After years of starts and stops, the city of Bakersfield is ready to complete the “final piece” of a plan to revitalize a portion of downtown.
In a recent meeting, the City Council moved forward with the development of a lot that’s stood vacant for years across the street from Maya Cinemas. The theater chain owner, Moctesuma Esparza, has proposed a sprawling entertainment district for the lot, and city officials have thrown their support behind the project.
Although still in the early planning stages, the entertainment district could radically transform the underdeveloped area, and help throngs of people return to downtown.
“I’ve been thinking about it since the first day I joined the council,” Councilman Andrae Gonzales said of the lot, which is known as the PQ Property for the streets that run along its western side. “I created a long list of projects that I wanted to complete, and this was one of my highest priorities.”
Since the early 2000s, the city’s hoped to create a thriving entertainment region in the area around Mill Creek. Valley Children’s Ice Center and McMurtrey Aquatic Center were constructed to complement the long walkway known as Mill Creek Linear Park. Maya Cinemas was built in 2007, further establishing the area as an entertainment hub.
Now, Esparza aims to develop the PQ Property into a plaza for pop-up stores and restaurants. One option even includes adding an event center and club, with a large space designated for a food hall.
“It’s building on the vision that I brought to the area now more than 15 years ago,” Esparza said.
He later added he began looking into downtown Bakersfield around 2002 in hopes of filling an entertainment desert.
“The movie theater is a draw by itself. It’s the number one movie theater in the county. So there is no denying that it’s a huge success. And there is still growth for the movie theater and growth for the area by turning it into, not just a movie theater and ice rink and water facility, but a broader entertainment district that serves the larger community.”
Esparza has signed a letter of intent to purchase the property through the ME Development Co. LLC, and the City Council has updated the South Mill Creek Master Plan to accommodate the project.
“I’m new to the community, and I came here because I see that exciting things are happening,” said Bakersfield Development Services Director Christopher Boyle, who was hired last October. “And lo and behold there are exciting things happening in Bakersfield, pandemic or otherwise. It’s exciting to see the future of Bakersfield unfold.”
The project is still several years from completion. The city is currently appraising the property in order to sell it at a fair market value. Multiple roadblocks, including the extended prevalence of the coronavirus in American life, could prevent the project from moving forward.
Still Esparza remains hopeful that life will return to normal, and the businesses hit hard by the pandemic will thrive once again.
“Whether it means just having public spaces where people can hang out, or having the opportunity to have a meal or see a movie or go to the ice rink or other amenities that entertainment districts have, that’s being redefined right now as a consequence of the pandemic,” he said. “But I do think that we’re going to return to needing to fulfill the human desires to hang out together and to enjoy things together.”
Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.