Historic downtown Fresno building will finally house now-overcrowded DA offices

Historic Rowell Building in downtown Fresno undergoes renovation

This drone video offers a bird's eye view of the historic Rowell Building in downtown Fresno, which is undergoing renovation. Developer Ed Kashian, who bought the building in 2014, hopes to begin leasing space in 2018.
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This drone video offers a bird's eye view of the historic Rowell Building in downtown Fresno, which is undergoing renovation. Developer Ed Kashian, who bought the building in 2014, hopes to begin leasing space in 2018.

The historic Rowell Building in downtown Fresno is once again on track to become the new home for the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office under a 20-year lease with an option for the county to buy the building after 10 years.

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors approved the lease agreement Tuesday with developer Ed Kashian and his company, River Park Properties II. When renovations are completed – now expected to be in early 2020 – it will allow almost all of the DA’s staff now scattered among several other downtown locations to be consolidated in one building at the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue and Tulare Street, across the street from the Fresno County Courthouse.

“It will put about 250 of us under one roof,” District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp told The Bee after the vote, adding that it was critical for her staff to remain near the courts. “Our prosecutors are constantly going back and forth from the office to the courthouse. They have to be in close proximity. There’s no option for us to be away from the center of downtown because we are in court so often.”

The DA’s Office has attorneys, investigators and support staff spread across three floors of the 21-story Fresno County Plaza on Tulare Street between L and M streets – each with its own reception area and receptionist. Domestic violence and sexual abuse/child abuse teams are in another site near the Fresno County Jail, and the consumer protection and public integrity units are in yet another location on L Street.

This is the third time in as many years that the Board of Supervisors considered an agreement with Kashian to lease the building with an option to buy it. At least one previous incarnation of the deal was canceled by Kashian after he was unable to get about $8 million in tax credits as part of the overall financing package for the project.

Increased cost

In 2017, when the county first agreed to a deal with Kashian, the 10-year lease cost was estimated at about $15.1 million, and a purchase price of $15 million. But because the tax credits are no longer part of the equation, the county’s costs are higher: rent will be about $17.3 million for the first 10 years of the lease; after that, the county could exercise its option to buy the building for $18 million.

The increased cost was too much for Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who was the lone vote against the agreement. “This board has made several previous agreements (and) this has gone back and forth,” Magsig said.

Supervisor Brian Pacheco acknowledged the increased cost, but supported the agreement. “I believe this is a good deal for the county … to upgrade conditions for employees.”

Smittcamp said, “We have two and three employees in working space designed for one person. We don’t have proper places for people to take state-mandated breaks, we don’t have places for people to eat their lunch, and we don’t have enough restrooms for the number of people we have.”

Small wonder, then, that Smittcamp is eager for the move: “We’re hoping to have everything completed by next spring and move in by the summer of 2020.” She said the Rowell building, at six stories plus a basement and about 73,000 square feet of office space, is big enough to consolidate her office’s several downtown locations in one place with room to grow.

When the DA’s Office relocates from the county-owned Fresno County Plaza, Smittcamp added, it will free up space for other crowded county departments.

Historic building

The Rowell Building, which was built in 1912 and opened in 1913, was once a bustling hub of law offices thanks to its location across the street from the courthouse, but has been vacant for several years. it is on the local Register of Historic Resources, described as an example of Renaissance Revival architecture. It is named for Chester A. Rowell, one of the leading figures in Fresno in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rowell was a physician, and established the Fresno Republican newspaper in 1876. He was later elected to the state Senate, served as a member of the University of California Board of Regents, and was Fresno’s mayor at the time of his death in 1912, during the building’s construction.

Kashian’s company bought the building in 2014 and has been making renovations to both the interior and exterior.

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.