When Dolores Huerta Foundation executives brought their plans for a $20 million downtown cultural center and organizational headquarters to city officials last year, they were met with great enthusiasm.
And a suggestion that might initially seem odd.
Instead of a city-block-filling cluster of one- and two-story buildings at 21st and H streets, how about a six-story edifice?
The relevant subtext here is that, in Bakersfield, six stories counts as an edifice. A six-story anything would be the 11th-tallest building in the city and the eighth-tallest in the central business district, coming in right after that seven-story architectural treasure known as the 18th & Eye parking garage.
Huerta Foundation execs politely acknowledged the suggestion but opted to stay with Plan A.
City officials might have envisioned additional, symbiotic uses for a supersized Huerta building, but the main reason they would’ve liked to see a six-story structure in that spot, a block north of the Fox Theater, is this: They want a municipal skyline and they have to start somewhere.
Skylines, as you may have noticed, are the most outwardly unique characteristic of any city. They’re like architectural signatures. We're familiar with the skylines of many cities — Manhattan, Seattle, San Francisco, St. Louis — even, yes, Fresno. But Bakersfield ... what skyline?
This is not an idle question.
City officials are actively trying to find an answer.
As challenging as skyline enhancement might have been as a civic objective last year, when city officials first invited the Huerta Foundation to consider four or five additional floors, things are considerably more challenging today.
Yes, it’s that coronavirus thing again.
When it comes to obstacles to skyline improvement, the pandemic is playing out in two ways.
First, the crisis has transformed California’s forecast $6 billion budget surplus into an anticipated $54 billion deficit, and a casualty of that, as one might expect, has been California high-speed rail.
And HSR is the fuse for this dream.
Bakersfield’s proposed high-speed rail terminal, set for construction at Highway 204/Golden State Avenue and F Street, is the goal line, in a manner of speaking, for downtown growth — growth that the California High-Speed Rail Authority itself encouraged with a $900,000 dispersal of federal funds for a Bakersfield study.
That study, spearheaded by Assistant City Manager Jacqui Kitchen, produced a 2018 report dubbed Making Downtown Bakersfield.
“What we got out of it was a couple of really important, kind of technical things,” Kitchen says. “We got an existing conditions report for all of our infrastructure. Most of our sewers and electrical lines in the downtown area are very old — pre-1950s, many of them. We didn't have a GIS map showing where they are.”
That geographic information system mapping program, like layers of an onion, shows surface layout, sewer lines, electrical lines, internet fiber networks, the transportation grid and more. “And we didn't have a clue,” Kitchen says, ”for the downtown in particular.”
Now, thanks to GIS data, we have started to have some clarity on opportunities for property redevelopment.
“If we know where those sewer lines are and where the upgrades need to be,” Kitchen says, “then that helps bring (down) costs for developers who want to come in and maybe renovate ... from a vacant office building to an apartment building.
“Infrastructure is not sexy, or the most interesting thing, but it's critical.”
The sexy part of the 2018 study was the creation, with broad community input, of a specific vision of what life might be like, amid what sort of brick-and-mortar improvements, in the coming decades.
The Making Downtown Bakersfield plan lays out an arresting array of possibilities, including:
● A dynamic new skyline. Not skyscrapers — we'll never be a metropolis — but a smattering of buildings, six to 12 stories, jutting above the walkable, predominantly one- and two-story city we have today.
● A linear park running from Mill Creek to D Street, in Westchester. It’ll be part of a grand loop that also embraces the high-speed rail terminal, the Garces Circle and the Wall Street Alley. The Wall Street pedestrian paseo, they're calling it.
● The Bakersfield high-speed rail station itself, to be located in a derelict field near what was once, appropriately, Restoration Village, and before that, old-timers may remember, the Rancho Bakersfield Motel, with its famous “Let’s Eat!” sign.
● A familiar downtown landmark: the Beale Clock Tower, a new one, to replace the original that was mortally damaged in the 1952 earthquake. This clock tower wouldn't be positioned inconveniently in the middle of the intersection of 17th and Chester, where it might invite automobile accidents like the old one did, but rather a half-block north, set back from the street.
● Housing, housing, housing. Cities of every size have come to realize they must have a significant residential component. The area we think of as downtown Bakersfield currently has about 1,000 residents; the goal is to have 10,000 at the plan's build-out.
Irony alert: The city successfully sued the High-Speed Rail Authority to keep the train from rolling right into Bakersfield's downtown core, and now the plan is for downtown Bakersfield to grow northward to meet the high-speed rail station.
But back to the pandemic.
Thanks to the budget upheaval, the next round of HSR construction funding has been delayed from September until December, putting a hold on $1.6 billion for 119 miles of Central Valley track — essentially everything that sits on top of the bridges and tunnels that have already been built.
One delay, given the unpredictability of this virus and the unwillingness of many Californians to do what it takes to fight it effectively, could easily turn into two delays, or four, and the next thing you know, the Bakersfield HSR terminal, at one time tentatively planned for groundbreaking as early as 2023, gets pushed back to somewhere in the vicinity of 2028. That’s the subject-to-change completion date, as of this moment.
The pandemic’s second impact on Bakersfield’s skyline improvement goals lies in the lasting way it seems certain to affect the way we live and work. COVID-19 has driven millions out of their offices and back into their homes, supercharging what had already been a steady but undeniable trend toward telecommuting.
An astounding 42 percent of the U.S. labor force is now working from home full time, according to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. An additional 26 percent, mostly essential service workers, is still working in more traditional settings. So, by sheer numbers, the U.S. is a work-from-home economy. And, based on its contribution to U.S. gross domestic product, this growing group of work-from-home employees now accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. The workers who drive the economy most effectively today are doing so in their jammies, figuratively speaking.
Given that sea change, how much sense does it make to stake economic (and aesthetic) growth on an office-building-heavy development plan?
And how much sense does it make to encourage urban density when the stacking of residential unit upon residential unit significantly worsened the impact of COVID-19’s spread in cities across the world?
Making Downtown Bakersfield planners might be forced to scale back the height and density of both office and residential buildings. What does that leave them?
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the linear-park loop for a loop. Timetables have been thrown off, priorities spun into flux.
What, then, is the solution? We’ll know more when the city Planning Commission meets July 15 for a progress report on its state-mandated general plan update.
California law requires that each county and city in the state develop and adopt a general plan — a statement of development policies, with maps, setting forth goals and policies. It is a comprehensive long-term blueprint for the physical development of the region.
And Bakersfield and Kern County are due to develop and issue new, overlapping editions that look at land use, open space, conservation, housing, circulation, noise, safety, energy, the Kern River and other elements.
How do civic leaders map out a broad vision for livability, prosperity and health — with perhaps a more dynamic urban skyline — when a certain virus refuses to clearly establish its long-range intentions?
It’s just one more aspect of this suddenly bizarre era we must navigate together.