Self-Help Enterprises’ The Lofts at Ft. Visalia plans to bring together history, art and housing
By John Lindt
Sierra2theSea News Service
VISALIA – A first of its kind mixed use project is being proposed on the site of the first structure in Visalia’s history.
Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) has won the bidding to buy the Fort Visalia block, 300 E. Oak Avenue in downtown Visalia, from the City of Visalia. The 60 by 60-square foot fort was the first settlement in Visalia built in the fall of 1852. The fort, with its 14-foot high walls, was used by the area’s first European settlers until it was abandoned and torn down by 1855. It was home to many historical figures including Nathanial Vise, whom the city was named after, Nathan Baker, the city’s first general store merchant, and Ruben and Osee Matthews, whose grist mill was the first to provide wheat and flour to the area. Mill Creek and Visalia’s first road, Mill Road (now known as Main Street), were both named after the Mattews Brothers Grist Mill.
In more modern history, the block was home to the former Copeland lumberyard. In recent years it has been used by the Arts Consortium to stage local art activities.
After several bids for the property, in a compromise move both the Arts Consortium and low-income home builder Self-Help Enterprises will co-use parts of the 2-acre block with a plan to build three 3-story buildings as part of an architecturally designed mixed-use development known as The Lofts at Fort Visalia.
Self-Help Enterprises CEO Tom Collishaw says the nonprofit builder will carry out its long history of offering affordable housing, not just in rural parts of the Valley but in urban areas as well along with construction of an estimated seven artist lofts featuring rollup door working spaces on the ground floor connected to second story residential units. The project is being designed with 81 units. The artist units built in a row – would face a proposed plaza allowing art events to be staged there along Oak Street, home of not just the Consortium but Arts Visalia gallery and the dance studio. Space for a large, 3,500-square foot art gallery will also be built on the site.
“What’s new about this project is the intentional inclusion of the arts,” Collishaw said. “This is part of what’s becoming known as the arts district in Visalia.”
The Visalia Arts Consortium has already given its support to the project. In a May 21 letter to Collishaw, the Arts Consortium’s board of directors stated that they have occupied the lot for several years and were looking forward to partnering with SHE to continue its existing art training, gallery shows and community services as well as pursue an Arts District designation with the city for this area.
“This partnership will benefit your organization in that our constant labor will increase the quality of life for your residents who will have the opportunity to participate in our art sessions, take part in activities that we put on in collaboration with our downtown community, and they will be able to interact in positive ways with the numerous Tulare County residents and visitors who regularly attend our events,” the letter stated.
To add even more to excitement, the complex will likely feature a Fort Visalia model as well with perhaps space for displays telling something about Visalia’s early days.
Collishaw says like many of their projects that Self Help builds they are making the commitment anticipating funding in the next year or so. The development is not likely to break ground until early 2020.
Collishaw says an award-winning Sacramento architectural firm will design The Lofts that will likely mean 100 to 200 new residents just a block from Main St. The square block project fronts on Oak Avenue on the south, School Avenue to the north, Garden Street to the west and Bridge Street to the east. The city bought the property in 2010 with something like this in mind.
The mixed-use development is a minute walking from significant new development in Downtown including the new Darling Hotel and its rooftop restaurant, well known Oak Street restaurants, East Main brew pubs and scores of Main Street eateries. It will be just 2 blocks from the convention center.
The design plan was the subject of a city site-plan review meeting recently.
John Lindt is the publisher of Sierra2theSea.net, an online newspaper covering California’s Central Valley and Central Coast.