Bakersfield had cause for celebration last month when the state's high-speed rail agency announced it had settled a lawsuit filed by a developer proposing a very big, mixed-use real estate center northwest of Coffee and Brimhall roads.
No longer is the train's route expected to slice off one-sixth of the 255-acre project known as Bakersfield Commons. The settlement meant the property's South Gate-based owner-developer, World Oil Corp., is free to move forward with the retail, office and residential project.
So, what's next? Who's moving in, and when can we start shopping, dining and doing whatever else there?
Hold on. For all the factors that site has going for it -- a central location, good access to and from the Westside Parkway and currently strong market conditions -- getting a project like that off the ground is way harder than it might seem.
This is, after all, the ideal "lifestyle" project, which unlike a big-box retail "power center" such as the Northwest Promenade, requires extra-careful design, and as part of that, signing up exactly the right tenants.
No wonder it's taking so long. The project was delayed a first time by the real estate bust of 2006-07, then again in 2013 by the collapse of a proposed 3,500-seat baseball stadium two local oilmen had hoped to build at the site.
When the stadium idea fell through for a lack of financing, World Oil said the first phase of development -- shops and dining -- would begin construction this year or last. That timetable doesn't look very hopeful at this point.
The developer is a bit circumspect about its progress, saying through an external spokesman, Steve Sugerman, it is engaged with several potential tenants but that there's nothing to announce yet and no new timetable to release.
He confirmed the company still hopes to build, over a 20-year period, 1.4 million square feet of retail, 600,000 square feet of office space, 80 single-family homes and 345 multi-family residential units.
More important, I thought, was Sugerman's assurances that the property is not being marketed for sale. He said World Oil "remains 100 percent committed" to the project.
"We will share news when there is news," he said.
Fair enough. But that's when I started (or rather, continued) asking people around town what they've heard. It's what newspaper reporters do.
City officials said they have received no new plan submittals since the stadium looked viable.
An email from City Manager Alan Tandy said he took the developer's silence "to mean the timing is not yet right." Meanwhile, City Councilman Bob Smith, who represents part of the area around the Commons, said he thought the project's time is coming soon, given new retail tenants at The Shops at River Walk nearby.
Local commercial real estate brokers see it differently. Yes it's a great site, and yes now's a good time to move forward, they said. But there's much hard work ahead.
They said the main thing is lining up a few key tenants whose very presence will draw other retailers.
On Thursday I asked local commercial agent Vince Roche, a retail specialist with Cushman & Wakefield, to name an "ideal" tenant (not make a prediction about one). His answer: a department store such as Dillard's.
That makes a lot of sense -- more, probably, than World Oil's earlier goal of signing a movie theater, which would make a good anchor tenant if one didn't exist not far away at The Marketplace on Ming Avenue.
I also asked Roche whether World Oil was in danger of missing out on the current upswing in Bakersfield's retail market. He said no: So long as things go well for a raft of tenants that recently debuted in Bakersfield -- Sprouts Farmers Market, BevMo! and the like -- there's still ample opportunity for newcomers to make a strong go of it.
"As long as the ones that come continue to do well," he said, "we'll continue to attract new retailers."
Also, don't assume one or two big-box retail leases will get this project going, said commercial broker Scott A. Underhill, a partner at Newmark Grubb ASU & Associates in Bakersfield.
"It's a big project," he said. "It takes a whole series of tenants that need to pre-commit before a project like that gets off the ground."
He agreed a Dillard's would work nicely along with a few other higher-end stores. What Bakersfield doesn't need more of are discount retailers, not that he has anything against them. (Did he really say we're "T.J. Maxxed out"?")
"I think we're a little better than that," he said.
The upshot was that retailers make the calls, and developers are at their mercy. The best we consumers can do is support the stores we have now, lest their failure send a bad signal.
Underhill said whoever the retailers are that World Oil is talking with are probably studying the performance of our existing retailers.
"If they're doing well, they'll put Bakersfield on the radar screen for a new store," he said.
Yeah, but how long before any stores will open at Bakersfield Commons?
Underhill replied, "2018 is very reasonable."