Downtown Fresno’s historic Rowell Building, once a bustling hub of law offices thanks to its location across the street from the Fresno County Courthouse, could soon become a new hive for attorneys and staff with the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office.
Fresno County supervisors will consider a 10-year, $15.1 million lease for the 105-year-old building at their meeting Tuesday.
The building is perched at the southeast corner of Tulare Street and Van Ness Avenue and is listed on the city of Fresno’s Local Register of Historic Resources as an example of “Renaissance Revival” architecture. When it opened in 1913, the Rowell Building was reportedly the tallest building in Fresno and the first with steel framing.
It’s owned by River Park Properties III, a partnership led by longtime Fresno developer Ed Kashian and his company, Lance-Kashian & Co. Kashian’s partnership bought the building in 2014 for an estimated $2 million, according to a public records database.
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“We need to be centrally located close to the courthouse and also close to local law enforcement agencies,” Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright said. “We need to be downtown, but there’s not a whole lot of real estate here in this area.”
The proposed lease agreement includes an option, after 9 1/2 years, for the county to either buy the building for $15 million or extend the lease for a second 10-year term. At six stories plus a basement and about 73,000 square feet of office space, the building is big enough to house the operations of District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp’s department now scattered among several other locations.
The plan is to get everyone under one roof, with just one lease and one receptionist, and it will save money in the long run.
Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright
“It just makes sense if we’re all in the same building,” Wright said. “If I have to meet with the domestic violence team or have to transfer files back and forth, it’s more efficient to go down one floor than to have runners take files from one building to another.”
A search for one site at which to consolidate locations has been a goal of the DA’s Office for four years. Currently, the DA has attorneys, investigators and support staff on three different floors of the 21-story Fresno County Plaza on Tulare Street between L and M streets – each with its own reception area and receptionist – as well as the domestic violence and sexual abuse/child abuse teams at 1260 M St. across from the Fresno County Jail, and consumer protection and public integrity units at 929 L St. just around the corner from the Rowell Building. The department also has staff in the former Valley Children’s Hospital building on Millbrook Avenue in central Fresno.
“The plan is to get everyone under one roof, with just one lease and one receptionist, and it will save money in the long run,” Wright said. Attorneys and staff who handle cases in courtrooms at the county’s Juvenile Justice Center on American Avenue south of Fresno will remain based at that site, he added.
In addition to rent payments that will start at just over $120,000 a month for the first five years and ramp up to about $132,000 a month through the 10th year, the county will also be responsible for costs for maintenance, janitorial, landscaping and insurance as well as property taxes – bills that are expected to add up to almost $600,000 a year. Some of that will be offset by savings from moving out of other leased offices.
Extensive renovations are underway on the inside and outside of the building. It is named for Chester A. Rowell, a leading figure in Fresno in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rowell was a physician who established the Fresno Republican newspaper in 1876. He later served in the state Senate and was a member of the University of California Board of Regents. He was the mayor of Fresno when he died in 1912, before the building that bears his name was completed.
Earlier this year, Kashian said that demolition work on the interior of the building yielded 280 tons of toxic or hazardous material, including asbestos and lead paint, that had to be hauled away for disposal. In the proposed lease, the landlord states that the renovation work is expected to be largely finished by June 2018.
“Just walking by there for the last six months to a year, I hear a lot of hammers banging around inside there,” said Wright, who worked in the building as a criminal defense attorney before he joined the DA’s Office. “I’d like to get in there and take a look.”