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Downtown lofts project succumbs to inactivity

Time has run out again for a four-story, 28-unit apartment project on 18th Street that five years ago divided neighbors and the City Council then failed to get off the ground even as similar efforts progressed nearby.

With no sign of recent work at the site between C and D streets, the project's second conditional-use permit expired Jan. 8. No new application has come forward, and even if one did, changes made last summer to Bakersfield's municipal code rule out residential projects in commercial-office zones without a special exemption from the city.

Owner Eric Jencks of the project's Vista-based developer, Viridian Consulting Group, said it was news to him the permit had expired and the municipal code changed. The company has been busy with other projects, he said, and COVID-19 has slowed his progress.

Jencks said he had hoped to begin construction on the lofts-style project within 60 days.

"It’s just been other commitments," he said. "It’s absolutely a project we hold very valuable.” He declined to say what the company might do next but disclosed there have been purchase offers.

Neighbors who spoke up against the project when it arose almost six years ago welcomed word this week the project likely won't move forward as proposed. They'd called for underground rather than ground-floor parking to reduce the building's height and more spaces to cushion the impact on local streets.

NOW WHAT?

There's less consensus about what should be built there instead. The neighborhood is no longer the professional offices hub it once was, and medical offices sit vacant next door.

Neighboring property owner John Decker, who early on organized a letter-writing campaign against the project, said residential development there might make sense as long as it's not too tall or out of place. He suggested duplexes or maybe a tech training center, possibly neighborhood-serving retail.

"A market would go well," he said.

A different perspective comes from the area's representative on the City Council, Andrae Gonzales, a vocal supporter of infill proposals to create dense rental developments like those that have energized other U.S. downtowns.

That kind of development has attracted investment elsewhere downtown. In recent years 44 upscale rental units have been introduced downtown. Work has begun on another 84, and about 100 more are proposed to begin construction this year. All are multi-story, market rate apartments.

Gonzales said such projects serve the city's goal of doubling downtown's population between 2020 and 2030 and benefit the area's businesses for years to come.

BETTER LUCK

Unfamiliar with the hurdles Viridian faced, Gonzales said another project might have better luck, providing it can win a necessary zoning waiver from the City Council.

"I think that if somebody wanted to make a go of it there will be a demand for that" kind of project, he said.

The property appears as though no work has taken place there in years.

Dry weeds surround rows of rebar jutting up from a series of ditches. A chain-link fence along the perimeter has been breached on the east side next to vacant medical offices. A sign on the lot still directs people to a working website (www.loftson18th.com) displaying modern architectural renderings.

The quiet belies the vocal debate that took place prior to the City Council's 4-3 vote in favor of the project in July 2015.

Supporters praised it as forward-thinking while opponents criticized it as the wrong project for the site despite developer Viridian's attempts at compromise.

Among those speaking up in opposition was neighbor Brigette Bonnet, owner of a nearby chiropractic office and member of The Woman's Club of Bakersfield near Viridian's lot.

The project should have included more parking and a traffic light on 18th, she said. The lofts seemed to her too small for the price the developer wanted to charge, especially in a neighborhood struggling with homelessness. She suggested a medical project. 

"I just don't think it was well thought out," she said.