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Rental housing planned for vacant lot at key intersection along North Chester Avenue

The rumors are wrong: Construction work going on at the southwest corner of North Chester Avenue and Merle Haggard Drive in Oildale is not — repeat, not — leading toward a new shopping center at the site, much less a supermarket to replace the FoodMaxx that recently closed several blocks to the south.

Instead, Kern County records suggest the new sewer lines and other lot improvements taking place on the property are making way for a 152-unit apartment complex originally approved about five years ago.

"I would say that's exciting," said a surprised Marc Thurston, a Bakersfield multifamily residential broker who monitors the local market closely. "I always thought it was going to be some sort of retail site."

Others thought so, too, and given that the project remains in early stages, it's hard to tell the difference. But the county's energy and permitting division chief, Dennis McNamara, confirmed by email that rental housing has been the plan since the late apartment developer, Don Judkins, applied for a zoning variance for the property in 2016.

Followed by requests for grading and building permits in 2018 and 2019, the variance rezoned the property from general commercial uses to medium-density residential. It also allows the apartment complex to have a 6-foot-high masonry wall or wrought iron fence along Merle Haggard. (The normal maximum height is 4 feet.)

It was unclear Thursday who carried on the development after Judkins died earlier this year. The county had no further information about who is moving it forward, and two of Judkins' descendants who have also worked in real estate development, Taylor Judkins and Donavan Judkins, said they are not involved with the project.

Thurston said he has been inundated with offers from investors who want to buy rental properties in that general area because of the relatively new Amazon warehousing and distribution facility further west along Merle Haggard Drive just north of Meadows Field airport.

"I think that's been a big stimulus" for local demand for apartment properties, the senior vice president at ASU Commercial said.

The project is going up at a time of extraordinarily high demand, and limited supply, for rental housing in Bakersfield.

A second-quarter market update Thurston released in September reported citywide vacancies increased slightly to about 1.3 percent, which was a little lower than a year before. The second-quarter vacancy rate was nevertheless some of the lowest rates in the city's recent history.