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City Hall waiting on Granville's Cultural Arts park application

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Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd wants me to deliver a message to Granville Homes President Darius Assemi:

“Tell him to call me,” Rudd said Tuesday morning at City Hall. “I’ll help him fill it out. Heck, I’ll fill it out for him.”

“It” is the three-page adopt-a-park form, the first bureaucratic step a group takes in voluntarily assuming responsibility for maintenance of a specific piece of city-owned green space.

It’s such a simple form that any group short of a bunch of drunk rugby players could handle the task. But it appears Assemi and Granville are still catching up to inebriated ruggers.

What else could account for Assemi’s failure so far to legally confirm his promise to maintain the new pocket park in Downtown’s Cultural Arts District?

Maybe Fresno’s taxpayers will get an answer by 9:30 a.m. Friday. That’s the time and date for the park’s official groundbreaking ceremony.

If Assemi and Granville break their word, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, your wallet is City Hall’s Plan B.

To back up just a bit, construction on the park is just now getting underway. Backhoes were busy Tuesday afternoon at the site on northwest corner of Fulton and Calaveras avenues.

The site is small – only three-quarters of an acre. For the longest time it was home to single-story office buildings (seemingly empty more often than not) from the mid-20th century. Then again, there was a time some 20 years ago when most of the Cultural Arts District was in that condition.

Then, at the tail end of Mayor Jim Patterson’s second term (1997-2001), local leaders got serious about redeveloping the district. The triangle-shaped place was called Uptown at the time, and it was bordered by Tuolumne Street, Union Pacific railroad tracks and Divisadero Street.

The district wasn’t a complete loser in the late 1990s. No neighborhood could be hopeless that was home to a couple of fine museums and Warnors Theatre. But the district needed help. I did a stint as the night clerk at the Vagabond Inn on Broadway in the late 1970s. The district had gone downhill in the 20 years since that memorable time in my life.

Starting in about 2000, a slow-moving miracle occurred. The Cultural Arts District (others call it the Mural District, while I still prefer Uptown) actually blossomed pretty close according to plan. It’s still not Old Pasadena (as the leaders from the Patterson Era hoped), but it’s darn nice. New housing is everywhere.

Assemi’s Granville Homes and the city’s Redevelopment Agency get the lion’s share of credit. Both earned a permanent and honored place in Fresno’s history for their teamwork.

That brings us to the pocket park at Fulton and Calaveras.

City officials for years had hunted for a suitable place for a small park in the Cultural Arts District.

Dickey Playground at Divisadero and Blackstone Avenue is on the district’s north edge. It’s a popular park. But Dickey is big into basketball and volleyball. In the old days it had a clubhouse for afterschool programs. There’s a small picnic area with a kids’ splash park in one corner.

That’s all good stuff. But Dickey is unlikely to serve the needs of the young, hip urbanites deemed most likely to move into the Assemi family’s various residential projects.

Fulton Mall was just to the south of the Cultural Arts District. Its fans liked to view the Mall as a linear park. Maybe it was soon after it opened in 1964. But the mall by the turn of the century had died as a source of social and recreational energy.

And just on the west side of the railroad tracks, a relatively short walk from the Cultural Arts District, is Fink-White Playground. No one goes to Fink-White as the sun sets unless he wants to be in a police report.

Where, city leaders asked, can we add the green space that will advance our Cultural Arts District game plan?

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Parks Director Randall Cooper in Mayor Alan Autry’s second term (2005-2009) was a green space visionary. He had plans for parks in every nook and cranny of the city. He even wanted to put a skate park in the South Van Ness Industrial Area – free thinking skateboarders like that sort of ambience.

But the national economy imploded in 2008. City revenue dried up just as city debt (for reasons too complex to recall here) exploded. Mayor Ashley Swearengin and the City Council cut the general fund budget to the bone. Bankruptcy court was the alternative.

Parks to a large degree is a general fund creature. Fresno, like most cities, is good at getting state grants to build parks. But staffing and maintaining them falls on the shoulders of City Hall.

Swearengin in her first term and early in her second term ran into the worst of two worlds. On one hand, Fresno was getting hammered nationally for its abysmal array of parks (not enough of them, those we have are falling apart) when compared to other cities. On the other hand, she was getting hammered locally for failure to fully fund cops and firefighters, let alone keep the lights on at parks.

