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Saturday, Oct 19 2013 10:00 PM

Stadium loss might not hobble Commons project

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Losing a big tenant like a baseball stadium can be a huge blow to a mixed-use development project such as World Oil Corp.'s 255-acre Bakersfield Commons.

But not always. Depending on how far along the proposal has come, it's better to know sooner rather than later that a key component won't materialize.

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A brief look at Bakersfield Commons

While it remains on the drawing board to some degree, the general vision for Bakersfield Commons is a mix of stores, offices and residences to be built in phases over about 20 years at Brimhall and Coffee roads.

The project was initially proposed before the recession by the owner of the underlying land, South Gate-based World Oil Corp., one of Southern California's largest privately held companies. World Oil started as a single gasoline station in 1938, and now is involved in refining, marine terminals and fuel transportation.

As recently as 2011, the company called for up to 1.4 million square feet of retail, 600,000 square feet of office, 345 multi-family residential units and 80 single-family homes.

On Nov. 1, the company announced its first tenant: a 3,500-seat stadium to serve as home of the Bakersfield Blaze baseball team. Plans called for an entertainment focus, including a multi-plex movie theater and restaurants.

That project faltered earlier this month when the owners announced that they could not come up with the $30 million in private financing they needed to build the stadium.

Another complication has arisen: California High-Speed Rail. Under a staff recommendation that has not been approved by the agency's board, the bullet train's route would shave roughly a sixth of Bakersfield Common's acreage off its southwest corner.

Earlier this year, World Oil commissioned a market study to determine the proper mix of land uses. It says the results reaffirm the company's plans to begin building retail space, and possibly apartments, in the 2014-15 time frame. It hopes to select a development partner by June 30.

That way, industry observers say, the project's backers have time to modify their overall plan, and possibly play down the entertainment destination aspects in favor of more neighborhood-serving stores and restaurants.

This appears to be the challenge facing Bakersfield Commons, the long-delayed retail-office-residential project proposed at Coffee and Brimhall roads.

World Oil says it is still months away from what some regard as the critical step of bringing on a developer to guide the project's first-phase tenant mix.

"I don't know why people are so excited about (Bakersfield Commons) until you get a developer involved," said Martin Krieger, a professor of planning at the University of Southern California's Price School of Public Policy.

Krieger shrugged off word this month that owners of the Bakersfield Blaze were unable to raise the $30 million needed to build a 3,500-seat stadium that would have been Bakersfield Commons' first major tenant.

"Here's what happens in projects like (the Commons): They have terrible start-up delays," he said.

In the developer's first presentations to Bakerfield, the ballpark wasn't part of the plan. It became so about a year ago when the two men who bought the Bakersfield Blaze, Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway, announced plans for a new stadium.

Now they say the new park is unlikely to be built and the ball club may revert back to its previous owner.

This apparent major change shouldn't derail development of the Commons, some observers said.

Seth Weissman, a Los Angeles real estate lawyer with experience in mixed-use development projects, did express some concern. He noted that some developments live or die based on the economics of a single large tenant.

But the knowledge that a stadium isn't coming may be a blessing.

"You just never know," he said. "There's no sure thing that a baseball stadium is the best alternative. It may be a very good one, and very appealing, but it may not be a draw for residential."

 

FORWARD MOVEMENT

Even without a ballpark, South Gate-based World Oil said it is "actively moving forward" with plans to begin initial construction in the 2014-15 time frame.

Earlier this year the company commissioned a study of local market conditions by Jones Lang LaSalle, a national commercial real estate firm based in Chicago. According to World Oil, the results show that Bakersfield Commons faces strong long-term retail opportunities and a strong housing outlook relative to current supply.

World Oil recently demonstrated its commitment to the project by sending the city of Bakersfield a $1.4 million payment to cover part of its traffic mitigation obligations. It said another $400,000 payment is on the way next month.

Tenant interest in the Commons has become evident at City Hall. Although Bakersfield officials haven't heard lately from World Oil, Planning Director Jim Eggert said, they did get multiple phone calls over the summer from people representing prospective project retail tenants.

Eggert downplayed the stadium's importance to the project, noting that World Oil started planning its project years before there was any talk of involving baseball stadium.

He also pointed to Castle & Cooke's proposal this month to revise its site plan at The Shops at River Walk, which he took as a sign that the local retail market is improving.

"It just means that there's retailers looking there," he said.

As of this past summer, northwest Bakersfield -- the part of town Bakersfield Commons would border -- boasted a retail vacancy rate of less than 7 percent, according to Pacific Commercial Realty Advisors. That represents a decline from a high of 9 percent a few years ago and compares favorably with the citywide vacancy rate of about 11 percent.

Local retail conditions are important to the project because "main street" shops and restaurants are to be the focus of the Commons' first phase, along with a multiplex movie theater and, potentially, residential apartments. Office space and single-family homes have been proposed for future phases as part of a 20-year build-out.

 

NEIGHBORHOOD OR DESTINATION?

Weissman, the L.A. real estate lawyer, drew a distinction between the kind of "destination-oriented project" that would include a stadium and one that might fit better with people living nearby.

The difference plays out among the type of retail tenants that would sign leases at such projects, he said. Developments more oriented toward residential uses would be more likely to draw dry-cleaners, coffee shops and small restaurants, he said, while large restaurants would be more suited to projects built around stadium projects.

Krieger, the USC professor who like Weissman is not involved in Bakersfield Commons and was unfamiliar with its specifics, maintains that the project remains wide open until a developer comes aboard.

At that point, World Oil's vision could undergo substantial revisions.

"A developer has to come along, and they do very (a) careful economics study to figure out what to do," he said.

Short of that, there's no knowing whether the stadium's exit hurt the project's chances of success.

"You haven't lost anything," he said, "if you don't have anything to start with."

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