properties has invested at least $800,000 up to now,” said Beal as he opened the padlocked door outside the Thompson Block’s River Street entrance during an interview in January.

Above the 10,000 square foot first floor, which would have only been leased to commercial tenants, Beal planned 16 luxury lofts – 10 on the second floor and six above them on the top floor.

The lofts, ranging in size from 800 to 1,200 square feet, would all have featured balconies and hardwood floors. Beal planned to rent the lofts for between $900 and $1,200 a month.

To turn his grand Depot Town dream into reality, however, Beal predicted he would still have needed an additional $600,000 in loans from local lenders. But even the loans he had already secured were in question earlier this year after local lending had virtually evaporated in 2008.

“The balance of the funding, more than $2.5 million, was going to be made up of loans approved back in 2007. But that was before the credit freeze hit,” Beal said standing beneath the tall ceilings and rustic brickwork of the Thompson Block’s unfinished interior earlier this year.

“Citizen’s Bank approved our loans two years ago, as long as we leased 60 percent of the first floor, got approval for historic status, and cleaned up the title,” Beal said.

“But we were put on hold after Citizen’s Bank was purchased, and by the time their new loan officer was up to speed, the bank had stopped making commercial real estate loans. The credit market all over town made it impossible to get anything,” Beal added.

But the Thompson Block renovation continued to generate community interest in loft and retail leases, according to Beal. Future tenants were only waiting for construction on the building to be completed.

Beal Properties had also signed a long-term lease with Broughton Music Center, a retailer with locations in Kalamazoo and Northville, for a music store overlooking Cross and River streets – the building’s most desirable first floor space before the fire.

Another early advocate of the Thompson Block project was Andrew Garris, owner of the local eatery and nightclub The Elbow Room. Garris was also a confirmed tenant, according to Beal, who planned a large Civil War era tavern on the first floor to be called The Barracks.

Last August, Beal’s Depot Town dream received a welcomed boost from Gov. Jennifer Granholm when she offered $185,264 in state aid for the Thompson Block redevelopment project.

Beal also had 10 years left on his Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act tax rate of $10,000 a year – a substantial savings offered to contractors willing to spend their time and money restoring Michigan’s architectural heritage.

But money, or rather the lack of it, remained the principle reason why the Thompson Block project remained unfinished. While Beal recognized the community might have begun to lose patience with his scheme, he still believed in his Depot Town dream development.

Workers had begun showing up at the Thompson Block construction site earlier this summer, but Beal was reluctant to discuss details about the project’s funding on Wednesday morning.

“I really just can’t comment about anything yet,” Beal said as he watched firefighters flood his building with fire hoses from three sides.

“I’ll share any information I can get later,” Beal said, “but they haven’t even let me inside to take a look around yet.”

Regardless of the cause, the destruction of the Thompson Block is a tragic loss for local residents. But even without this historic renovation project, Depot Town’s continuing redevelopment remains a vital source of hope for renewal to the Ypsilanti community.

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