The father-son team behind downtown Bakersfield's first market-rate housing development in decades is doubling down with a similar project just two blocks away in a part of town observers say has greatly benefited from the investment.
Developers Bob and Austin Smith say they have raised 90 percent of the capital required as they prepare to break ground by summer on The Cue, a 53-unit townhome project proposed at the northeast corner of Q and 18th streets.
Located in an area that even 10 years ago urban professionals largely avoided after dark, The Cue is positioned to take advantage of the urban revitalization some attribute to the Smiths' own work in the area.
A key question for the project is whether the surrounding neighborhood, popularly known as Eastchester, will follow the national model for downtown renewal that has developed during the last quarter-century.
That is, will an influx of upwardly mobile, full-time residents gradually crowd out perpetrators of vandalism and theft downtown?
Some see signs that is beginning to happen as popular, independent restaurants and shops — downtown's first brewery in decades is scheduled to open within a month in Eastchester — attract customers ever later into the night.
"People are comfortable to stay a little longer," said Bakersfield businessman Tim Terrio, who on Friday afternoon was having lunch near The Cue's proposed construction site with business partner Amy Adams. They were going over plans to open a new personnel recruitment and networking business in Eastchester.
The two of them said the area held little appeal prior to the development of the Smiths' existing project, 17th Place Townhomes, a 44-unit townhome development that opened in mid-2017. It now boasts the city's highest rents for a two-bedroom, multifamily unit at $1,630 to $1,830 per month, Austin Smith said.
Adams said 17th Place has been "supplemental" to Eastchester's recent success attracting businesses.
"I feel like it's almost kind of created a pulse of what this area can be," she said.
If Eastchester and the Smiths' development projects thrive, they will do so in spite of growing concerns among downtown business owners enduring not only late-night burglaries and smashed windows, but also the increasingly conspicuous presence of panhandlers and people living on the street with crippling mental illness.
Bakersfield business consultant Sheryl Barbich, who with her husband has invested in The Cue, said by email she thinks new residential development has been and will continue to be instrumental to revitalizing the downtown area.
"People living downtown is the key to survival and thriving of any downtown," she wrote.
There's also a hope that simply attracting bigger crowds to the area will support a safe, family-friendly culture downtown.
Jessica Blackwell, who with her husband last year opened the upscale restaurant and grocery Dot x Ott across from the 17th Place development, said she thinks the Smiths' project has had a very beneficial impact on the area — and that The Cue will do the same.
"The more people we can encourage to support local, downtown businesses and to help create a fun, diverse and urban neighborhood complete with new venues, restaurants, shops, etc., the better," she said.
For his part, Austin Smith said he and his city councilman father chose to develop The Cue in the city's historical Chinatown because the 17th Place project demonstrated deeper demand for market-rate housing than they had anticipated.
The former commercial real estate professional left the Bay Area five years ago and returned home to Bakersfield with his wife, Anna, to start the family's development company, Sage Equities.
He said they had dreamed about the city's potential and were convinced that new housing is, indeed, a primary catalyst for downtown revitalization.
"We wanted to use our education and experience and be a part of the movement to shape the next chapter of our hometown," he said by email. "We returned to contribute our time and talents to the city that raised us."
In addition to 17th Place, Sage also helped open Cafe Smitten, a popular 18th Street coffeehouse owned and operated by Austin's sister and her husband.
Those two projects, he said, have inspired other businesses that have continued to open in the area, bringing the family's dream of a vibrant city center closer to reality.
"Much remains to be done," he wrote, "but we are proud of the progress."