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Meet the City's new Capital Oversight Board, Old Armenian Town's new developer

Changing of the guard in Old Armenian Town

I bumped into former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim as he left City Hall in the late afternoon.

Vagim is a member of the city’s Oversight Board, the one connected to the former Fresno Redevelopment Agency, not capital projects.

The board’s main task these days is serving as a check-and-balance as the city disposes of non-housing properties that once belonged to the RDA.

Vagim told me that Richard Gunner and George Andros are no longer the developers of record for the proposed Old Armenian project on Ventura Street, south of the Convention Center.

The new developer: Tom Richards.

Old Armenian Town is to be a residential-commercial-entertainment center. It’s been on the drawing boards for years. The RDA in its heyday spent big bucks acquiring and preparing the land.

Just about the only construction of note so far is the 5th District Court of Appeal at Ventura and O Street.

Vagim has been a long-time critic – not of the project’s vision but of the utter lack of action. He has been sympathetic to the vagaries of private-sector development, especially in light of the Great Recession.

But if the original developer can’t do the job, Vagim has said, then the land should be sold to someone who can do something productive with it. Public coffers and downtown revitalization would reap the benefits, he has said.

“I wish him the best,” Vagim said of Richards.

Richards, like the Gunner-Andros team, is well-known in local development circles.

Vagim and I briefly chewed on the big question: Can Richards do what Gunner-Andros couldn’t?

The Old Armenian Town site is an odd-shaped piece of downtown, with Freeway 41 on one side and Santa Clara Street cutting through the middle of everything. Maybe it’s time to change visions, too.

Then there’s Richards’ record for completing tough downtown redevelopment projects. I pointed out to Vagim that it is was six or seven years ago that Richards joined Swearengin for a dramatic news conference in front of the empty Bank of Italy building on Fulton Mall.

Richards had just bought the historic building. He promised to turn it into something grand.

The building remains empty and decaying. Is the Old Armenian Town site headed for the same fate?

“Hmmm,” Vagim said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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