Construction begins again on Ypsilanti's Thompson Block

Nothing impacts a development more than the vision of the developer. That's proving true in Ypsilanti, where local developer Stewart Beal is finding ways to make the Thompson Block become a reality.

The Thompson Block is a large, historic-yet-blighted building on the eastern edge of Depot Town. Beal, fast becoming one of the city's biggest property owners, has been pushing, pulling and dragging the development forward for a few years now. He has suffered some setbacks, including having to find new financing, but has persevered and now has a project under construction.

"We are just refusing to take part in the economic downturn," Beal says.

He is using everyone's favorite commodity these days to make this happen -
cash. Instead of going for traditional financing where you put 20 percent down and borrow the rest from a bank, he is raising money from private investors to get the hammers swinging.

"Every dollar we raise from investors is a dollar that we can use to go forward with construction," Beal says.

He is trying to raise about $1.6 million, with a minimum of $10,000 to buy in. Right now he has enough to begin work again, starting with interior carpentry and exterior masonry work. He also plans to begin replacing the roof in September.

He hopes the project's momentum will attract investors and allow him to get financing. These days it won't be the traditional loan, but it could work out that if he puts 50 percent of the amount down, he might be able to borrow the other half.

"The business model we (originally) embarked on is not going to work today," Beal says.

Beal plans to turn the long-blighted building overlooking the railroad tracks at Cross and River streets into 16 luxury lofts above 10,000 square feet of ground floor retail space. He has already signed two major tenants (a bar and a music shop) for the ground floor. About 6,500 square feet (including basement space) is still available for lease and could potentially house a restaurant.

He plans to rent the lofts, which range in size between 800 and 1,200 square feet, for between $800 and $1,300 a month. The refurbished structure will feature amenities such as wood floors and balconies.
 
The Thompson Block building is one of the last redevelopment projects in Ypsilanti's bustling Depot Town, just north of downtown along the Huron River. Since its construction in 1861, the building's history of booms and busts is matched only by a long list of firsts.

Originally built to house Civil War soldiers, it became Thompson Hardware Store (thus the name) in 1880. The store was the first to sell bicycles, among other things, in the area. In 1895 it became the city's first fire station, and then in 1916, the very first Dodge Brothers car dealership.
 
But the latter half of the 20th Century brought particularly hard times for the historic structure. The building fell into neglect in the 1960s and became vacant soon after. Beal, who is rehabbing a number of apartment buildings and houses in Ypsilanti, began preliminary restoration work on it a few years ago when he took ownership.

Beal expects construction to continue as long as the money lasts. If all goes according to plan, that could mean move in dates of fall 2010.

Source: Stewart Beal, developer of the Thompson Block
Writer: Jon Zemke