Friday, February 25, 2005

Fairfield eyes changes for downtown

Don Friedman looks over mail at the Fairfield post office. Fairfield wants to build a parking lot on that piece of property. (Photo by Mike McCoy)
By Matthew Bunk
FAIRFIELD - A government land swap is in the works that could transform the post office into a garage, the county courthouse annex into a parking lot and the county Hall of Records into a three-story building for apartments, offices and shops.

None of the changes, currently under negotiation at the staff level, have been approved by Solano County or the city of Fairfield. But pending those approvals, the downtown area is in for another round of redevelopment and identity makeover, city and county staffers told the Daily Republic.

The plan to move most county offices into fresh digs at the six-story Solano County government center will leave surplus space in other county-owned buildings. So county and Fairfield officials began looking at ways to best use the soon-to-be vacant space.

"It's a joint city-county project in some ways," said Darby Hayes, assistant county administrator. "We've been working on this with the city for a long time.

"If it happens, it would give the entrance to downtown a much different look."

Meanwhile, Fairfield planners decided they would like to see a three-story mixed-use project where the Hall of Records now stands on the corner of Texas and Jefferson streets. And it just so happens they found a developer who shared their vision and who already owned the empty bank building next door.

So here's what downtown would look like if the deal happens:

n The county's fleet vehicles, now stored at a former service station on Texas Street, would be stored at the post office on Kentucky Street. That would also leave vacant the current fleet station, which city planners said could then be redeveloped for retail use.

n The county courthouse annex, home to the tax collector, auditor-controller, assessor-recorder and other county offices, would be torn down to make room for a parking lot. The parking lot in the back of the building would remain, as would the lawn facing Texas Street and most of the trees.

n The Hall of Records and the vacant bank building next door would be demolished to make room for a three-story commercial and residential building. The existing alleyway behind the Hall of Records would be covered by part of the building if the city can figure out what to do with the underground utilities beneath the alley.

The result of these desires is a loosely organized deal that would put the post office in the hands of the county, the Hall of Records building in the palm of a downtown developer and the courthouse annex in the grasp of the city.

So far, all parties involved seem to like the arrangement, but some pretty big questions remain. For example, where would the post office go?

"We've been working to get the post office into a larger facility," said Curt Johnston, Fairfield's assistant director of planning and development. "Right now they're looking at several different sites."

One place the post office could go is the vacant building on North Texas Street that once was home to a bowling alley. That's where it was set to go a few years ago until the agency pulled the plug on any new building for budget reasons. Another idea would be to expand the size of the Suisun City post office and then move the Fairfield post office to a smaller building.

But none of that is likely to happen until 2011, when the post office's lease with the city would expire. The current lease runs through 2006, but the federal government has an option to extend it for another five years, which the city expects it to do.

The other components of the project could get moving a little sooner, however, as the city and downtown developer John Costanzo are anxious to redevelop the block of buildings across from another ongoing Costanzo project, MacInnis Corner, which will soon include new business tenants such as Starbucks Coffee.

Although Costanzo said he didn't want to talk about the project until it gets final approval from the city, planning documents reveal the name of the project would be Stonefield Corner.

A residential-on-top-and-retail-on-bottom building would take shape on the corner, according to city planning documents. The middle level would have space for professional offices.

But that development faces a few problems as well that could hold up progress. Not only would the city have to work with Pacific Gas and Electricity to find an alternate place for the underground utilities that would be disturbed, it also would have to remove soil contaminated when the property was used as an auto lot for storage and repairs.

The city already received a state grant to investigate the contamination, but the alley and utilities may present a bigger problem.

"Closing the alley would be one major issue," Johnston said. "The redevelopment agency wants to close the alley so the proposed three-story building would front the plaza next door, but we're still working with PG&E."

Costanzo, in buying the Hall of Records building from the city, would likely be on the hook for costs of putting a parking lot where the county courthouse annex now stands, Johnston said. The added parking would complement Costanzo's nearby commercial holdings by providing parking for downtown shoppers.

As for the courthouse annex, it's too old to be of much use anyway, Hayes said.

"It would take a lot more money than it's worth to bring it up to modern standards," he said. "It was built in the 1950s and doesn't meet a lot of code requirements, and the roof leaks."

The county would lease the parking lot to the city for 10 or 15 years and then possibly reclaim it to construct a new county building if the need arises, Hayes said. Right now the 300,000-square-foot government center across the street fills all of the county's needs, but it might need to expand in the future.

"The plan is to put future county buildings there," Hayes said.

Reach Matthew Bunk at 425-4646 Ext. 267 or

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