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Downtown's opportunities, challenges take spotlight at inaugural symposium

Downtown stakeholders came together Wednesday morning to share perspectives on overcoming the area's challenges while looking forward to potentially transformative projects in the areas of market-rate housing, adaptive reuse of existing buildings and city government's efforts to make the city's core move livable.

Dozens of people attending the inaugural Downtown Bakersfield Symposium at The Ovation Theatre heard from business owners, city officials and developers, all of them convinced the area has much to offer not only out-of-towners looking for a vibrant place to live and work but also existing residents who could see economic benefits from diverse efforts to revitalize the city's core.

The three-hour series of presentations updated attendees on projects big and small, from high-minded economic development plans to a new medical tower proposed along Chester Avenue to a small boutique — Vogue-ish — tucked on 18th Street next to Cafe Smitten.

The area's continuing struggles with vandalism and homelessness got a close look as representatives of the Downtown Business Association's Block to Block program told the audience about their successes in working together to come up with an effective communication network.

Business owners Cassie Bittle and Dixie Brewer shared their frustration with sidewalk feces and burning trash cans and broken windows. Brewer said as recently as 2019 she was almost ready to quit and leave downtown altogether — and that she might have done it if not for the cooperation the DBA finally got from city and county officials.

"We're no longer victims," she said. "We're advocates."

Somewhat more conventional solutions were put forward by the event's emcee, Ward 2 City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, who also serves as chairman of event host The Hub of Bakersfield, a local nonprofit that promotes efforts to revitalize the downtown area. He called for greater development of market-rate housing in the area, as well as better-lit and more walkable streets lined with additional trees.

Besides promoting an eclectic mix of land uses, his view was that downtown would benefit from having more dense development allowing the area's residents to live, work and recreate without having to get into a car. That could require some level of deregulation, similar to changes the city made a few years ago to make room for breweries.

"We have to have more people living in downtown Bakersfield," he said. "It's about densification."

Along those same lines, co-owners of Sage Equities spelled out timetables for two new market-rate housing projects in the area's Eastchester area. The rental projects are expected to attract professionals, many from outside the area, as the company's 17th Place Townhomes project has done.

Husband-and-wife team Anna Camp-Smith and Austin Smith asserted Bakersfield's downtown is crucial to the city's health, a position voiced by other speakers at the event. They said development in the area preserves farmland and lowers vacancy rates while raising property values and attracting professionals to work in the knowledge-based economy many see as vital to Kern's future.

Known as some of downtown's biggest promoters, they quoted an inspiring line from the late San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Cain: "A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams."

Another executive who seized the opportunity to showcase his development project was the head of Adventist Health Bakersfield, Daniel Wolcott.

Outlining the company's plan for a new five-story, $300 million tower at its existing campus on downtown's northern edge, Wolcott said Adventist wants to be a partner in the development of educational infrastructure, business partnerships and a more innovative environment.

The only other firm development project discussed Wednesday was Moneywise Wealth Management's proposed adaptive reuse of the former Woolworth's building at 19th and K streets.

Co-owners David Anderson and Sherod Waite acknowledged a list of challenges facing downtown, but they also pointed to the area's advantages, including affordable property prices, available creative spaces and opportunities to "stretch creativity."

As an update on their own project, the two said the 44,000-square-foot Woolworth's building will contain the company's offices on its second floor with residential space above. Retail including the structure's existing luncheonette will inhabit the ground floor while, in the basement, plans call for a performance venue and music space.

"It's a way that we're sort of shaking hands with the past while walking forward into the future," Anderson said.

Paul Saldaña, Bakersfield's economic and community development director, said the city expects to undertake a number of pilot projects downtown soon. Having already disclosed plans for promoting adaptive reuse of vacant or unused retail spaces, he said Wednesday city officials hope to fund facade and other streetscape improvements.

"Strategic planning in downtown is done. It's complete," he said. "Now it's time for strategic doing."