Written by Frank Lopez
A cultural staple in Fresno could be seeing new ownership soon.
Fresno City Council President Miguel Arias has confirmed that Fresno’s historic Tower Theater is in escrow to be sold to Adventure Community Church, which has been hosting its services there since March.
Arias said that the City of Fresno had received notice on Dec. 7 that Adventure Community Church had entered into escrow with the owners of the Tower Theatre.
Concerns over the implication of the sale have been come from the community and Arias himself. Specifically, Arias is sounding the alarm on how a church moving into the Tower District with its specific zoning could affect existing businesses in the area.
A church, for land-use purposes, is designated as “sensitive-use”— similar to a park or school. Due to zoning laws, the city is not allowed to place a business that has an onsite or offsite alcohol license within 1,000 feet of a “sensitive-use” property.
Cannabis operations, which have been showing interest in opening up storefront dispensaries in the Tower District, are not allowed to be within 800 feet of a “sensitive-use” property.
Arias said that the current businesses in the area would be fine. However, if those businesses see a change in ownership or attempt to renew their conditional use permits for any reason, they will not be allowed to be within 1,000 feet of the Tower Theatre if it is converted into church use.
“Approximately one dozen businesses around the Tower Theater would see their operational existence under threat in the future if they ever traded hands, or wanted to extend or renew their permits. The corridor is designated as an entertainment district for adult entertainment venues like night clubs and restaurants — the value of a restaurant significantly deteriorates without an ability to sell alcohol to customers.”
The sale of the Tower Theater could threaten the operational livelihoods of many businesses in the area and also limit new businesses coming in, he added.
The city council doesn’t have the ability to stop the purchase, but does have the responsibility to inform the Adventure Community Church and the owners of the theater that permanently converting the facility to “sensitive-use” requires a rezone and a conditional use permit that involves a lengthy process—a public hearing by a citizens committee, by the Tower District Design Review Committee, the planning commission and the city council.
It could take several months.
Each step in this process would require public input, which could result in potential conditions to the facility or denial of the permit.
Arias said that permanently converting the facility to a church would be the “most significant land-use change in the Tower District’s history.”
Efforts to reach management of the Tower Theatre and leadership of Adventure Community Church were unsuccessful.
The Tower Theatre building not only houses the theater, but two restaurants as well, both of which serve alcohol. Should the Adventure Community Church purchase the Tower Theater, it would have the power to not renew the two restaurants leases.
Arias said that he has already received hundreds of messages, phone calls and emails from residents in the Tower District that are in opposition to the change, and expects that the issue will be contested among the neighborhood and business owners.
The price for purchasing the Tower Theater is somewhere between $5.5 million and $6 million, Arias said.
In a letter dated from Adventure Church Inc. sent to the city of Fresno’s Planning and Development Department and signed by Pastor Anthony Flores, president of the church, and Bill Richardson, a board member of the church, its stated that the theater would still continue to host other events.
“Church services would happen on Sunday mornings and occasionally once a month on Wednesday nights if no other event is scheduled,” the letter states. “Events are 100% the primary function of the theater, with church services being incidental.”
The letter said that the church has plans for 100 events versus 52 services in a calendar year. In 2019 the current property owners hosted 200 events at the theater.
On Dec. 31, a Facebook page called “Save the Tower Theater” was created to express support for preserving the Tower Theater, citing that the use of the theater as a church goes outside of the Fresno Municipal Code and Tower District Specific Plan.
“This unintended and unauthorized use threatens the cultural experience, identity of our district, as well as the viability, economic recovery of the entire business district and surrounding neighborhood,” a post from January 3 on the group’s Facebook stated.
Users on Twitter were also ready to sound off about the possible sale of the Tower Theater.
“Zoning laws should only change through the consent of the governed. Tower Theater is not zoned as a church space, and the neighborhood needs tax revenue from a congruent business. Fresnans, and especially Christians, cannot let this happen,” wrote Estaban Solis Loya on his Twitter account @yescabansolis.
On January 5, Fresno’s code enforcement sent a letter to Laurence Abbate, current owner of the Tower Theater, saying it “must cease indoor operations immediately.”
“We [Fresno City Council] cannot take a support or opposition position — all we can do reassure the public that this is a lengthy process and that they will be involved in each step of the way and ultimately the city council will have to decide whether to decide this change of use to occur,” Arias said.