By Tyler Mackey
What’s going on at the Tower Theatre? For Fresno’s Tower District, 2021 started with more than just a bang; it started with an explosion. The explosion, of course, was the revelation that the neighborhood’s iconic Tower Theatre and namesake was in escrow to be sold to a local church.
Some neighbors had noticed the church’s assembly for some months as Covid had put almost everything else in the district into hibernation, but no one could have expected, or even imagined, that the church’s presence was headed toward the ultimate takeover of this cultural gem.
Local and county authorities had mostly sworn off enforcement of health and safety guidelines. Courts were allowing religious schools to open, and municipalities were shying away from potential legal confrontations with places of worship.
Little could the community see that this was the perfect storm for a takeover of the historic Tower Theatre. The news of the sale in early January shook everyone. Few had paused to ask “what if?” Now that the light has been shown on what was going on, the “what if” question is being asked by businesses, neighbors and loyal Tower patrons. The answer is multifaceted and the true extent not yet clear.
The Tower District community finds itself in a complicated situation as lawyers, private sellers, private buyers, residents, businesses, planners and elected officials try to find a resolution to the proposed sale of the Tower Theatre. The pending sale to the Adventure Church has disrupted the social balance and threatens the economic balance should the sale be finalized as the church has been informed by the City that it must seek a rezone to conduct weekly services there.
The entire Tower District business zone is zoned Commercial Main Street in the City’s development code, and rightly so; because of the close quarters the businesses share, that designation is key to maintaining the requirements for sensitive-use permits (liquor licenses) in the area. Businesses such as bars, restaurants and nightclubs that sell liquor have strict guidelines on where they can operate, and a church on the main cross-section complicates things.
Many businesses in the district are close enough to the theater to have good reason for concern, especially if they ever plan to sell their business. New businesses eyeing spaces would face new limitations on where they could start up.
Yes, it’s also about the cultural experience. Since its opening in 1939, the Tower Theatre has served as the keystone of the district and in 1992 was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The theater itself is a piece of art and has anchored the Tower District’s performance arts, live entertainment and nightlife culture for 80 years. It has drawn in an eclectic assortment of supporting bars, restaurants and live-entertainment venues that have given rise to a diverse community.
All these things created an environment where small businesses, festivals and real community could thrive. The arts, culture, open-minded and free expression and bohemian community that was drawn to the neighborhood brought with it a sense of belonging for everyone looking for a place to be themselves, which also gave rise to a thriving LGBTQ+ community of residents, business owners and patrons.
That community found a safe space, and everyone came to live in relative harmony. All of this led to a district that has a steady flow of diverse customers, artists and performers who have stimulated its economic growth for generations. Most people living in the surrounding neighborhoods say it’s what made them decide to live there and stay there.
In the 1990s, things began to take an unexpected turn when new development saw the Art Deco classic buildings of the Tower District’s glory days begin to turn into a modern gas station and a drive-up car wash. That was all it took to make a community realize that if it wanted to see the Tower District they knew and loved preserved, it needed to take steps to monitor its development planning and approval process.
Residents worked with their elected representatives and the City of Fresno to develop the Tower District Specific Plan to protect the visual integrity of the district and establish a clear intent for future development that could guide investment, both commercial and residential.
Over the years, the community has been actively engaged in the oversight of proposed projects for the district through the City of Fresno’s Tower Design and Review Committee and the District 1 and 3 implementation committees. This process has allowed the community to maintain its identity and businesses to make investments with a clear understanding of what they were investing in.
Such stability led to the creation of the Tower District Marketing Committee and the hosting of various nonprofit film festivals, performance art organizations and parade committees.
The sale of the Tower Theatre is not the first time since those community safeguards were put in place that the community has had to stand up to protect its integrity, and it will likely not be the last. What is clear is that the community is now speaking up about the Tower Theatre sale.
It has become clear that the owners of the Tower Theatre and the Adventure Church are determined to proceed with the sale despite objections from the City and the community. The City has asked the Adventure Church to stop the unauthorized use of the theater and notified the church that a post-acquisition rezone is not guaranteed.
Moreover, the City offered the church support in finding an alternative location that meets zoning requirements for its use. The Tower Theatre building has current tenants claiming contractual rights of first refusal and multiple backup offers.
The Adventure Church has indicated that it does not intend to comply with the City’s requirement that it seek a rezone and instead claims that it will sue the City for zoning discrimination. Why so much resistance? Why not recognize the disruption and negative impact? Why not seek a better alternative?
Thousands of community members have signed multiple letters of opposition to the proposed rezoning of the Tower Theatre that would be required if the church’s purchase is finalized. A weekly peaceful opposition protest has sprung up Sunday mornings across from the theater, and a GoFundMe raised half of its $50,000 goal to support the legal effort of the businesses in just two days. Where will this all end? Who knows, but clearly no one is giving up easily.
Tyler Mackey is the executive director of the Tower District Marketing Committee.