Visalia’s Native American prehistory endured thousands of years before it was established as Fort Visalia in the mid-1800s, when early European-American settlement led to Visalia’s founding. Since then, the city’s various eras can be characterized by major sub-periods: Post-electrification; the Automobile Era that shifted patterns and reach of growth; and the post-Terminus dam era that terminated the major flooding once common in the Kaweah River watershed.

Like everywhere, Visalia was affected substantially by the automobile’s mass production, which drastically changed the way cities were planned and inhabited. People once lived in downtown Visalia because it was the entire town. In the 1800s, Visalians used upper floors for residences, hotels, dance halls, brothels—all manner of businesses. But the automobile gifted Visalia and the Valley a different legacy: its ability to sprawl into rather vast residential suburbs, requiring a personal vehicle just to be livable.

The automobile freed Visalia’s suburban expansion just as the dam nullified the need for the stilted homes, such as the vertiginous Victorians that dot the perimeter of downtown, pitched high to escape frequent floodwaters. Reflecting on these bygones illustrates how differently we live now, shaped by external forces, and how swift and sweeping those changes can be.

A new phase has begun more quietly in downtown Visalia, but may prove to be no less transformational. The media have taken notice, but the impacts of a local developer’s new urban vision have only just now begun to be felt here. If Visalia can mark its history by the automobile’s suburban sprawl and flight from downtown living, it can now delineate a new era by a kind of return to Visalia’s 1850s roots: The renaissance of downtown living.

A decade ago, Troy Korsgaden built the residential/commercial mixed-use building that houses Crawdaddy’s and a third-floor luxury residential space. At Main and Bridge streets, The Mangano Company built what was intended as a mixed-use commercial/residential building, but lost heart for the residences intended for the upper floors, converting them to office space instead.

But the clear champions of downtown living are Visalia natives Marlene and Sam Sciacca, who put money where mouth is and created residential space on their own dime, without bank financing. Lots of dimes.

First in 2009, the Sciaccas carved living space from the second floor above the Chelsea Street Boutique (the old Togni Branch), marking a major shift in the return of rental possibilities and new downtown Visalia lifestyles. That first conversion was only a single unit, but it made downtown Visalia livable once again. If it is any testament to whether downtown living is viable, the current occupant has now resided there for seven years.

The old-is-new chapter for downtown continues with the Sciacca’s follow-up project, Casa de Sciacca, so named for Sam’s mother, Margherita Sciacca and her roots in Sicily. The property opened in spring of this year and was upgraded under the guidance of Mike Fistolera of Fistolera Construction. It continues the slow unfolding of the original mixed-use vision for downtown, if a bit grander in scale and intention at 10,000 sq. ft.

Getting standard bank financing for a visionary, unique real estate development is no simple matter, if not impossible. The Sciaccas funded the six-unit Casa de Sciacca themselves, and believe that more is on the way. “The reason we feel positive is that the vacancy rate is less than one percent in downtown.” But at present, other developers may be sidelined by banks’ refusal to finance construction, with financing only offered once a development is complete.

Other issues arise too, said Thom Black, architect on the project. “Adding live/work spaces to a turn-of-the-century building in a mature downtown revealed trouble spots—and some moments looked like show-stoppers—but Sam and Marlene blazed the trail,” he said. “Turn-of-the-century buildings are square pegs that don’t fit in the round hole of the modern building code. We worked hand-in-hand with the building department to interpret the code to make it work,” said Thom.

“Any time you tread new waters, there will be snags along the way,” said Sam Sciacca. “I’m grateful we got through the City rules and regulations. I feel we have paved the way for others to do residential over commercial. Hopefully, going forward will not be as difficult and time-consuming,” said Sam of other developers’ prospects as they look to invest in downtown.

Not among the snags for the Sciaccas was the division of labor approach. “We do pretty good working together because we keep our responsibilities separate,” said Marlene. She worked with the “jewelry” of the building—the design elements, the architect, etc.—while Sam handled the budget and City requirements.

Located in the old Sweet Building (built in 1859; where Link’s Menswear was located prior to its closing), the Sciaccas’ introduction of second floor residential units marks the largest mixed-used downtown development to date. The project’s high-end finishes and the residents’ ability to enjoy restaurants and cultural attractions car-free are all part of the allure of living in downtown Visalia. Empty nesters, single young professionals wanting proximity to Visalia’s numerous nightlife options, DINCs (dual income households/no children), and coastal second-home dwellers no longer need to maintain a large suburban footprint.

