Historic homes can't be moved

The city of Fresno disregarded state law when it tried to relocate historic homes for a major downtown redevelopment project, a state appellate court has ruled.

The decision means developers can't immediately proceed with plans to build a parking structure for the Old Armenian Town project. And that could complicate plans for office buildings there.

The city could decide how to respond as early as June 10, when the City Council will discuss the project in a closed session, City Attorney James Sanchez said.

"There are a number of options on how to proceed," Sanchez said. "They could decide to accept the decision and see if the development can continue around that site. Or they could decide to petition the state Supreme Court for review of the case. We're not wedded to any options yet."

Sanchez said city officials were disappointed about the ruling.

"It delays redevelopment of downtown Fresno south of Ventura Street," Sanchez said.

City officials have long touted Old Armenian Town as a key part of their downtown revitalization plans.

But so far, only the 5th District Court of Appeals building has been finished on the site, while three office buildings, retail space and the parking have yet to be completed.

In 2005, two preservation groups challenged the city's plans to relocate five small historic homes to make space for parking. The homes are representative of the city's original Armenian town and shouldn't be moved to a nearby industrial area south of Highway 41 as the city proposed, they said.

The homes are now on a lot at N Street and Santa Clara Street. They are nearly all that remains of a neighborhood where Armenian immigrants settled beginning in the 1880s.

Jeanette Jurkovich of Friends of Armenian Town, one of the groups that challenged the city, applauded this week's appellate court ruling. The decision upheld a 2006 Superior Court ruling.

"This is very consistent with what we were trying to have the government do," she said.

"Maybe now we can protect and preserve a little part of Armenian Town."

Jeff Reid, an attorney representing developers Richard Gunner and George Andros, said he couldn't comment on the ruling because he hasn't seen it. But he said removing the proposed parking location throws the whole development plan into question.

"Losing that parking affects the overall development potential -- it's all up in the air," he said.

The court's decision focused on an environmental review process.

An initial report by the city found that Andros and Gunner couldn't build the parking structure where they wanted, because the historic homes would need to go there, the court's ruling says. Keeping the homes there was a necessary "mitigation measure" required to meet the state's rules governing the effect of projects on the surrounding area.

Nevertheless, the city proceeded with the developers' plans for the parking structure, ignoring what its own review had found earlier, the court found.

The city "never justified its abandonment of the previously adopted mitigation measure, and no substantial evidence supports the change," the court said.