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Bakersfield's vacant storefronts get a closer look

Forgotten retail spaces are about to get a lot more attention under one of the city's new economic development strategies.

City staff plan to take an inventory of local store vacancies then choose one or more properties for a demonstration project, possibly downtown or at the former East Hills Mall.

Part of the idea is to pursue zoning and policy changes during a coming update to the city's General Plan.

The initiative passed Wednesday by a 4-0 vote of the City Council, along with dozens of other strategies, at a time of renewed interest in redeveloping underutilized former retail property, in some cases for housing.

Proponents see other possible reuses including offices, entertainment, distribution work, workforce training and mixed uses.

"I think there's opportunity to go a lot of different ways with those older, big box retail spaces," said Ward 4 Councilman Bob Smith, whose family is turning former retail property downtown into housing to serve the city's historically tight rental market. He voted in favor of the new economic plan.

'FUNCTIONALLY OBSOLETE'

Compatibility concerns and considerations for property owners could complicate the effort, said Bakersfield commercial-property broker and investor Anthony Olivieri. It will be important to take on projects individually instead of adopting a "one size fits all" approach, he said by email. He added a set of ground rules might work.

Olivieri predicted details could prove troublesome because of differences that sometimes erupt over mixed uses. But he agreed the city's success would be of great benefit to the community.

"There is no doubt something needs to happen to shopping centers where either the market has shifted dramatically, making them somewhat obsolete," he wrote, "or they have become functionally obsolete due to changes in the retailing environmental and retailer needs."

THE PLAN

The strategy document approved by the council proposes defining candidate retail buildings as those with long-term vacancy rates of 15 percent or more, in particular those whose anchors have closed or been replaced by lesser uses.

It calls for gauging the market to select possible property reuses. Taxpayer money is to be invested in infrastructure in high-priority areas. Financial analyses will determine what projects to market to developers. It says to further support the effort, changes to zoning and other land-use policies will be proposed as part of the General Plan update.

The plan specifically mentions the possibility of repurposing East Hills Mall, which sold to private developers in June. Demolition has begun but its intended reuse has not been finalized.

City officials cited other projects in the same spirit: the Amazon distribution center going in at the former Kmart and Big Lots on Wilson Road just west of Highway 99; the Smiths' Eastchester rental towers by Sage Equities; and Bitwise Industries' two-building tech and co-working hub across from the Padre Hotel, itself a redevelopment project that benefited from a city loan.

MIXED-USE?

Bakersfield's economic and community development director, Paul Saldaña, said it's not been decided yet where, but the pilot project might be a mixed-use development in which the city reaches out to a property owner about possible reuses.

Much commercial real estate around Bakersfield has been left empty for years. Declining shopping centers stand out, Saldaña said, because they were already struggling with consumer shifts before the pandemic pushed more shopping online.

Ward 2 Councilman Andrae Gonzales affirmed his support for reusing retail buildings, especially downtown. The area has a number of under-utilized structures, he said by email.

"At the same time, the need for housing (both affordable and market-rate) continues to grow," he wrote. "We need to encourage adaptive reuse."

CURVE AHEAD

The consultant who presented the strategic plan to the council, Roger Dale with Natelson Dale Group in Yorba Linda, said the changing retail landscape probably means the process of retail repurposing will be around for years and it might make sense to be proactive now.

"The idea is kind of get ahead of the curve in places that may become surplus land in the future and be ready to use that land in ways that benefit the property owners and the community," he said.