Thompson Block: Beal calls fire 'setback,' but vows to forge ahead with Depot Town restoration
Stewart Beal sat at a temporary table on the sidewalk outside of the Thompson Block in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town on Wednesday afternoon, oblivious for a moment to the dozens of bystanders orbiting the burned shell of his prized investment.
During that point in his 13-hour day, he’d already urged firefighters to save the faÃ§ade of the 148-year-old structure, formed a plan to shore up crumbling walls, chased trespassers until a fence could be built and felt the sadness of a community that looked to the building as a symbol of Depot Town’s vitality.
Many of the people who stopped by the Thompson Block to see the damage wanted to share Beal’s loss.
“Thanks for trying,” said Keith Baker, quickly introducing himself to Beal and shaking his hand.
“It’s not over yet,” Beal responded. “As long as there’s a brick still there.”
The fire was a devastating moment in the building’s long history, which Beal became a part of in 2006 when he drafted a plan to bring apartments and stores to the structure, which had been long-neglected by a previous owner.
There have been hurdles, but nothing compared to having to deal with a massive fire - damage is severe enough that charred, fallen beams are visible through windows, and afternoon daylight shone through others.
Instead of wondering how bad damage is, Beal said, he should have been continuing to plan the historic building’s future.
Beal has a quote on a bid for the Thompson Block’s new roof sitting on his desk, he said. “And 16 skylights,” he adds. “I was going to order them this week.”
“It has to be saved”
Beal described the scene after Wednesday's fire as full of immense sadness.
People took pictures all day. At least 1,000 people stopped at the corner to look at the flames, then the smoldering remains, and finally the scaffolding as crews braced wood support beams against exterior walls.
Fred and George Beal - Stewart’s father and uncle, respectively - determined with an engineer earlier on Wednesday that the support system would keep the walls stable until they can do a more thorough evaluation in coming weeks. The exterior was first; soon the interior walls will be braced.
Beal, watching his employees navigate the scaffolding and beams, said the crews were risking their lives to do the work - the walls suffered such severe damage that, he said, any of the street movement could cause them to cave in.
But the crews also have recent experience doing similar work: Some had just stabilized an eight-story faÃ§ade at the otherwise-demolished Fine Arts Building in Detroit.
“They need to stabilize the structure,” Beal said, “so we can make some choices.”
He knows that many people look at demolition as a possibility. He runs a construction company and could do the work quickly.
But he also said it’s his favorite building - “it’s other people’s favorite building,” too, he says, pointing to bystanders - and he expresses stubbornness about the future.
“It just has to be saved,” he said. “Every option besides demolition will be considered.”
That message drove his conversations with firefighters after he arrived on the scene at about 3 a.m., alerted by Linda French of the Sidetrack Bar and Grill and then the fire department.
“Any other building in any other location, they would have razed it to put the fire out,” he said. “When I got here I started negotiating on the site (to keep the faÃ§ade).
“ They were of immense help in saving what is left.”
Not giving up
There’s a fascination with the building in the neighborhood and the city.
Some of it’s expressed in the somber looks on faces as people pause to view the damage and consider what may come next. People view the building as a landmark, a historic property, a place where a restoration done right can have meaning for the city for years to come.
Others have been less respectful.
Beal said he’s troubled by reports in online comments that people had trespassed in the building. He said tools were taken during a recent break-in, and he’s had to chase people off of the premises, even on Wednesday as firefighters still tried to clean up from their work.
And he knows that there are people who will wonder about the owner’s role in a fire. “You don’t work this hard at something ” he starts, before declining to finish the statement.
He also scoffs at comments about loose wires: “We had a brand-new temporary electrical system installed (over a year ago) with professionally hung lights.”
Beal keeps pausing as people he knows walk by where he’s sitting. One was a former tenant. Another has done work for him.
One asks some questions and notes that the building had been there since 1861.
“It’s still there,” Beal reminds him.
What will he do with it, the man asks.
“Build 10,000 square feet of commercial property and 16 luxury lofts,” Beal answers.
That’s the plan - the same plan Beal formed in 2006, the same one he took to lenders that year, and then again in 2007 and early this year. The same plan marketed to investors and tenants.
The same plan that Depot Town wanted to see come to fruition after years of wanting better for that building.
The project was finally moving ahead after months of stagnation. Credit markets have dried up, and the Thompson Block got caught up in that early.
Beal spoke with frustration last year and early this year about the lack of capital - at first for this type of redevelopment project, now for most projects. That he was able to amass a property portfolio in Ypsilanti - including a historic home that he hopes to turn into his personal residence - over the same time drove his business growth.
That frustration pales to his experience on Wednesday.
“I view this as the major setback in my business career,” Beal said. “But it’s not one that I’m fearful can’t be overcome.”
And he won’t express hesitation about moving forward, from whatever ever step the remains of the building will allow.
“I’m not going to mourn,” Beal said, “because the project is not dead.”
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