When more than 30 local officials gathered Thursday morning in Westchester Hall's new Club M for an update on the area's next act, the future was already happening on the other side of downtown.
A crew from Gilliam & Sons Inc. was demolishing a clapboard siding bungalow court and a vacant income tax office to make way for what's being billed as a project of 44 three-story luxury townhomes, one with views of Rabobank Arena and the mountains.
It's named 17th Place, a $6.7 million complex, and when finished it will occupy 1.34 acres bounded by 17th and 18th and N and O streets.
That's everything on the block except the Rice Bowl parking lot and a telephone company data center.
The work of 17th & O Investment Company, LP, a group of nine investors including Ward 4 Councilman Bob Smith and his son Austin Smith, 32, is an uncommon entry into the high-end rental market.
" '17th Place' will soon be considered the touchstone for luxury urban living in Bakersfield," the group's press release reads. "17th Place will fill a need for renters who seek the excitement and convenience of living in an upscale urban setting."
The complex will comprise two-story living spaces over tandem parking garages -- one vehicle behind the other.
Every unit gets a private garage and a front stoop; every unit has two bedrooms and one-and-a-half bathrooms, and all but six will be 1,160 square feet. The other six are corner units, 1,250 square feet each.
Interior appointments -- appliances and some finishes -- are still being determined, but the project's designer, Daniel Cater of BAR Architects in San Francisco, said the goal is a modern atmosphere with faux hardwood floors throughout and large windows.
"I'm excited, too, for the potential of this part of downtown really threading together," said Cater, a Bakersfield native who has known the Smiths for years. "There's sort of the west side and the east side of downtown, and I think the central part has not been in the forefront. This provides a great linkage for residents. The 15-minute walk radius for this site is amazing."
"Entertainment, restaurants, jobs center -- the only thing people still want is a grocery store within walking distance, but when we look at a map there's grocery stores pretty much as close as what you get out in the suburbs," Bob Smith said.
"That'll come in time. You've just got to get the rooftops," said Austin Smith, who has a commercial real estate broker's license and a master's in urban planning.
Plans are to start building in about three months, and to have the units ready six to eight months after that.
In three to five years, the investment group might consider either selling the entire complex or converting it to condominiums, but Bob Smith characterized that as a secondary exit strategy and said, "for the foreseeable future, it's an apartment complex."
The target market is millennials, 20-somethings, 30-somethings -- "everything except families with kids, I guess," Bob Smith said.
Rent prices have not been determined.
Reaction in the real estate community was mixed, albeit hopeful.
Bakersfield appraiser Gary Crabtree said the build cost per unit of just more than $152,000 -- including land and construction costs and development fees -- sounded steep. However, Crabtree said, the developers could recoup their investment by attracting professionals who work hard and want a quick commute to a turn-key residence.
"To me, it would appear that type of project would most appeal to someone either affiliated with federal or county or city government -- attorneys because obviously that's the hub, and obviously the hospitals with Mercy and San Joaquin very nearby," Crabtree said. "I do know in the past, there's been several very small apartment complexes that have been most attractive to doctors and nurses because it's so close to their work and they work long and hard hours."
Shana Braly, executive assistant to Mark Thurston, senior vice president of income properties at Newmark Grubb ASU & Associates, also said the price per unit sounded high.
But Braly pointed out two similar northwest apartment complexes, The Retreat at Riverlakes and Watermark Apartment Homes, are nearly 100 percent rented.
"They should end up being able to rent them out," said Braly, whose company was the listing agent for Watermark. "I would say first it would depend on their price point they would decide to go with. We are not at a shortage of (units for rent)."
Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell, whose area includes downtown, said he'd rather the units were being sold because owners tend to take better care of their properties than renters.
"If he's determined there's a market for them, then I wish him luck," Maxwell said. "I think there's an awful lot of real estate available in Bakersfield, even in our area."
As they heard about downtown's Urban Development Action Plan late last week, Downtown Business Association members and local officials examined renderings for 17th Place and said they were thrilled by more urban renewal.
"I'm excited to see what he's going to do to revamp certain parts of downtown," said Kern County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Leticia Perez. "From that will come even more commercial activities and even more ideas."
DBA President Cathy Butler agreed.
"The more of these projects that takes place, it all just collectively makes a difference," Butler said.
Gilliam worker Gregorio Gonzalez said the project was evidence of the city's maturity and hoped it would create jobs.
"Bakersfield is growing up," Gonzalez said as he watered the rubble of a freshly-crushed bungalow.