The former Sinaloa Mexican Food Restaurant at 20th and P streets came down Wednesday to make room for a three-story, 40-unit apartment building expected to begin construction later this year.
Downtown developer Sage Equities unveiled plans late Tuesday for 918 at Eastchester, a market-rate rental project free of government subsidies and financed in part by local investors. The company is building another apartment project two blocks away and has an existing rental community nearby.
Wednesday morning an excavator began demolishing the nearly 112-year-old former orphanage following a determination, Sage said, that the building lacked structural integrity and a move was infeasible.
A local historical preservation official asserted the two-story, 6,439-square-foot building could have been responsibly restored and residential units built inside.
But Sage said by email the building's age, location on the property and state of disrepair ruled out a residential renovation job. It noted the former restaurant has not operated for more than three years and that the property was on the market for two years before Sage entered escrow.
The company said it has offered to donate items of historical interest, including a metal portico structure and children’s handprints preserved in concrete. Previous renovations have diminished the building's early-20th century character, it said, and local historians found little deserving of preservation.
An original neon Sinaloa sign is being restored for display at the Kern County Museum, it said, and new construction will incorporate an early stone entry gate facing 21st Street.
"We have discussed the project at length and worked with representatives from the Kern County Historical Society and the Kern County Museum," Sage said in a news release. "Mike McCoy, executive director at the museum, visited the site to view the building." McCoy could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
"Unfortunately, over the previous decades, most historic details were not kept intact from the original structure," the company continued. "However, we were happy to arrange to donate what few items remained that the museum was interested in acquiring."
Stephen Montgomery, vice chairman of the City of Bakersfield Historic Preservation Commission, lamented the loss of local history, as well its old lumber and what would have been its attention to craftsmanship.
Repurposing the building would have saved materials, trips to the landfill and air pollution from the demolition job, he wrote in an email.
"It does take a little imagination to repurpose old buildings but in doing so we retain our connection to our community," he wrote. "It ties the past to the present."
Sage co-owner Austin Smith said by email all materials on site that can be recycled will be and that water is being used at the site to minimize air-quality impacts. He noted dense, urban infill projects have a smaller environmental impact than suburban development because they use existing infrastructure, and that 918 in particular is designed to maximize materials used.
Sage drew a connection between its redevelopment plans and the area's historical print shops. It said the project's name is a reference to a publishing threshold measurement, 0.918 inches.
"An homage to the makers and creators that worked to build proud printing houses here, this project is all about reimagining our personal, collective and citywide identities to meet the times," Sage's news release said.
It described 918 as a luxury project with high-end finishes, a "boutique hotel vibe" with interior corridors and an elevator. It said there will be a central green space and a roof terrace, all of it near employment, commercial and recreational amenities in downtown.
Sage, also owned by Anna Smith and Austin's father, Bakersfield Councilman Bob Smith, has pursued dense, downtown redevelopment at a time of extraordinary demand for residential units in Kern County.
Apartment vacancy rates in the city have fallen to historical lows even as a tight supply of homes for sale continues to push up residential property values.
Sage originally considered building a 44-unit project on four floors across the three-quarter-acre property, but it decided to scale back.
The same company developed the 44-unit 17th Place Townhomes and recently began work at 53-unit The Cue Eastchester Flats. Both offer market-rate rentals.
Austin and Anna Smith said in Sage's release the project will serve people seeking an active, urban lifestyle in Bakersfield.
"We have committed ourselves to this work, which is not just about buildings and investors or landlords and tenants," they wrote. "It is about a thriving downtown, which will continue to play an important economic and cultural role in the future of our city.”