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The real hard work begins as Cultural Arts District kicks off park push

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A dozen or so community leaders gathered Friday afternoon for a groundbreaking ceremony at what soon will be Fresno’s newest stretch of green space – the Cultural Arts Park.

I had just spent way too many hours neck-deep in the emotional politics of Donald Trump’s rally at the Convention Center. I needed a break from complexity. So, I headed to the northwest corner of Fulton and Calaveras streets in the Cultural Arts District to take in the Parks Department event.

Silly me.

Don’t get me wrong. The groundbreaking was an inspired half-hour of music, smiles and speeches. But devoid of political machinations – that it most definitely was not.

Parks Director Manuel Mollinedo, who joined the department in mid-2014, was master of ceremonies.

“It’s a great honor to be here,” Mollinedo said. “As I was saying to some of you earlier, I’ve been here only two years. And in those two years we’ve dedicated two parks and we’re getting ready to have a groundbreaking today.”

The two recent additions are Martin Ray Reilly Park at Chestnut Avenue and Highway 180 in Southeast Fresno, and Inspiration Park (sometimes called Universally Accessible Park) on Gettysburg Avenue on the west side of Highway 99.

Mollinedo introduced Dr. Christine Montanez, principal at Kepler Neighborhood School, a kindergarten through eighth grade charter school located across Calaveras from the park site.

Montanez has plenty of on-the-spot flexibility needed by any competent educator. City Hall’s original idea was to host a late-morning groundbreaking and have Kepler’s kindergartners belt out a couple of songs as a demonstration of the district’s cultural diversity. Then Trump at pretty much the last minute decided to hold a late-morning rally at Selland Arena at the other end of Downtown. Trump’s show was guaranteed to suck up all of the media interest, so the groundbreaking was postponed to early afternoon.

By that time the kiddies had been taken home by their parents. Montanez convinced the school’s music ensemble (she’s a member) to fill the entertainment void.

“What she does symbolizes why we’re investing in a park like this,” Mollinedo said. ”It’s a cultural arts park. Having them here is appropriate. Thank you.”

Mollinedo also gave shout-outs to city employees for their help. Irma Yepez-Perez wasn’t first on the list, nor was she last. But she probably was the pivotal contributor – she’s the Parks grant writer who got $1.4 million of state money to build the park.

The speakers were well worth the delay to my lunch.

“This is an exciting day,” Mayor Ashley Swearengin said. “It is both the celebration of the addition of park space and a wonderful cultural amenity for downtown, but it’s also a celebration of downtown Fresno. These two things are married right here at the Cultural Arts Park. We’re celebrating both the revitalization of downtown as well as the addition of green space in our community.”

Swearengin also was generous with thank yous, in particular to “the City Council, who had to say yes to spending the money in uncertain times when we didn’t know if we’d actually be able to deliver on this project and maintain it.

“I’m grateful to everyone who’s been involved. I think it’s a sign of more incredible things that are yet to come, not just for our Downtown but for our community. We are getting our legs back underneath us when it comes to parks and open space.

“Before I leave office we will have in place a long-range plan for parks throughout our community. And we’ll be at the beginning stages of determining just how to pay for that. I intend to leave in place a really clear, easy step-by-step guide to making sure we build out the long-range parks master plan and trails plan for the city of Fresno. It will be yet another wonderful jewel in the mix for our parks.

“With that let me say thank you to all of those who got us to this point. Congratulations Fresno. Congratulations Downtown Fresno and the Cultural Arts District.”

Next up was City Manager Bruce Rudd

“This project actually started five years ago, in 2011,” Rudd said. “Community meetings were being held, and we sought the input of the residents at the time. At that time the idea of building a park, let along three parks, was considered by a lot of people as impossible. Nevertheless, we moved forward and applied for three grants from the state of California.

“The same people who told us building three parks in the next four to five years was impossible also said getting three grants to build these three parks over the next four to five years is as big of a challenge. It will never happen, they said. They said the grant program is statewide, and you’re competing against cities that have needs similar to those in Fresno.

“Well, interestingly enough, Irma was instrumental in writing the grant. We took a trip to Sacramento. We were on the phone to folks in Sacramento. I think she threatened to bring me back if they didn’t give us a grant. The bottom line is the state of California awarded the city of Fresno almost $9 million for three parks – unheard of, in the state of California, for a city to receive three grants.

“So, today, I think we’re celebrating a ‘three-peat.’ We opened Martin Ray Reilly about a year and a half ago. We opened up Inspiration Park six months ago. And today we’re breaking ground on the third of three parks that were funded by the state of California.

“I can’t thank the parks staff enough for all of their work and commitment to this – as well as a mayor who had a vision for this Downtown. She saw the need for green space. She saw the need for, and had the vision for, a revitalized downtown, understanding that in order to revitalize Downtown it has to have a lot of the same amenities that you find in other areas of our community.

“So, today we not only celebrate what many people thought was impossible to achieve, but we also celebrate the perseverance of those who chose not to listen to those who said it couldn’t be done. Congratulations to the city of Fresno and the Parks Department.”

Mollinedo then introduced Council Member Oliver Baines, whose District 3 includes the Cultural Arts District. Mollinedo described Baines as a staunch friend of green space – so committed that the council member is already twisting arms at Parks in an effort to get a BMX track built in District 3.

Baines, too, thanked everyone on the park’s long list of benefactors. He noted that he has now nicknamed Rudd (who doubled as interim parks director in the days of City Hall’s financial crisis) “the crew chief” for his knack of juggling so many administrative tasks without mishap.

