Demolition options on the table for vacant Ypsilanti-area shopping center in 2023

WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI – The vacant storefronts in an Ypsilanti-area shopping plaza whose decline can be measured in decades may not be long for this world.

At least six demolition contractors have sized up the Gault Village Shopping Center in Ypsilanti Township this year, preparing bids for township officials to bring it to the ground.

And while the Kentucky-based retail developer in charge of the company that has owned the plaza south of I-94 along Ford Lake since 2018 still hopes to change its fate, elected leaders in the township could be voting as early as January to approve one of the demolition options.

That’s according to an update township attorneys gave the township board on Dec. 6, as well as proceedings in a Dec. 16 hearing in a lawsuit between the township and property owners, now in its seventh year and overseen by three different judges.

Read more: ‘It has been a disaster’: Vacant Ypsilanti-area shopping plaza could be demolished

“The residents (of Gault Village) have been more than patient with the developer and so have we. Really wanting him to do the right thing and to clean up the property, and he has chosen not to every step of the way and still continues,” said township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo at the Dec. 6 township board meeting.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property where it’s located. We know it can be successful because in the past it’s been very successful, and so I think it’s good that we’re proceeding on this,” she added.

The township is involved in plans to level the shopping center thanks to a Sept. 2 order from a Washtenaw County Judge Carol Kuhnke, which confirmed officials could pursue demolition as one way to solve the public nuisance posed by crumbling buildings, mold and more than 1,000 pages of code violations previously documented there.

Robert Hull, whose company GV, LLC purchased the property at auction in 2018 when some tenants were still hanging on, thinks there’s still wiggle room to redevelop the roughly 145,000-square-foot shopping center, instead of bringing it down.

“I don’t really want it demo’d, so we’re trying to go the other route with that,” he said in an interview with MLive/The Ann Arbor News. “We’ve had architects out there saying that the bones are good, it just needs to be ripped down to the bones and completely redone.”

Hull has previously cast township officials as obstructionists to his plans for the shopping center, while they say they’ve given him every opportunity to proceed, and the time for renovating the plaza has long ago come and gone.

Still, the developer, who says he’s spent more than $600,000 cleaning out and maintaining the buildings, expressed some willingness to see the demolition bidding through.

“Because the township has a right based off the public nuisance to start the demo process, I do believe we just have to go through that process to find out if demolition is more viable than redevelopment,” he said.

Hull says he and his team have also marshalled demolition estimates. They will be in court with township attorneys for an update hearing on Jan. 27, 2023.

Meanwhile, the township’s six preliminary bids for razing the shopping center, removing the parking lot and restoring the site range from roughly $874,000 to $2 million, according to township meeting documents.

Some of those cost estimates are significantly lower because contractors want to do the work over the winter to keep their employees active, and officials hope to complete required environmental assessments and present a final bid for approval by the township board as early as January, Township Attorney Dennis McLain said during the Dec. 6 update to elected leaders.

By law, the township will have to complete an environmental assessment identifying the presence of asbestos, lead paint, PCBs, and other toxic building materials, according to Jason Lafayette, an environmental consultant with the firm SME hired by the township.

With that information in hand, demolition contractors will update their bids, he told township leaders.

The township could also commission an optional assessment of the former dry cleaner location in the shopping center, since those businesses are often associated with soil contamination. It’s possible demolition could proceed in phases, with just the buildings coming down first, before the slabs underneath are dealt with, officials said.

So far the township has received $20,000 in grants to prepare for demolition from the Downriver Community Conference Brownfield Consortium, and another almost $15,000 from the Washtenaw County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority for environmental investigations, according to township documents.

McLain said the township could request a money judgement against GV, LLC for the demolition costs, which could be converted into a lien on the property that would have to be paid if it were sold to a new developer. The removal of the buildings will likely increase the land’s value because of their current condition, he added.

Fellow township Attorney Doug Winters added that initial inspections have not found rat infestations that would be a concern if the buildings came down, and the township would require dust control and other measures to protect nearby Gault Village residents during the process.

The buildings could be taken down within a week, though that timeline could be extended if toxic materials had to abated, Lafayette said in his presentation.

“The residents have been given so many … false hopes for so many years by the developers even before GV, LLC that it’s our belief that by actually showing a tangible result of having the buildings come down that does show that the township is going to put into full force and effect the order of Judge Kuhnke,” said Winters. “I think once that building comes down that’s when you’ll see a lot of positive activity going forward.”

“Those buildings have to come down because they’ve just been a pox on the township in terms of the impact that it’s had, negatively speaking,” he added.

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