visalia courthouse

The Tulare County Courthouse Annex, built in 1935, and the property around it is up for sale. Tulare County officials are favoring a proposal by a development group to turn it into 28-room boutique hotel with a restaurant and rooftop bar. Photo by David Catellon

published on October 26, 2017 - 11:06 AM
Written by David Castellon

For 82 years, it has stood on the northwest edge of Visalia’s downtown — a five-story art deco office building that looks more at home as a set piece in a 1930s-era noir film than as an actual structure in the middle of a farm community.

But civil engineer Matt Ainley sees the building at the northwest edge of Visalia’s downtown differently.

He sees the scuffed, broken and dusty floors of the former Tulare County Courthouse Annex repaired and polished, with the lobby, stairwells, fixtures and common areas restored to a near approximation to how they looked when the building opened in 1935.

In his vision, Ainley said the former courtrooms and offices on the first floor would be gutted and replaced with a fine-dining restaurant that includes a patio area for outdoor dining, “And we may try to get a day spa in there.”

On the fifth floor, essentially a mechanical room enclosed by the poured concrete walls that comprise the exterior of the building, Ainley said he wants to remove the old, outdated machinery that once ran the 22,301-square-foot building and convert the room into a bar, with the 3,600-square feet of adjoining, rooftop space serving as an outdoor extension of the bar, giving patrons a 360-degree view of Visalia.

As for the other floors, those former courtrooms and offices would be converted to 28 “upscale, boutique” hotel rooms, the designs of which would be infused with elements of the Annex‘s overall 1930s style.

“The plan is to embrace the era, adding a fresh and modern twist to it — a neo-modern Great Gatsby feel to it. At least that’s the plan,” Ainley said.

And he soon may get the chance to make his vision a reality.

Ainley is the principal civil engineer for Visalia-based 4Creeks, Inc., an engineering firm that also does surveying, planning, construction oversight, utility coordination and marketing.

He said that independently he is spearheading and lending his expertise as a member of an investment group calling itself “Courthouse Square Ventures” that responded to a proposal for development issued in August by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors to developers interested in buying the entire block where the Courthouse Annex sits. Besides that building, the site also includes an adjoining 12,001-square-foot office building currently occupied by the Tulare County Probation Department and a nearly 50-space parking lot.

A second, similar-sized parking lot across the street from the north side of the property also would be part of the purchase.

The proposal to the county had to include how the developers would use the property, under the condition that the Courthouse Annex couldn’t be torn down, as it’s listed in Visalia’s registry of historic buildings.

In addition, the developers would have to state how much they’re willing to pay for the parcels and buildings, which county officials are collectively calling “Historic Courthouse Square.”

Two groups of investors submitted their proposals to the county earlier this month —Ainley’s group and another calling itself the “Legacy Group,” which stated its intent to convert the Courthouse Annex into a luxury condominium complex, along with a first-floor restaurant, a roof bar and a possible wedding venue.

“The other building they would lease out for office space,” Tulare County Supervisor Amy Shuklian said.

She said the county vacated the Courthouse Annex in 2008, largely due to the high costs of required renovations that included American with Disability Act upgrades and asbestos removal.

As for the smaller, one-story building, it has no historic designation, but Shuklian said she believes it would be foolish to tear it down and build something new there, as the county renovated it in 2011 in preparation for the Probation Department moving in.

For his part, Ainley said he envisions leasing that building to the Probation Department after the purchase and at some later date renovating it to become an extension of the hotel.

As for the purchase offer for the Historic Courthouse Square Project, “I figure we were thinking about $2.5 million,” said Shuklian, noting that county officials had discounted their estimated price, considering that whoever buys the building would be tethered by the limitations and added costs of rehabbing an historic building.

“We offered the other building to be an incentive — to produce income to offset the cost of renovating the other building.”

The Legacy Group offered $1.3 million in its RFP, while Ainley’s Courthouse Square Ventures offered $2.3 million, much closer to the price county officials wanted.

But selecting which group to sell the building to wasn’t based solely on price, said Shuklian, who was part of a five-member evaluation group that looked at both RFPs and initiated a scoring system to determine which offer and plan would be recommended to the Board of Supervisors.

For her part, Shuklian said that besides offering the higher bid, the Courthouse Square proposal scored higher for her because Visalia needs more hotel space, particularly downtown, and a hotel has the potential to create more jobs and generate more local tax revenues than the condominium proposal.

In the end, the members recommended that the county negotiate a sale with Ainley’s group. Last week, the Board of Supervisors agreed, directing county staff to clear up some outstanding questions about the hotel proposal and to then negotiate a sales agreement.

If the sale goes forward without any hitches, Ainley said he hopes to begin renovating the Courthouse Annex building by late summer of next year and to open the hotel — tentatively named, “The Darling” — in early 2020.

As for how much his investment group intends to spend on those renovations, he said only that the cost would be in the million of dollars.

 A brief history of the Tulare County Courthouse Annex.

It started in 1935 as a Tulare County government office building, serving as home to the Board of Supervisors, auditor, treasurer and other departments next to the much older county courthouse. That building was constructed in the 1880s at the corner of East Center Avenue and North Court Street.

But a 1952 earthquake centered in Tehachapi sent shockwaves through the ground strong enough here to damage the old courthouse so badly that it had to be torn down.

After that, the newer, neighboring building served as Tulare County’s temporary courthouse, leading to its designation as the Courthouse Annex, a name that has stuck to the current day, despite court operations moving to a newly constructed courthouse across town in 1958.

Since then, the old Courthouse Annex building has housed various county offices until 2008, when the county moved all staff out, and the building has since remained vacant.

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