Like many born and raised in Bakersfield, California, Austin Smith has made peace with the city’s reputation. Built on oil and agriculture, the city of half a million in the state’s rural Central Valley, known by outsiders for its unique strain of country music and long-running role as a punchline for Johnny Carson, has traditionally been stereotyped as unsophisticated and backwards.
“It’s like a California version of the New York versus New Jersey thing—but maybe worse,” Smith says. “You’re so close to one of the biggest metro areas in the country, but never quite there.”
Like many of his generation, Smith, 37, moved to bigger cities in search of opportunity. In his case, he sought work in urban planning and commercial development in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. But as he developed a passion for downtown revitalization, he began wondering, why not Bakersfield? He returned to his hometown in 2014 with a hunch that the city was ripe for redevelopment, and soon began work on what would become the 17th Place Townhomes.
Since opening in 2016, the high-end three-story, 44-unit downtown development represents the first market-rate housing built in the city’s core in decades. It’s not every day the city gets new housing, complete with a dog park, fountains, and a fire pit. Now that the development is fully leased—not a small accomplishment for new housing asking the highest rent in town, at between $1,630 and $1,830 for a two-bedroom—its success has convinced Smith and his firm, Sage Equities Real Estate, to break ground later this year on a new 53-unit project downtown.
“What we’re doing is a real niche product,” he says. “But you can really start seeing people get excited about this neighborhood.”
A bet on Bakersfield and rebuilding downtown
Smith’s bet on Bakersfield represents a new era of development, however small, for this Central Valley city. A recent report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) found Bakersfield to have one of the highest rates of millennial movers and homeowners, setting off a series of stories written with a tone of “wait, that Bakersfield?” as if it were a shock that somebody might find the city was both a good value and a good opportunity.
After all, compared to coastal California, where were the high-paying tech jobs and new homes? When California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s troubled high-speed rail project would focus on the Bakersfield to Merced section, connecting two Central Valley locations, many rail supporters felt Newsom was saying the train would never connect to LA or San Francisco.
But, as in just about every other small- or medium-sized U.S. city experiencing a downtown rebirth, opportunity and affordability have drawn many millennials, like Smith, to return to their hometowns and kickstart new businesses. Bakersfield may be starting later than most, but it’s following the same narrative, led by a core group of early supporters and entrepreneurs.
The 17th Place Townhomes helped bring more attention to a newly christened neighborhood, Eastchester, that’s beginning to blossom, and includes restaurants, coffee shops, and new businesses. In this formerly industrial stretch of town, business owners are finding new uses for old buildings, including Cafe Smitten, another Smith project, and Dot x Ott, a just-opened seasonal kitchen that sources its produce from a farm 10 miles away.
Though tiny, the downtown turnaround is palpable, says Debbie Lewis, a wealth manager who moved back to Bakersfield a few years ago.
“The downtown that I grew up hearing about and knew as a young adult was a ghost town that people were hesitant to visit and a place that businesses had a hard time sustaining,” she says. “Now, it appears to be growing at a slow but steady pace and an inspiring amount of businesses have are continuing to decide to take that leap, get creative, and get in on the action. People are starting to see the positive impact of investing more care, money, and time in our downtown.”
While the city’s current growth spurt has been out, not up, as nearby farmland has been turned into housing developments, there are a lot of buildings with good bones downtown, according to Gunnar Hand, an urban designer with architecture and planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Hand led a team that devised a new downtown plan for Bakersfield in 2016, in anticipation of the arrival of high-speed rail. They found the beginning stages of placemaking investments had already laid the groundwork for the nexus of new downtown development.
“This is, for lack of a better term, a third-tier city that’s only now coming around to urban revitalization,” says Hand. “Los Angeles is 20 to 30 years into revitalizing its downtown. Kansas City, [Missouri], my hometown, is 10 years in. Bakersfield is in, like, year one.”
Moving back and making a new start
When talking to Bakersfield residents who left town for college or careers and have now returned as older adults, affordability is a constant theme.
It helps in California to have housing that’s actually affordable. With a median home value of $241,000 as of last March, and median starter homes beginning at just $145,300 according to Zillow, it’s no surprise that the median age of a first-time buyer in Bakersfield is just 33. The city’s sprawling growth pattern has played a big role in creating cheap housing; as the city and metro region grew out, Bakersfield’s population ballooned from 70,000 in 1970 to more than 380,000 today.
According to NAR researcher Nadia Evangelou, these newly arrived millennials can afford to buy nearly 15 percent of homes currently listed for sale in Bakersfield, compared to only 4 percent in Los Angeles.
“Millennials still move to big metro areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco,” she says. “But we see that they don’t stay in these areas, because of weak affordability conditions.”
But the real draw goes beyond affordability. Cheaper housing enables many of the Bakersfield boomerangs to buy rather than rent, have a better quality of life, and start businesses, all of which might be unaffordable in other California cities.
For Jessie Blackwell, a cofounder of Dot x Ott, the seasonal restaurant and market just a few blocks from the 17th Place Townhomes, now is the perfect time to open a new kind of business in town. The restaurant, which opened last month, is taking advantage of the region’s wealth of farms and fresh produce in a way that just wasn’t really done here just a decade ago.
“There’s a food movement here,” she says. “You can see it in the revitalization of downtown, and the handful of farm-to-table restaurants that have come to town. In the last five years, you’ve just seen this boom in farmers markets and so many more local options.”
