Anyone who has driven the surface streets of Bakersfield recently knows big changes are coming. The Centennial Corridor is about to roll across and over the city's west side, and the 24th Street widening project northwest of downtown is gaining momentum.
None of it would have happened without the city of Bakersfield's property acquisitions department and especially Don Anderson. The city's real estate man negotiated the purchase of hundreds of homes and businesses, and hundreds of corresponding relocations, that paved the way.
Not everyone was a fan, but that comes with the territory.
Anderson retired on the last Friday of 2018 in order to start paying more attention to his wife, Danette, and his pickleball game. But he'll watch with interest as the fruits of his 27-year career with the city ripen on the vine.
Anderson's workload was enough to keep him busy, and then, 12 years ago, the TRIP program -- the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, funded by a $700 million appropriation Rep. Bill Thomas nailed down on his way out the door from Congress -- came along. It would be the fiscal foundation of a massive upgrade of the metro area's freeway and freeway connection system.
Construction of the Centennial Corridor, the $270 million highway that will connect Highway 58 to Highway 99, required project managers to cut a swath through the middle of the Westpark neighborhood, where the abundance of distinctive, large-lot homes created a unique, enclave-like identity. An opposition group called the Westpark Homeowners Association, or WHOA, representing residents whose houses would be destroyed if the new freeway were built, put up an ultimately unsuccessful legal fight.
Anderson, for all his efforts to bring the project home, understood how they felt.
"The hardest thing to deal with was sentimental value, emotional value," he said. "They've lived there ever since it was built. They watched their kids grow up there.
"We can't replace memories. The market can't replace memories. The house they move into might be just as valuable monetarily, but that's it."
But Anderson is confident the city and TRIP treated the affected Westpark residents, and people impacted by similar makeovers, as fairly and generously as was possible.
"A lot of people have the misconception that when a government agency comes in, we try to lowball them under the threat of eminent domain," Anderson said. "But, no — it's based the highest price vs. the normal definition used in the private sector, which is the most probable price, almost like the average price. When we start acquiring properties we come in with a good offer, and the seller doesn't have to worry about paying realtors' commissions, repair costs or any of that.
"The people that are mad are the ones that are not bought out, the people who bought houses thinking they would flip them, and then we don't need to take them."
Over the years, when a homeowner's situation was particularly tough, Anderson went the extra mile a time or two.
The toughest was probably the 85-year-old owner of Centoni's Nursery, which, at 14th and N streets, lay within the footprint of the city's planned sports arena, Centennial Garden -- now known as Rabobank Arena, which opened in 1998.
"Mr. Centoni wanted to stay there until he died," Anderson said. "He had no reason to move. A nicer house was not of interest to him. Most people (compelled to sell) ended up better than when they started, but when people have emotional value, it's harder to assign monetary value. If it comes down to money, we can always work something out."
In the end, encouraged to sell by his brothers -- and perhaps the Andersons' Thanksgiving Day dinner invitation -- Mr. Centoni relented and moved to Kern City, an over-55 community with a golf course.
"He was very much a gentleman," Anderson said. "I felt sorry for him."
Property owners eventually accept their circumstances and move before the bulldozers arrive, but not everyone in Anderson's experience did so. One man, the owner of a recycling business, simply refused to leave.
"He was still buying bottles and cans right up until the point the Sheriff came out and carried him off," Anderson said.
The most visible acquisition associated with the Centennial Corridor, scheduled for completion in 2022 and possibly sooner, was the Wild West Shopping Center.
That's the strip mall at Stockdale Highway and Real Road that was situated at the "T" of what might be the worst kind of dead end imaginable: a freeway dead end. No gradual transition onto a surface arterials: Just flashing yellow lights, a grid of substantial yellow road-bumps, and a regular traffic signal, enough to alert 99.99 percent of all drivers that the freeway is coming to an abrupt stop. The other .01 percent barrel through the intersection, fly through the shopping center's parking lot and take out one of the storefronts.
It happened twice within a decade to the Army recruiting station that was directly in the line of fire of two sleeping big-rig drivers. By some miracle no one was ever killed or seriously injured in one of those after-dark incidents.
"Oh yes, that's the way it was," Anderson said. "That's why we built those berms" along Real Road.
The owner of the shopping center had been in contact with the city for years about acquiring the property; it helped to have a willing seller.
Finally, despite an array of complications, the path of the Centennial Corridor has been virtually cleared and Bakersfield will have the connecting freeway it has long needed.
“This is a great project. It’s really going to support our community in the long term,” Bakersfield Public Works Director Nick Fidler told The Californian recently. “It’s going to significantly improve regional traffic.”
It'll improve the region's air, too.
“Right now, we have two dead-end freeways — actually three if you count 178 — so we have all the traffic in the middle of the city moving on surface streets,” Ahron Hakimi, executive director of Kern Council of Governments, a regional transportation agency, said in an earlier interview. “Centennial Corridor ... traffic would move more freely. Cars and trucks moving freely produce less emissions than cars sitting idling on Ming Avenue or Stockdale Highway.”
After the Centennial Corridor is a wrap, the city will start work on the Hageman Flyover, an overpass linking Golden State Avenue to Hageman Road. That will complete the last piece of an interior loop for metro Bakersfield.
"The construction of the Centennial Corridor and 24th Street are true TRIP projects, and I could have waited around to see them through," Anderson said. "But the next project is the Hageman Flyover, a few years out, and there'll be another one after that. You have to go sometime, so now is as good a time as any."
A city's transportation system is never truly complete. Bakersfield's real estate man took things every bit as far as we could have reasonably expected.