“We very much enjoy living downtown within walking distance of everything you need such as restaurants, drinking establishments, grocery stores, and, most importantly, we’re only two blocks from the office,” said new downtown resident, Diane Farley, whose law firm of Farley & Farley is located on Center Street, in a building that dates back to 1888. “We enjoy walking the downtown streets and the garage stairs to get our hill work in, watching the sun come up and the town wake up, and seeing the usual group of walkers out.”

The Farleys also own a home in Shell Beach, making downtown life a low-maintenance alternative to traditional home upkeep. Diane said there are benefits to downsizing, primarily no yard work and the need to clean out closets.

In addition to being walking proximity to everything the couple needs, they enjoy feeling the “beat” of downtown, but admit there are a few minor drawbacks, including the lack of opportunity to own their residence, as yet. “It would be nice to have a parking structure for the building. Right now we park in the city lot behind the apartments. We walk more in the evenings than we used to, which is a good thing. But we have to move our cars from the parking lot behind the apartment to the office as there is a three-hour limit there and the city lot next to our office is all day parking,” said Diane, adding, “if only the wine bar downstairs served breakfast.”

But Diane feels the merits far outweigh any drawbacks. “The Sciacca family did an excellent job with the interior space they had to work with and, other than finding a scaled down sofa, it was quite easy to furnish. The master bedroom is a good size. We love the wide staircase and hallway—and so did the movers,” she said.

In addition to the lifestyle upsides offered by downtown, a host of other benefits exist to infill development, says urban planning and conservation expert Adam Livingston, a graduate of the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara. “Compact growth has a number of economic benefits, including lower per capita infrastructure costs and greater local fiscal stability,” said Adam.

In the long-term, however, he believes the strongest argument may be shifting demographics and changing market demand. “Many Millennials prefer to live in walkable neighborhoods with access to city amenities; they are less interested in large-lot, single-family homes and car-dependent lifestyles. Developers that help meet this demand are likely to benefit,” said Adam, who serves as planning and policy director for Sequoia Riverlands Trust, the local nonprofit that advocates for responsible growth and farmland protection throughout California.

“Development patterns that allow for conservation are particularly important in our region, which has some of the most productive farmland on the planet, as well as habitat essential to climate adaptation. Moreover, development patterns that allow people to be less car-dependent can help improve our region’s air quality,” he said, adding that fortunately, Visalia’s recent General Plan Update takes significant steps to support compact growth, maintain the City’s distinctive character, and protect highly productive agricultural land at the periphery.

The Sciaccas agree on the City’s pro-downtown stance. “The City was on board from the beginning; they liked the concept of having residential downtown. It has taken more than three years to complete, being that it had not been done before,” said Marlene. “The City was very careful to guide us, making sure our building was going to be a safe environment for everyone to live and work.”

In addition to the historic building’s exterior charms, its high ceilings help create an illusion of grander space than one might expect from the average 800 sq. ft. space, said Marlene. With an eye to attracting more upscale tenants, the Sciaccas minimized moving complications by outfitting units Marlene calls “cozy and luxurious” with wine refrigerators, washer/dryer units, fireplaces, and other features that do not require additional labor and expense for tenants.

“The outcome is not expressed in words, it is experienced standing in one of the units, and that energy of looking down onto our signature downtown,” said Thom. “Living downtown is definitely one of the amenities of the project that doesn’t need emphasizing.”

“Coming from Sicily, finding and developing Casa de Sciacca is like Christopher Columbus finding a new America,” said Sam, a first generation Americana sentiment echoed by Marlene: “It gives us a sense of pride that we have done something that will improve our downtown for years to come. Our vision has come to life. We both love the downtown Visalia area and feel that having residential living downtown is an asset to keeping Visalia vibrant.”

As more people see the merits of low-maintenance, urban living, and as developers with a grand vision and deep pockets gain confidence in the market, expect to see new infill development for a region in need of ways to preserve what is attractive. Casa de Sciacca is one more step in the right direction. n

Photos by Danny Klorman Photography