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Historic newspaper building proposed for rental housing

The historic former home of The Bakersfield Californian would be converted to residential use, starting with an Airbnb-type rental unit next door, under a proposal being pursued by the newspaper's previous owner.

Harrell Holdings hopes to develop studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments inside the building at Eye and 17th streets that earlier housed the newspaper operation, Vice President Gizel Bermudez said. She added that leases belonging to existing commercial tenants would be gradually phased out.

But first the company wants to create a single rental unit suitable for one to three people staying for up to 13 days inside a much smaller annex that decades ago provided respite for people visiting downtown.

Problem is, City Hall's support for new residential development downtown does not extend to Airbnb units — and Bermudez said the company will only move forward with the larger rental development "if and when the city's willing to work with us on the annex first."

The dilemma stands as a potential barrier to one of the larger residential projects to have surfaced downtown in recent years as developers looking to address California's worsening housing shortage turn to Bakersfield's core for redevelopment opportunities.

City Hall generally encourages development of long-term rental housing downtown. But it has no rules regarding using residences as Airbnb rentals anywhere in the city.

A city spokesman said by email Bakersfield's existing ordinances would "more readily accommodate" a hotel or motel to meet demand for short-term housing. He emphasized the city remains "ready to work with property owners to support development efforts that are consistent with our strategies and goals for downtown."

City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, whose Ward 2 includes the building, did not respond to requests for comment Friday. But Ward 5 Councilman Bruce Freeman did and he all but ruled out Airbnb development inside the annex, saying it disrupts neighborhoods and creates a disincentive to local hotel development.

Freeman said he supports new residential projects downtown but that he doesn't think Harrell Holdings' Airbnb idea "makes any sense at all in the middle of all those commercial properties." He added that he was unfamiliar with the company's  housing plans and that he might change his mind.

Despite the city's tentative rejection of the Airbnb proposal, Bermudez said the company is actively pursuing the project.

"We feel that they need to get with the times — you know, the 'sound of something better,' they claim," she said, referencing a city motto. She said many residential property owners in the city rent out their housing using Airbnb's short-term rental platform.

Downtown's most active residential developer lately, Sage Equities, declined to comment specifically on Harrell's proposal. But Sage co-owner Anna Smith said by email the former newspaper building strikes her as a beautiful landmark and that she was encouraged to hear about plans to reimagine its use.

"Truthfully," she wrote, "there are many grand historic buildings downtown with similar potential to be transformed and serve fresh modern purposes as residential housing, commercial offices, restaurants and event spaces."

Editors note: This story has been changed to clarify that the city of Bakersfield has no rules permitting or forbidding short-term rentals.)