The Rowell Building can be seen in the background over the right shoulder of Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp. Photo by David Castellon

published on July 29, 2019 - 1:33 PM
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After some six years of searching and negotiating, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office will likely have a new home by next summer.

That’s because the Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1  July 9 to approve a lease agreement for the Rowell Building in Downtown Fresno.

This isn’t the first time the board has approved a lease on the more than century-old building on the southeast corner of Tulare Street and Van Ness Avenue. The first was approved and signed in 2017, with the county agreeing to pay a about $15.12 million in rent over 10 years, with an option after that to buy the building for $15 million.

Not long after the ink had dried on that agreement, the owner, Lance-Kashian & Company — operating as River Park Properties III — pulled out of the deal, reporting to the county that it couldn’t acquire in a timely manner a federal new market tax credit investment intended to help pay for a top-to-bottom renovation of the Rowell Building that still is underway.

The federal program connects private investments to rehabilitation projects and new construction in low-income, impoverished areas of the country, giving investors tax credit incentives.

County officials and the building’s owner later ironed out another lease agreement with the 10 years of rent payments totaling nearly $2 million more than in the original agreement, but it was pulled from the supervisors’ agenda 10 months ago before a vote could happen.

Since then, negotiations continued until a new lease deal was added to Tuesday’s board agenda.

This time, the county agreed to pay $17.06 million to lease 70,495 square feet of the Rowell Building, with an option to continue leasing for 10 more years, or the county could buy the building for $18 million.

These new amounts didn’t sit well with Board of Supervisors President Nathan Magsig, who cast the only “no” vote on the lease proposal.

He noted in an interview after the vote that the county has been in negotiations at least as long as the two-and-a-half years he has been in the board.

“And we have gone back and forth, and where the agreement has gone today is beyond where I’m comfortable supporting,” Magsig said.

Looking at office lease rates and purchase prices in Downtown Fresno, along with the cost of rehabilitate an older building along with the county’s available funds and current and future financial commitments, Magsig said leasing and possibly buying the Rowell Building didn’t seem worth the price.

From early on, county officials have had their sights set on the Rowell Building, to the point that after the first lease agreement was broken and county officials said they were looking at other downtown buildings, the door still was left open for River Park Properties III to work out its financing issues and come back to negotiate further.

“I think there’s just some considerations that had to be taken into account in regard to the financing … so the negotiations had to be readjusted, and everybody had to make some concessions in order to make the building happen — to make it financially feasible for everybody involved,” Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp said after Tuesday’s lease vote.

She noted she didn’t know the specifics of the negotiations.

Robert W. Bash, director of Fresno County’s Internal Services Division, said the lease agreement discussions had numerous “moving parts,” but he declined to say if there were individual issues primarily responsible for drawing out the negotiations so long, nor did he disclose the prices Lance-Kashian initially asked for its building’s lease rate and purchase price after not getting access to the federal tax credit investments.

“There was a little give and take in both directions on that,” he said.

Tracy Kashian, vice president of marketing and public relations for Lance-Kashian & Company, said she also wasn’t part of the negotiations and couldn’t provide by press time somebody from her to company who could comment on them.

But cost wasn’t the only consideration in leasing offices in the Rowell Building, Smittcamp noted.

A big part of that is the fact that even though there are large, available office buildings in other parts of Fresno, the Rowell Building is across the street from Courthouse Park and the Fresno Superior Courthouse, close enough that prosecutors could walk to court.

“And because DAs are all trial attorneys, most of us are in court every day,” said Smittcamp, adding that finding available parking at and around the courthouse often is difficult.

“You can’t get much better than a simple walk to the courthouse,” Supervisor Brian Pacheco said during Tuesday’s meeting in support of the lease deal.

As to the added costs, he said, “I believe the county is well prepared to do this, and when you want things, they’re never cheap.”

And even though the Rowell Building was constructed in 1913, Smittcamp said her staff will move into an essentially modern building, thanks to the extensive renovations underway.

A couple of the supervisors noted during the meeting that the renovated building likely will be a good investment for the county.

Those improvements are expected to be finished in May, and the DA said she expects to begin occupying the Rowell Building some time next summer.

The DA’s office has actively been looking since 2013 for office space to consolidate most of its staff and divisions, which currently are spread out among five locales.

Plans are for the agency to vacate three of those locations and move about 250 people into the Rowell Building, where they would work in the 73,210 square feet of office spaces that comprise the upper five floors — along with a rooftop conference room — while the first floor are common spaces and retail spaces, the latter of which would be leased separately by the building’s owner.

The lease also includes dedicating just 13 parking spaces for the DA Office’s use, but Bash noted that the county will continue paying to use 600-plus parking spaces in nearby downtown parking lots, while parking spaces will be kept at the DA’s current headquarters at the Golden State County Plaza building, less than three blocks northwest of the Rowell Building.

As for the office spaces DA staff currently occupy in the county’s Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium headquarters and Juvenile Justice Campus, Smittcamp said they wouldn’t move.

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