//The State of the Tower, One Year into Illegal Occupation

The State of the Tower, One Year into Illegal Occupation

By Jaguar Bennett  | jaguarbennett@gmail.com

It’s been one year this month since the Tower District community first learned of the impending sale of the Tower Theatre to Adventure Church. It’s been one year since Jan. 5, 2021, when Adventure Church was notified that it was violating zoning laws. And it’s been one year since Jan. 10, 2021, when the first Save the Tower Theatre demonstration was held.

After a year of the illegal occupation of the Tower Theatre and 52 continuous weeks of protest, it’s a good time to take stock. What is truly at stake in this controversy? What dangers does the community face — and what has it won? And now that the struggle to define the Tower District is entering its second year, what will happen next?

Even after a year of occupation and protests, I still meet Tower District residents who have no idea what’s happening at the Tower Theatre. So, it’s worth going over the basics of the threat to the Tower Theatre and the Tower District.

Adventure Church is trying to buy the Tower Theatre, but it has not yet succeeded, and the theater has not been sold.

When the news broke out in January 2021 that Adventure Church was buying the Tower Theatre, Sequoia Brewing Company filed a lawsuit to enforce its first right of refusal. Sequoia is a tenant of the Tower Theatre, and its rental agreement gives them the first right to buy the theater building if it is put up for sale. This lawsuit may go to court this spring, but as long as the lawsuit is pending, the theater cannot be sold.

Adventure Church is breaking the law by operating out of the Tower Theatre.

The Tower Theatre is zoned Commercial Main Street. In such zoning, community and religious assembly are prohibited in facilities of more than 2,000 square feet. The Fresno City Attorney’s Office sent a notice to Adventure Church on Jan. 5, 2021, stating that holding church services in the theater was a zoning violation and advising that if the church intended to hold services at the theater, it should apply for a rezone.

When they received the citation for holding services against zoning on Jan. 24, Adventure Church paid the fine — which is an admission of guilt, by the way — and vacated the theater for several months. Then, in May, Adventure Church, in an abrupt about-face, restarted Sunday services at the Tower Theatre, denying that any rezoning was necessary. So far, the City has not cited the church again, presumably because of the church’s frequent threats to sue the City. So in effect, the church is getting a rezone without going through public hearings.

Changes to the zoning of the Tower Theatre will be disastrous for bars and restaurants.

The zoning of the Tower District is supposed to protect the economic role the neighborhood plays as a nightlife center with bars, clubs, and restaurants. However, Rezoning the center of the Tower District for church use threatens the long-term viability of Tower nightlife. California ABC can prohibit liquor licenses within 600 feet of a church; City of Fresno ordinances are stricter, prohibiting liquor licenses within 1,000 feet of a church. Of course, a change in zoning doesn’t mean that liquor licenses will be yanked overnight. But it does mean that liquor licenses for new businesses and liquor license transfers can be challenged. In the long term, this will gut the Tower District economy.

What has a year of protest accomplished?

2021 was a year of exhausting struggle, and it seems like the only thing that’s resulted is a stalemate. Adventure Church continues to occupy the theater illegally, and the City won’t enforce zoning law. But vigorous action by Tower District residents has prevented things from being far worse. Here’s what a year of protest has accomplished:

The Tower Theatre has not been sold to Adventure Church.

When the Save the Tower demonstrations began in January 2021, the sale was a done deal, and we thought we were fighting only to prevent the theater from being rezoned. But the outpouring of community support convinced Sequoia Brewing Company to file the lawsuit that has prevented Adventure from acquiring the theater.

Adventure Church can’t change Tower District culture.

Last January, Adventure Church Pastor Anthony Flores liked to talk big about how his church would provide a “redemptive lift” to the Tower District, which apparently meant street harassment of gay people and bar patrons. Today, Flores has lost a lot of his swagger. The protests have forced Flores to claim that he has no intention of opposing the bars or the gay character of the neighborhood — and he knows that any attempt to “Christianize” the Tower District will provoke more opposition.

The Tower District is stronger as a community and a political force.

Individualists don’t band together until they perceive a common threat. Facing down Adventure Church and its Proud Boy allies has brought the Tower community together into a united force that the Fresno City Council cannot ignore.

What happens in 2022?

We all hope that Sequoia’s lawsuit will be successful. Until then, we seem poised for another year of stalemate and illegal occupation. The only force that can shift this is if the city government decides to enforce zoning. That will only happen with continued community pressure upon elected officials. 2022 is an election year for the Fresno City Council. We should all ask only one question of the candidates: Will you help save the Tower Theatre?