Then the worst drought in local memory hit.

So, at the same time the Redevelopment Agency was approving millions of dollars of public subsidies for various Assemi projects in the Cultural Arts District, Swearengin started the adopt-a-park program.

Yep – it’s as simple as it sounds.

A group – nonprofit, school, business, service club, athletic league – would identify a favorite park. The group would fill out a form, proving to City Hall’s satisfaction that it could handle routine maintenance chores for a year or two. The group would provide the labor and foot the bill. The group might get first dibs on using some of the park’s facilities.

Fresno’s green space would be well served. General fund money would keep cops and firefighters on the job.

In the midst of all this, City Hall a few years ago got a state grant of several million dollars for the park at Fulton and Calaveras. It was a time of intense activity at a Redevelopment Agency about to be killed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Politics – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back – was in the air. Swearengin was insisting on what would come to be known as the Rudd Principle – no new projects unless funding for maintenance is secured.

Granville Homes President Assemi in essence told Swearengin: You build that park in the middle of all my lofts projects, and Granville promises to maintain the green space for the first two years.

Now comes Friday’s groundbreaking, and Rudd wonders: Where is Granville’s written commitment to maintain of the Cultural Arts Park?

“We don’t have it,” Rudd told me.

Rudd said he reminded Granville Vice President Jeff Roberts of the dangling Granville commitment a few months ago at a City Council meeting. Rudd said the issue at hand was the city’s willingness to spend nearly $300,000 of taxpayer money to help subsidize The Lede, Granville’s residential/commercial project catty-corner to the park site. As Granville walked out of the council chamber with public money in hand, Rudd said, he asked Roberts if Assemi planned to also formally accept its responsibility to maintain the park.

Rudd said he didn’t get an answer.

I left a phone message with Assemi on Tuesday. No return call yet.

I’ve spoken twice this week to Roberts. He said he’s told his boss of City Hall’s interest in the issue.

Roberts wouldn’t tell me what’s holding things up from Granville’s end. He said only that the backstory is complex.

Of course it is.

Swearengin is termed out in January. She and Assemi over the last seven-plus years have often butted heads. Assemi with his scorching op-ed piece in Sunday’s Bee made it clear that he sees the Mayor less as a lame duck than as a dead duck.

After identifying everything Swearengin did wrong as mayor, Assemi at the end of his op-ed painted himself as a prime candidate for martyrdom.

“As a business owner directly affected by city policies, I am aware that speaking up may jeopardize our projects,” Assemi wrote. “Companies are reluctant to voice their opinions for fear of retaliation, and the rest of the community is unaware of what happens at City Hall.”

As Finley Peter Dunne said long ago, “politics ain’t beanbag.”

At this point, Swearengin and Rudd simply want Assemi to keep his word.

Darius, City Hall says, keep your promise to pick up dog poop.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

2 Comments

  1. It is nice that you gave Granville credit for the revival of the downtown district. Just goes to show that no good deeds go unpunished.

  2. Reality Sam, reality. There was little interest in what became known as the Cultural Arts District until Reza Assemi appeared on the scene. Prior to that, it had been the Met and the One by One Leadership group’s non profit campus over on L Street. We all know what happened to those two projects even though they both got infusions of City money-they failed.

    Early in the Fulton Street project I had an interesting conversation with then senior staff in the Mayor’s office about downtown revitalization. It seems back in the 1980s the City wanted to get things in the north end of downtown going.

    Gentrification was the name of the game. Staff looked at the neighborhoods north of Divisadero and decided the Tower wasn’t “too far gone.” That led to the Tower specific plan in the early 1990s. The idea was to make Tower a hot place to buy property. Of course there’s a finite amount of land in the area to buy. The hope was that gentrification would take hold and eventually spread south into the north end of downtown.

    That didn’t materialize. It took Reza to jump start things. On a somewhat related note, when Fulton 55 was working through the permitting process, the owners ran into huge opposition from the religious non profits in the area. Their position was that since they had invested in the area when no one would they got to decide what was allowed to go in forevermore.

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