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Hopes rise, fall at Haberfelde building downtown

After towering over the intersection of Chester Avenue and 17th Street largely unchanged for 94 years, change was finally coming to the Haberfelde office and retail building in downtown Bakersfield.

Buyers from West Hollywood — designers who'd made a name for themselves locally by converting the Cuyama Buckhorn along Highway 166 into a resort hotel — struck a deal to buy the five-story Haberfelde. Word spread that they wanted to build penthouse units atop what was once among the tallest structures in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

But the building recently fell out of escrow, for undisclosed reasons, and now instead of the high-end transformation tenants were hoping for, they face a rent increase, disputed claims the building has already received all the repairs it needs and minimal communication from their landlord.

"It kind of puts you uneasy, wondering what's next," said tenant Allie Perkins, owner of The Beautiful Group makeup and hair company. She lamented her fourth-floor unit's lack of hot water and need for space heaters, despite management's insistence all such concerns have been fully addressed.

The situation illustrates how market uncertainties can frustrate Bakersfield's ambitious plans for revitalizing downtown. Without the money and power vested in the city's now-defunct redevelopment agency, big projects can unravel, leaving downtown's advocates to guess what went wrong and whether new proposals will rise in their place.

City Hall has launched a campaign to invest staff time and taxpayer money in promoting greater reuse of underutilized buildings downtown, where, so far, developers have focused mainly on market-rate housing. But hurdles like inconvenient parking and absentee landlords have been blamed for slow progress.

The Haberfelde is a unique case, of course, and landlord representative Jay "Bobby" Singh said the building's owner, B & H Group Inc. since 2017, led by President Balbir Singh in Tulalip, Wash., decided not to sell the structure because "they like the building." He added B & H wants to proceed with changes that may include building top-floor rental housing by the end of 2022, depending on what architects and engineers come up with.

Would-be buyers at IDGroup, led by designer-developers Jeff Vance and Ferial Sadeghian, have declined to discuss their plans publicly or say what interrupted their purchase of the Haberfelde. Sadeghian would only say what property records confirm — namely, escrow has not closed — and that IDGroup had nothing to do with the rent increases set to take effect this month.

If, indeed, the transaction has fallen through, then it would come as a disappointment to downtown advocates who were encouraged by IDGroup's proposed investment.

"Being that the potential new owners have a track record of renovating older properties and creating unique lifestyle experiences, such as Cuyama Buckhorn, we are hopeful that they may do the same in downtown Bakersfield," said Austin Smith, principal at downtown residential development Sage Equities, who noted he had heard the Haberfelde was in escrow.

Ward 2 City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, probably Bakersfield's most vocal proponent of downtown revitalization, said he was unclear what exactly has been proposed for the Haberfelde and didn't want to get ahead of the owners by speaking about the project publicly. But he reiterated his support for dense residential development, and added, "We welcome any type of project that encourages additional housing" downtown.

Construction of the Haberfelde was commissioned in the 1920s by George Haberfelde, a former mayor of Bakersfield who owned a Ford dealership nearby. The 29-unit, 72,577-square-foot building was designed by architect Charles H. Biggar and completed in 1927.

In 2017, Berkshire Properties Inc., led by President John Sarad and Secretary Tom Carosella, sold the Haberfelde for $3.88 million to B & H, whose other local investments have included the former Kmart building on Wilson Road. The company sold the vacant Kmart to an entity that still included Balbir Singh. That group ended up selling the former retail building about a year ago to Amazon, which has since turned it into a local distribution center.

In December, tenants of the Haberfelde received an unsigned notice from management telling them their rent will increase at the start of the year. It added that no dogs are allowed in the building and no one is permitted to live there. Several residents said they have been informed rents are going up 10 percent.

Bobby Singh said no decision has been finalized about raising rents but that a monthly increase amounting to an additional $1.50 per square foot is under consideration.

Tenants' complaints go beyond rent increases. They say most of the floors have no access to hot water and the building's heating is spotty at best. They report one of the Haberfelde's main elevators was out of commission for at least three months last summer, when availability of air-conditioning was also intermittent.

All this has come on top of widespread concerns about crime downtown. Tenant Elaine McNearney, who founded and runs Dress for Success Bakersfield on the Haberfelde's ground floor, arrived one morning in late December and found her front window smashed. She expressed her frustrations on social media.

"Anyone know of an inexpensive rental downtown?" she asked in a Facebook post.

Perkins, proprietor of The Beautiful Group, said she's not happy about the rent increase. Financially it's not a huge hit for her, she noted, but it irks her that she's having to pay more at a time she can't get hot water and she has to use space heaters to keep her office warm.

"If you're going to raise the rent, what are we, as tenants, going to gain?" she asked.

Bobby Singh denied assertions that hot water is unavailable in parts of the building and that room heating is inconsistent. He said the building's handyman has returned from an absence and that tenants' concerns have since been addressed, adding, "Everything is normal right now."

Ground-floor tenant Phil Bentley, owner of Bakersfield Copy & Mailing, joined other tenants in calling for repairs to the heating and water heaters, especially if they're going to be paying higher rents soon. The bigger problem as he sees it is lack of communication by the building's management.

Bentley said it's too bad the people from IDGroup didn't close on the purchase. The Cuyama Buckhorn renovation turned out well, in his opinion, and he was looking forward to similar kinds of enhancements at the Haberfelde.

"We thought it could be a positive move for the building in general," he said.