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Saturday, May 10 2014 03:00 PM

Downtown building may be fostering changes

  1. 1 of 3

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    The revelation of a beautiful old building at 18th and Chester is giving historic preservation in Bakersfield a much-needed kick.

    click to expand click to collapse
  2. 2 of 3

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    The revelation of a beautiful old building at 18th and Chester is giving historic preservation in Bakersfield a much-needed kick.

    click to expand click to collapse
  3. 3 of 3

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    The revelation of a beautiful old building at 18th and Chester is giving historic preservation in Bakersfield a much-needed kick.

    click to expand click to collapse
BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

When it comes to preserving its unique architecture and historic locales, Bakersfield's track record has not been exactly stellar.

But the recent "discovery" of the 104-year-old Security Trust Bank building in downtown Bakersfield may be inspiring a shift in thinking, a turning point in local attitudes and approaches that might have had city fathers of old shaking their heads.

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The revelation of the old concrete and brick structure has spurred city staffers to reach out to the new owner and explore new options. And at least one county supervisor is calling for substantive change in the way the county approaches the question of historic preservation.

But if anyone thinks change will come easy, first consider this:

Bakersfield's neighbor to the north, the city of Fresno, maintains a Local Register of Historic Resources that includes about 270 properties.

By contrast, the Bakersfield Register of Historic Places has 14.

Or this: The Mills Act, a statewide program enacted in 1972, allows qualifying owners to receive a property tax reduction to make it more economically feasible for owners to restore and maintain historic buildings. The incentive program requires local governments, usually cities, to contract with the property owner.

At least 85 California municipalities have contracted with multiple property owners to encourage hundreds of historic preservation efforts across the state.

Bakersfield has never entered into a Mills Act contract.

Even the venerable old bank building, which has inspired the admiration and awe of thousands of residents, was on the city's list for demolition barely a year ago, clear evidence that even an irreplaceable historic treasure could conceivably have been lost to bureaucratic entropy.

But can local disinterest in historic preservation be laid entirely at the feet of local government? Or did the action or inaction of city fathers and county officials over the decades accurately reflect a local culture that valued new over old and modern over historic?

Throughout most of Bakersfield's history, preservation of historic buildings was not a priority, acknowledged Debbie Scanlan, an associate planner with the city of Bakersfield and the liaison between the city and its Historic Preservation Commission.

"The thinking of the city's forefathers was to go modern," Scanlan said. Out with the old and in with the new.

And why have no local property owners partnered with the city under Mills Act contracts?

"To be honest with you," Scanlan said, "nobody asked."

Preservationists agree. Saving and restoring Bakersfield's unique architectural treasures has simply not been a priority in a town where the property rights of the individual and the short-term economic interests of developers have often trumped the long-term collective well-being of the community.

Now enter the extraordinary old building on Chester Avenue. As a decades-old layer of stucco was ripped from the building's facade last month, the concrete bones of a neoclassical structure -- one architectural historian called it a "little Beaux-Arts temple" -- were slowly revealed.

It started people talking -- and gawking.

"It's one of the greatest construction projects of the last decade," Downtown Business Association Chairman Kevin Bartl said of the restoration project.

"There's nothing else like it in the entire city," he said of the old bank.

And maybe the appearance of this Phoenix seemingly rising from the ashes of Bakersfield's historic indifference has inspired leaders and residents alike to re-examine the community's approach to preservation.

"We have for too long valued efficiency and utility over the value of increasing and preserving the historic fabric and culture of our community. I believe we can do both," Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard said Friday in an email interview.

Citing the "recent discovery" of the old bank building, Maggard made an official board referral earlier this month and called upon county counsel "to examine and create tax incentives that would assist in the restoration and preservation of historic buildings in Kern County."

The agenda item is expected to come back to the Board of Supervisors at a later date for discussion and action.

"Measures to protect and enhance landmarks of historical significance should be pursued so that these buildings can be enjoyed by present and future generations of Kern County," Maggard said.

"I've asked the county to explore whether we could adopt our own policy exempting the historic property from an increase in property taxation for a period of something like 25 years," he said. "This would enable the property owner to use the property tax savings to offset restoration costs or financing of the same."

He suggested other incentives might include discounts on or exemption from permits and fees related to qualified properties.

The city, too, has been on the move. Douglas McIsaac, the city's community development director, has already met with building owner Sam Abed. Nothing is set in stone, but the fact that the city reached out to Abed may signal changes as well, changes in the way things have always been done.

"What a wonderful historic building," McIsaac said of the old structure.

The building, damaged by a fire in 2002, was without a roof, or a tenant, for more than a decade. It has changed hands several times since it was purchased in 1993 for $75,000, before it received a seismic retrofit, said real estate appraiser Gary Crabtree.

Not long after that crucial improvement was completed, it sold again for $220,000. In 2006, it sold for $565,000, but apparent problems with the loan landed the building in a trustee sale at a much-reduced price. According to public records, it was purchased last July for $206,500.

In recent weeks, Abed had workers power wash the tall concrete columns and ornamental surfaces. The process removed most of the gray-black soot that had settled on the concrete over the years, and seemed to deepen the exterior color to a warm sepia tone.

Over the next several weeks, workers will sandblast the century-old brick interior and cover the masonry with a sealant.

"The building is solid," Abed said. "It doesn't even have a crack from the '52 quake."

Abed said he's interested in learning more about incentive programs that could offset the cost of restoration. But he's also cautious about entering into an agreement that could place too many requirements on how the building is restored.

Asked whether it's possible the building could still be lost to demolition, Abed was adamant.

"No, I won't let that happen," he said.

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