Historic Theater in Fresno CA emptied. The city issued the permit
City officials remain silent on why the owners of Fresno’s oldest surviving theater were allowed to undertake major interior renovations – without anyone notifying the Historic Preservation Commission.
But we have their emails. They were sent to me by Miguel Arias, member of the Fresno City Council for District 3 whose social media posts revealed that the 104-year-old Hardy Theater at 944 Van Ness Avenue had been essentially gutted.
Specifically, a senior-level internal memo sent to Arias Monday afternoon by Deputy Director of Planning and Development Mike Sanchez. Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, City Manager Thomas Esqueda and Director of Planning and Development Jennifer Clark are among those copied.
Sanchez opened the 340-word email stating that a demolition permit for the interior of the theater had been issued on January 11 to the owner, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, pending a final inspection of the building.
âBut that never happened, so the license expired on 7/10/21,â Sanchez added.
âThe applicants also simultaneously submitted their tenant improvement plan, which is a requirement for a demolition permit. (The rental improvement permit) was issued at risk on 07/13/21 and paid fees in excess of $ 25,000.
Allow me to jump in to add a comment and some context. First of all, the deputy director of town planning of the city admits that his department has made green-lit renovations inside a building listed in the Local Register of Historic Resources – and didn’t bother to follow up with an inspection.
Additionally, Alicia Gonzales, the city’s historic preservation manager, waited until March 22 to notify members of the Historic Preservation Commission that a demonstration permit for Hardy’s Theater had been issued. without their “consultation and approval”. Remember the license issuance date of January 11 (more details on the âat riskâ part later). why not to talk during HPC meetings January 25 or February 22?
While Hardy’s Theater had its balcony ripped off and the original decorative elements removed from the walls and ceilings, city officials sat on their hands and raised $ 25,000 in fees. Now the owners want permission to demolish the familiar 1950s marquee and replace it with a sign bearing the church’s name.
And you wonder why the historic buildings of Fresno are so disrespected and cared for.
Sanchez concluded his note by mentioning that the city’s structural engineer had visited the site on Friday and determined that all renovations done so far were “within the scope of the work mentioned in the (permits)” .
Arias responded by asking Sanchez if that meant all renovations done to date had been “appropriately approved by city staff?” “
âAs for the interior demolition permitsâ¦ that’s okay,â Sanchez replied.
So. The evisceration of Fresno’s oldest theater took place right under the very noses of city staff who neglected, or simply couldn’t be bothered, to inspect the work until it was too late.
City planners violate Fresno municipal code
Their actions also go against those of the city. Historic Resource License Review Process. Article 12-1619 (a) of the Municipal Code declares that it is “illegal” for “any person, company, association, partnership or other legal entity to modify, remodel, demolish, level, remove, construct, rebuild or restore, directly or indirectly, any heritage property without first obtaining city ââpermit and written approval from the Historic Preservation Commission.
But what happens when planners violate their own ordinances?
I asked for talks with Sanchez and Gonzales, the historic preservation specialist, and got no response. Esqueda, the city manager, didn’t feel the need to let me down either. I guess it’s easier to hide behind a bureaucratic curtain than to admit a mistake.
Fortunately, the HPC members were more talkative.
Don Simmons, the longest-serving member of the commission, told me it was the first time in 15 years that the CHP had not been notified in advance that a landlord had requested permission from the city. to renovate a historic listed structure. He also said the commission had “very little communication” with Gonzales, a recent appointment.
âThe fault here clearly lies with the historic preservation officer and his planning department supervisor. Who didn’t know enough about the process or didn’t know it, âSimmons said.
Another HPC member, Chris Rocha, who visited the site last week with Arias, Gonzales and code enforcement staff, said he was “baffled” by the city’s process.
âComing in and seeing what had been done, my jaw dropped,â Rocha said. âI didn’t expect the place to be emptied. Mainly because we were told there had to be surveillance. I am lost in relation to what happened.
Curator: historical preservation “on automatic pilot”
To avoid a similar future event, Simmons and Rocha suggested that city council expand and strengthen the commission’s oversight powers. (It would also help if the planning department actually followed their own permit review process for historic properties.)
âThis is really the whole planning service that kind of puts historic preservation on autopilot,â Simmons said. âDo what you need to do with your little historic buildings, and nothing goes very high in the chain. I think the director and assistant director learned this from reading your articles in the newspaper.
What happens next is not clear. Earlier, I mentioned the verbiage “at risk” in the building permit. Which can be critical.
“At risk” license have been approved by Fresno City Council in 2018 as a way to accelerate residential, commercial and industrial projects. The ordinance states that any work done prior to final approval is done at the owner’s risk, including any financial liability. He adds that inspections must be allowed during construction and that modifications to already completed work may be necessary.
According to Arias, who questioned why a historic building was treated as an emergency, the designation could give the city the legal authority to compel Universal Church to restore the historic elements of the theater, at its expense.
The case could give rise to litigation, Arias said, and will be discussed by board members behind closed doors at a future meeting.
âIt’s going to be a test for us as a city,â Arias added. “Are we going to protect our historic assets even in the event of a mistake by the contractor or the city?” “
I guess we’ll find out soon enough.