May 3—The Bakersfield City Council will discuss preventing the imminent demolition of the Southern Pacific train depot in Old Town Kern on Wednesday.
One of oldest structures in Bakersfield that still resembles its original form, the depot is lauded for its historical significance, and its preservation is considered a key part of the movement to revitalize the area.
"The train depot has been a centerpiece for east Bakersfield for over a hundred years," said City Councilman Andrae Gonzales. "It is a landmark in our community. It is a historic structure — it is one of the very few historic structures in our community — and in my opinion it is worth saving."
Built in 1889, the station was built in a community that was originally known as Sumner before later incorporating as Kern City. Trains brought Basque immigrants to the surrounding area, lending Bakersfield a key part of its identity.
Although the depot itself is no longer used, Union Pacific, which now owns the land, still operates the train yard adjacent to the building. The company is moving its headquarters to a building down the street, and had planned to demolish the building once the move was complete.
On Wednesday, the council will decide whether or not it should officially enter into negotiations with Union Pacific for a 12-month lease for the building. If successful, the council would then seek out developers to convert the building to another use, possibly as a restaurant hub or for lodging or retail.
"It if we were able to save the station, were able to get some private dollars to invest in the structure, were able to actually activate that space, it would be a huge boost to the local neighborhood," Gonzales said. "We've seen it before. Private individual parties got together to save the Fox Theater. The Fox Theater has been a tremendous asset in downtown Bakersfield."
But taking on responsibility for the depot comes with a price tag. A city analysis of the building's condition found immediate improvements costing $295,000 to $443,000 would need to be made. And while the outside may look acceptable for a building of its age, the inside has been vandalized and is regularly occupied by unauthorized individuals.
City staffers also believe at least $223,000 will be required to provide security for the site. A full rehabilitation could cost between $5 million to $10 million, the city estimated in a report to the council.
Still, advocates say preservation is well worth the cost. A new movement to breathe new life into Old Town Kern would significantly benefit if rehabilitation plans are successful. The depot could bring in much-needed traffic to the area.
Plus, local historian Stephen Montgomery sees it as one of the few places where history can be preserved in Kern County, rather than just documented.
"One of the important points of preservation involves the pride in the community, having a context of where you live. Some of the history of our home community is reflected in our older infrastructure. You take that away and the town has no past," he said. "You look at cities where people have pride in their cities, and they are cleaner cities."
The Hub of Bakersfield, which is chaired by Gonzales, has started a petition on change.org to revitalize Old Town Kern. So far 2,271 people have signed.
Montgomery said he plans to start a nonprofit aimed at converting the depot to a new use.
"We don't seem to have a past because most of our past has been erased, at least from a visual standpoint," he added. "To me it's important for the culture and pride of citizenship in this community to save a building like that, that has been an integral part of the development of the community."
You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.