BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
A downtown urban design plan aimed at unifying and reinvigorating farflung business districts -- the first of its size and scope here -- could flower this spring with new financial support and public input.
Three recent events have set it in motion:
* A vote late last week by the board of the Downtown Business Association's nonprofit arm, the Downtown Bakersfield Development Corp.
* A $2,000 grant from Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
* A $10,000 donation from Chevron.
All are signs of potential change for the city's traditional but not entirely successful retail district.
The DBDC's vote was to hire Santa Ana-based PlaceWorks to create an urban design plan at an estimated cost of $120,000 that will be paid over a number of years. The plan could entail new signage, lighting, parking, and open space.
PlaceWorks is currently planning the proposed Centennial development on Tejon Ranch land. Its president, Randal Jackson, also worked with developer Castle & Cooke to help plan Seven Oaks.
The $2,000 PG&E grant will pay for volunteers and artists to paint murals April 12 in the Wall Street alley east of H Street, and on five downtown traffic signal control boxes.
It's part of a $20,000 grant, the remaining $18,000 of which will go to Keep Bakersfield Beautiful. That's for an Earth Day project coinciding with the Great American Cleanup April 12, and a series of public service announcements during Earth Month in April.
Chevron's $10,000 donation will pay for the design plan's first phase, including the basic outline of the plan and at least one public workshop, or "charette."
Planners and local officials hope decisions reached this year will create a blueprint for linking downtown's more than 100 square blocks, attracting more residential and office developments -- and inspiring those already here to help out.
"Really, the areas we're going to be looking at will depend on the business owners and property owners who want to get involved," said DBA President Cathy Butler, explaining how unification will rely on motivated entrepreneurs to "create these little circles all over downtown that start to spread out and affect other areas."
Cities that try to restart their traditional downtowns face problems similar to those the DBDC hopes to confront -- improving parking and lighting, and joining separate areas that serve such disparate needs as medical services, education and the arts.
"It's easier to go out in the middle of nowhere, pitch a tent and start building than it is to solve the problems," said Jackson, giving one reason why developers historically have chosen to build in outlying areas -- but explaining why Bakersfield's downtown is looking attractive. "Here you've got a structure in place where there was a different economy 50 years ago. It's already got infrastructure, it's got streets, it's got great restaurants, it just needs people."
Businessman Bob Bell, chairman of the DBDC -- formed to continue the job once done by redevelopment agencies statewide -- agreed.
"We went into a terrible recession that held back developers like me," Bell said. "I think the community is tired of waiting -- it's been six to seven years (since the recession). And I think we're just hopeful of grabbing the reins and going forward."
Community Development Director Doug McIsaac is an ex officio DBDC board member and said he's hopeful the nonprofit will be able to raise the funds to finish the plan and put it into action.
"Most cities, the area you think of as most reflective of a city is its downtown," McIsaac said. "Downtown is the historic core of Bakersfield. We're the ninth largest city in the state, the 52nd largest city in the United States, we're not a small town any more."