Fresno

High drama: Fresno City Council narrowly OKs Tower Theatre purchase

After a full day of public comment, closed session discussion and public scrapping on the dais at City Hall, the Fresno City Council voted by a narrow margin to purchase the Tower Theatre.

The council approved a resolution to purchase the historic theater for $6.5 million by a 4-3 vote.

Councilmembers Esmeralda Soria, Miguel Arias, Tyler Maxwell and Nelson Esparza voted in support of the purchase.

Councilmembers Mike Karbassi, Luis Chavez and Garry Bredefeld voted against it, due – in part – to the inclusion of a hefty indemnification clause in the deal.

Along with the purchase price, the city will provide a 30-year loan at 3.5 percent interest to finance Sequoia Brewing’s purchase of the building on the property that it is currently leasing.

The city will also indemnify and defend Tower Theatre Entities and Sequoia Brewing from any potential litigation.

Adventure Church – which previously agreed to a $4.815 million deal to purchase the theater in October 2020 – previously said this week that a lawsuit will be forthcoming against all parties. 

Before the vote, Karbassi asked if Tower Theatre owner Laurence Abbate was available to speak with in the chambers. 

Abbate was not present, drawing frustration from Karbassi. 

“I have a credibility gap with Mr. Abbate,” Karbassi said. “I’d like to know where he actually stands on this. In making a big decision, the fact that I as a councilmember – so we’re not allowed to have people come into closed session. There’s confidentiality rules. We have rules how as a city we can meet with people. And it’s unfortunate that we won’t be able to question him, because I have specific questions.”

That led to a procedural motion from Karbassi to subpoena Abbate to City Hall, something that City Attorney Doug Sloan said has never been done in his 16-year tenure.

The procedural motion failed 3-3-1. Karbassi, Chavez and Bredefeld voted in support and Soria abstained.

Without a subpoena to summon him to City Hall, the council asked the city attorney’s office to ask Abbate to appear before the council for questions.

Karbassi continued his discussion and asked Sloan about the mediation that took place within the last few weeks between the city, Abbate, Adventure Church and Sequoia Brewing, which produced the deal that the city was voting on Thursday.

Sloan said Arias and Soria were the two councilmembers who took part in the mediation, and there were not any financial or real estate experts there on the city’s behalf.

Karbassi then raised the issue of indemnification – calling it his “biggest worry” – which drew support in opposition to it from Bredefeld and Chavez. 

“There’s no reason why we should be indemnifying, protecting Sequoia or Mr. Abbate,” Bredefeld said. “It makes absolutely no sense.”

Karbassi motioned to hold a line item vote on the whole resolution in order to separate the indemnification part, but the vote was shot down 3-4. 

Following that, Chavez raised his own issues with Abbate, detailing his decision to vote against the deal Thursday. 

“I think he has been playing both sides, and I think he has been trying to score a better deal,” Chavez said. 

Chavez continued, “I just want to be very upfront with folks because I think for me if this would solve the challenge that we’re trying to deal with it would be one story, but all we’re doing is trading one lawsuit for another and resetting the clock all over again.” 

Bredefeld raised questions about the city’s claims that Adventure Church’s deal for the theater expired in March 2021. 

Adventure Church’s legal counsel provided an email from the escrow officer from April 7 saying that escrow was still open and there were never any instructions from either side to cancel it. 

Sloan clarified to Bredefeld that the email from the escrow officer does not provide complete information on the situation and that there were attempts by theater ownership to cancel the escrow. 

Following the vote to approve the purchase, Sloan said Abbate arrived at City Hall but refused to enter the council chambers and would only talk to the council in a private discussion. 

An amendment to the cannabis ordinance

Because of redistricting, the retail cannabis dispensaries that were awarded licenses will not be evenly distributed in the new city council districts.

Two dispensaries will be in different districts than the ones they were originally approved in. 

In order to ensure compliance with city code, the city council unanimously passed a bill Thursday which grandfathers in all of the 20 approved dispensaries. 

The amendment to the city code also requires that any future dispensary approvals create an equal number of retail locations per district. 

Unleashing infill development

The council also unanimously approved an amendment to city code that provides a fee waiver for new single family homes as part of infill development. 

Previously, the city’s infill projects only included multifamily residential projects on sites less than five net acres in size and substantially surrounded by urban uses. 

“[I]t is the Council’s intent to provide an exemption of certain fees on certain new residential infill projects to encourage and promote development of residential units on unutilized lots within the City,” the ordinance reads. 

Arias sponsored the bill. 

Tweaks to communications between the council, city attorney

The council unanimously approved changes to its own communication policy with the city attorney. 

Per the amendment, all requests for public documents that a councilmember makes in regards to other councilmembers will have those documents shared among the whole council. 

The ordinance excludes forcing the documents to be shared among the whole council in cases of investigation. 

The council decided to approve this for 90 days to test it out and review it in a few months.

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.