Melissa Delgado is a product manager for an agriculture company who returned to town in 2011 after studying in San Diego. She found that the city, with its low cost of living, was perfect for growing her career. With the $2,000 or more she would be spending per month on rent elsewhere, she’s been able to buy a house.
“When I first came back here, I hated it,” she says. “I wanted to go right back to the city. But I’ve been able to grow my career here, and the style of living is just so much better.”
Daniel Cater, an architect and designer who recently returned to town with his wife three years ago, has found great opportunity since moving home (Smith hired him to design the townhome project).
“You’re beginning to see a city of half a million support innovation and change,” he says. “For me, it’s exciting to watch a city that hasn’t really found itself, where the entrepreneurial spirit is alive. It’s fun to be in a place where you can get to know the people making an impact, and make an impact yourself.”
Placemaking and the Padre Hotel
Most of the Bakersfield residents interviewed for this story noted that a lot of the new energy downtown comes from people who have returned after moving away, not a flood of new arrivals from other parts of the state or country. There’s still a relatively tight-knit circle of businesses and entrepreneurs in town, often built on local networks. Smith’s dad, for instance, is city Councilmember Bob Smith. And compared to the urban renaissances touted in other cities, Bakersfield’s new developments are not linked to any kind of broad apartment-building boom or big economic expansion yet.
But the catalysts for such change seem to be in place: Two local groups, Kern Economic Development Corporation, a traditional local business group, and Be In Bakersfield, a grassroots nonprofit that promotes new local businesses, have started marketing the city as a place of opportunity.
With some additional investments in transit and placemaking, Bakersfield also has the potential to truly activate its downtown. According to SOM’s Hand, when the firm studied the city in 2016, it found that much of the infrastructure for downtown growth was already finished or in the works. As part of a larger community redevelopment project, Bakersfield developed Mill Creek, a River Walk-style public space and linear park lined with theaters and new businesses. It opened in 2010.
Many of SOM’s suggestions—to create new transit links, connect the city’s already impressive bike lane network, and tie together disparate parts of downtown—have already been done or are in development.
“Our main suggestion was to create infill that brings together Mill Creek with the downtown core,” he says. “That’s already happening now, without the rail station being built.”
In addition to larger urban plans setting the table for more dense development, the successful redevelopment of the Padre Hotel also served as a marker and milestone for downtown. A landmark from the ’20s that reopened in 2010, the ornate hotel at 18th and H streets, a four-star property in the Central Valley, showed many that the city’s stock of old buildings held promise.
“The 17th Place Townhomes and the Padre Hotel are landmark projects for a town this size,” says Hand. “They signal something to the market that didn’t exist before, and it’s starting to snowball. There are local developers taking note.”
Continuing challenges to building a better Bakersfield
Bakersfield has gained momentum, but it still has a ways to go. Like many Central Valley cities, such as Merced, it’s pushing to diversify economically and build new industries, as well as regain the attention of state government after being ignored for many years.
As part of a larger demographic trend statewide, however, these Central Valley cities have seen more attention from new arrivals. Interior metros like Riverside, Fresno, and Sacramento have seen net domestic migration rise from 2012, when this region collectively lost 4,000 people, to 2017, when 38,000 arrived. At the same time, coastal parts of California have grown at a much slower pace, two-thirds less in 2017 than in 2012.
To capitalize on its growing population, Bakersfield’s economy needs to expand beyond health care, agriculture, and oil, and the region needs to invest in creating a more educated workforce. According to the Brookings Institution, among those ages 25 to 34 in the Bakersfield area, 29 percent are in poverty and only 14 percent graduated from college. The city’s persistent problems with air pollution, some of the worst in the state and nation, give potential residents pause.
“We have historically relied on cyclical industries like oil and agriculture, but the truth is, that’s not the future of where the world is moving,” says Anna Smith, a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian, and Austin’s wife. “We need to diversify, and bringing new minds here who have lived in other places is key to the 21st century.”
Anna Smith, like others, has pinned some hope on Newsom’s commitment to the Central Valley, including high-speed rail and other economic plans. Proposals at the local level, like Measure N, an initiative to revive state-funded community development, and a forthcoming update to the city’s general plan, could help finish out some of the placemaking plans SOM and others have proposed to knit together Bakersfield’s downtown.
“Newsom has the opportunity to show us that he can make connections here,” says Smith.
Coming back to feel more connected
The small cadre of new businesses, and Bakersfield residents returning home, suggests a similar story—like those in places like Memphis, Tennessee, or Louisville, Kentucky—is starting to play out. Bakersfield hasn’t had a downtown boom, at least not yet, but the seeds have been planted.
As Debbie Lewis, the wealth manager, suggests, there’s a hunger among young adults to make a mark on their environment.
“They don’t just want to be one of the millions of people swallowed by social media and all the reminders that we’re broke and don’t have any money,” she says. “All that negativity is pushing people to connect with a place and make a difference, and I think that’s possible here in Bakersfield.”
Or, as Anna Smith suggests, affordability isn’t the entire answer, it’s just the beginning. Without the pressure to pay for increasingly high rents, having more time to focus on passion projects and community engagement makes a real difference.
“If you want to say it’s just about affordable housing, that’s not all there is the Bakersfield,” she says. “Young professionals can come here, start a business, and find lower barriers to entry. Most importantly, they can feel connected to the community and make a real impact.”