Visalia to build new fire station in downtown

A new Fire Station 51 will be built in the parking lot west of current fire/police headquarters, replacing the city’s oldest station

VISALIA – The city of Visalia will build a new fire station in downtown to replace its oldest station.

On Dec. 20, the council designated 1.46 acres of city-owned land as the future site of Station 51. The site is currently a parking lot directly west of the city hall complex off Acequia between Conyer and Stevenson streets. Fire Chief Dan Griswold said the site was ideal to replace the current Station 51, co-located with the police headquarters at 309 S. Johnson St., because it was close to the current station, wouldn’t create response time coverage gaps between stations, had access to Mineral King Boulevard and Nobel Avenue, access to Highway 198, and, more importantly, was close to downtown.

“Visalia’s Main Street and Downtown is an area that presents unique challenges for fire and emergency response as far as conjoined buildings, multi-story buildings, buildings without sprinklers and some points of restricted access,” Griswold said. “It is advantageous to have two-unit station close to that area of our community.”

Station 51 opened in 1970 and is the oldest fire station in the city. It is also one of the largest, housing Engine 51 and Truck 51, each staffed by three personnel, Truck 251, a reserve fire truck, as well as Squad 51, the city’s paramedic unit. The new station will be primarily paid for through Measure N, the city’s half-cent sales tax measure approved by Visalia voters in 2016. The initial 10-year plan included $4.4 million for the design and construction of a new Station 51 or renovation of the existing Station 51.

In an interview after the meeting, Battalion Chief Darren Hughes said bringing the current station up to code is likely more expensive than building a new station. He said the largest challenge would be renovations for wheelchair access, which would require the installation of an elevator to provide access to the second floor. He also said the building is now 50 years old and the department has already had to do major renovations to maintain 24-hour operations there. The department has had to reinforce the floor of the upstairs kitchen from water damage, replaced water damage in the living quarter ceilings, replace second-story showers which leaked into police department offices below, patched many parts of the roof for leaks and replaced two HVAC units.

Councilmember Greg Collins questioned the need for a new building, with a price tag between $6 million and $15 million. He wanted to know what the demolition costs were going to be for a 50-year-old building, who would want a that site if the building were removed and if it wouldn’t be more prudent to simply remodel the current station.

“Obviously it costs money [to remodel], but it will cost an awful lot to build a new facility,” Collins said.

City manager Leslie Caviglia pointed out building a new station would allow the city to relocate in stages without interruption to its centrally-located fire station. She also said remodeling the current Station 51 would be “complex” in order for it to meet the current essential services standards set by the state.

Vice Mayor Brian Poochigian was more concerned with the loss of parking than relocating the fire station. Caviglia eased those fears as well saying there was only minimal public parking. Most of the spaces are being used by the police department and infrequently. Griswold said the office buildings just north of the parking lot had its own parking to the west of the structure.

“Then it’s better to move forward and open a city block to eventually sell at some point,” Poochigian said.

Poochigian motioned to designate the site as the future home of Station 51. The motion passed 3-1 with Collins voting no. Councilmember Brett Taylor was absent.

VFD looked at five other sites in the city which were “less ideal options” based on the department’s criteria for its proximity to the current Station 51 for citywide coverage, other fire stations, areas of high call volume, Main Street and the downtown area, access to Mineral King Boulevard and Noble Avenue, access to Highway 198, lot size and that the site be city-owned property.

These other sites were .8 acres west of downtown, privately owned land northwest of downtown, two privately owned sites east of downtown, and .75 acres leaving coverage gaps north of the freeway.

“The location is excellent,” Mayor Steve Nelsen said. “By giving up the current site, we now have a piece of property that is a little more valuable. This is an excellent choice so continue moving forward with it.”

The city began discussing construction of a new station to replace Station 51, the city’s oldest fire station. The council approved $400,000 in Measure N funding in summer 2020 for design of the new station but Griswold said the project is still in its preliminary phase and does not have an engineer or design team involved yet.

Station 51 isn’t the only station in the works for Visalia. In May, the city spent $294,000 on property on Lovers Lane just south of Tulare Avenue. The new fire station will be numbered 56, currently the number of the station it co-locates with Cal Fire. The city has been purchasing space from Cal Fire at its Tulare Unit headquarters, 1968 S. Lovers Lane, since 2006.

The older bays at the Cal Fire station don’t exactly meet the space requirements of the Visalia Fire Department either. Griswold said the engine bay is not long enough to house the city’s fire truck, the living quarters are cramped and the bedrooms are part of another engine bay.

The city was originally looking at building the station on the southwest corner of Tulare Avenue and Vista Street but said “several issues” had developed in negotiations with the landowner, and there were infrastructure challenges and timing issues with construction of an adjacent housing project, according to a May 3 staff report.

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