Developer Stewart Beal seeks extension to block lanes of Depot Town intersection
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
In the nearly 90 days since the Thompson Block building burned, traffic has been diverted around the beams at Cross and River streets that prop up the building’s facade.
If Beal has his way, that detour may remain in place another 20 to 45 days.
Business owners in the area say the detour has significantly thinned traffic through the small business district. And the city has threatened legal action to force Beal to remove the beams from the roadway.
Beal, who owns the Thompson Block building, plans to go before the council Tuesday to ask for a 45-day extension to the 90-day, city-issued traffic control order that allows him to block part of the roadway with beams and scaffolding to support the structure’s walls.
Two westbound lanes on Cross Street and a northbound lane on River Street are temporarily closed.
Beal told the city he needs more time to figure out how to stabilize the historic structure’s remains and will present a plan for the council’s consideration.
“We’re asking for the 45-day extension so we can come up with a good, solid plan,” he said.
Beal said a similar project in Detroit tookÂ Beal Properties LLCÂ 15 months to plan and finds it “odd” people think his company should have done more to stabilize the building in the last 90 days.
“I can understand why more people have demanded more action be taken, but it’s an unreasonable request,” he said.
Several scenarios are possible under the extension request. If the council approves it, the beams will likely remain in the road for roughly 20 days before being pulled back to the sidewalk while Beal determines how to stabilize the building.
“It’s certainly an olive branch if it’s granted by council,” assistant city attorney Karl Barr said.
Council Member Pete Murdock, who represents the 3rd Ward in which Depot Town is located, said the council is interested in hearing definite and immediate plans for either demolishing or stabilizing the structure without the beams.
“It’s untenable the way it is, and it just can’t go on like this forever,” he said. “We want to know what his plans are specifically, what he’s going to do, and we’ll proceed from there.”
Beal said his company plans to move the beams from the road to the sidewalk, but not to fully stabilize the building without them.
“It’s a $3 million construction project, so we haven’t even thought about doing that,” he said.
Barr recommended to the council that an engineer present a plan showing how the building will be modified and also wants assurances it's in no danger of collapsing.
“The paramount concern here is the safety of the residents,” Barr said.
Should the council reject the extension, Beal could comply with the orders to clear the roadway by the Dec. 23 deadline by demolishing the building or demonstrating
to the city that it can safely stand without the support beams currently in the road.
Beal said the building won't be demolished, and it can't stand without the beams.
His other option would be to defy the city’s order, which would likely result in the city taking Beal to court.
Barr said Fire Chief Jon Ichesco sent a letter to Beal on Nov. 9 ordering the building be permanently stabilized or demolished. Beal responded in a letter to Ichesco four days later that the beams constituted a permanent fix, and he considered the order met.
Barr said the city was considering taking Beal to court for non-compliance with the order until he requested an extension.
If the council rejects the extension and Beal fails to clear the roadway, Barr said the city would likely sue Beal to either stabilize or demolish the building.
“The crux of the issue is it’s clearly a temporary fix to everybody but the property owner,” Barr said. “As of now, the property owner has yet to offer any kind of specific plan that says ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”
Beal views the situaiton differently.
“We came up with what we thought was a great plan and executed it perfectly,” he said. “Only two weeks ago did anyone from the city tell us otherwise.”
While the city and Beal decide on the future of the Thompson Block, some business owners in Depot Town say they're hurting because east to west traffic no longer travels through the district.
The posted detour on Cross Street instead directs traffic south to Michigan Avenue, then west past Depot Town.
Dennis Runyon, who owns Dennis’s Music, estimates his sales have dipped an additional 15 percent in the nearly 90 days since the Thompson Block building burned.
“I’ve got my customers telling me they’re going to Fast Eddie’s because they can shoot straight up Michigan Avenue,” Runyon said. “We’re taking a big hit. Honesty, this is a bad situation.”
For Jim Karnopp, owner of CafÃ© Luwak, the fire was particularly ill-timed. Depot Town is between a large residential zone to the east and the bulk of Ypsilanti’s employers and the university to the west.
The day after Karnopp launched a breakfast menu in which he invested $20,000 to renovate his kitchen, the Thompson Block burned.
“Our morning business is pretty much totally gone because most of the traffic in the morning is east to west and now there’s the detour,” he said.
Beal said he spoke to Karnopp Saturday about moving the beams to the sidewalk sometime in January, and Karnopp was amenable to the idea.
Beal added he sympathizes with the business owners, but believes they should take the long view and see saving the Thompson Block building can only improve the district.
“The Thompson Block has been around 150 years and it’s going to be here another 150 years from now, so I think people need to not get so excited about what’s happening today and look down the road,” he said.
Tom Perkins is a freelance writer for AnnArbor.com. Reach the news desk at email@example.com or 734-623-2530.