“This has been a long time coming, and it’s a much needed piece of green space,” Baines said.

Baines referred to the dozen or so residential projects that now dominate the Cultural Arts District’s geography. Most were built within the past half-dozen years. Most owe their birth to Granville Homes or various members of the Assemi family.

“Bruce is always reminding us: How are we going to maintain our assets?” Baines said. “Most of you know that in the city of Fresno we don’t do a great job of maintaining our assets; We’ve been working on that, and we’re doing better now. But historically we’ve had some challenges in that area.

“Bruce said: ‘Listen, if we’re going to go for this park how are we going to maintain it so it looks nice 15 years from now, ten years from now, five years from now? It’s definitely worth mentioning that we’ve wrangled the arm of one of our largest investors and developers down here, Granville Homes, and said, ‘Listen you’ve got to be a part of this too.’ So they stepped up to the plate and said, ‘We’ll do some maintenance’ – I think for a hundred years (Baines smiled at this good-natured exaggeration), but I think we may have talked them down to maybe four years. But they said they would be a part of that investment.

“So, it was a public-private partnership that made this park possible. And that needs to commended, because this is how we should work as a community. This is the most thriving, happening place in Fresno when you talk about Downtown and the Cultural Arts District. And we are now putting some much needed green space here.

“A lot of people deserve a lot of thanks – our community is going to benefit from a wonderful asset. I’m so very excited to be doing the groundbreaking today.”

Aaron Blair, chief executive of Downtown Fresno Partnership, was last to speak before the symbolic groundbreaking (construction workers and big machines began the actual turning of dirt about a week ago).

“I’m so excited because I have a lot of friends who live in this part of the Downtown area,” Blair said. “For them and the community that calls Downtown home, this is one of the greatest things that we could have happen to us. For all of you, I’m so happy for you. I’m looking forward to many opportunities to hang out in this park and enjoy our community that we call Downtown Fresno.

“We gladly welcome the community at large to come and enjoy Downtown. It’s a different time in Downtown’s history. It’s an exciting time to be a part of Downtown. Enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun.”

Strong backs and shiny shovels then fulfilled their ceremonial duty. Cameras recorded everything. Kepler’s musicians played and posed, as well.

Then reality set in.

I briefly cornered Rudd to ask about Baines’s Granville comment.

Granville long ago told city officials that the company would maintain the Cultural Arts Park for at least the first two years of its existence. That oral commitment needed to be codified at some point. City officials as of last week said Granville, despite City Hall’s persistent reminders, had yet to sign a contract promising to maintain the park.

Then came Baines’ very public comment that Granville is going to maintain the park.

“Did I miss something?” I asked Rudd.

Turns out I hadn’t. Rudd said City Hall and Granville still don’t have a signed deal on maintenance of the Cultural Arts Park.

Rudd said he’s clinging to the hope that Granville President Darius Assemi “is a man of his word.”

Is Granville having second thoughts? If so, who could blame Assemi? Maintaining the Cultural Arts Park for the first two years – a pivotal period as the park tries to live up to high expectations – figures to be daunting task even for a company with Granville’s record of administrative excellence.

Dickey Playground a few blocks to the east has long been ringed by tall fences. Not especially inviting, even though the fences serve a worthy purpose.

Fink-White Playground a few blocks to the northwest (on the other side of the Union Pacific railroad tracks) is a well-known hangout for the homeless. Fink-White also gets more than its share of gang violence.

Remember the small amphitheater at Downtown’s Eaton Plaza, a short walk from the historic Fresno Water Tower? The amphitheater opened 10 years ago this August. It, too, has turned into a place to for the homeless, the bored and the disaffected to kill time. Despite being located across O Street from police headquarters, the amphitheater is popular spot among some to light up a mid-day joint or two. (No dedicated patron of the Fresno County Library’s main branch on Mariposa Mall can miss, on occasion, the distinctive fragrance.)

Yes, Granville has built hundreds of modern housing units in the Cultural Arts District (thanks to big public subsidies from the Redevelopment Agency). People are moving into the area. But with that trend comes more crime. Police Chief Jerry Dyer at a recent CrimeView session, responding to a jump in vehicle burglaries in the Cultural Arts District, said he would have a one-on-one talk with Assemi about more Granville-funded private security in the area.

Bottom line: Maintaining park space isn’t easy if the goal is more than just picking up the litter once a day. If the Cultural Arts Park isn’t a jewel 24/7 as far as looks and ambience are concerned, then the organization charged with maintaining the park will be first in line to get the blame.

And that company with the target on its back apparently is Granville.

Which brings us to the bigger issue at the core of Friday’s groundbreaking at the Cultural Arts Park – Fresno’s political war over the future of our parks system.

Swearengin when she took office in January 2009 got hammered by the sins of her predecessor. That happens to every new mayor. In Swearengin’s case, she got stuck with tens of millions of dollars of bond debt assumed by the administration of Alan Autry at the same time that the national economy was tanking and city revenues were plummeting.

Swearengin will dump into the lap of her successor the impossible challenge building enough parks to keep diverse special interests happy. The new mayor must keep these parks in a pristine manner. The new mayor will face a budget that isn’t nearly as robust as everyone pretends. And the new mayor could be taking office just as California enters a recession (the business cycle isn’t going anywhere, no matter who occupies the White House).

Let’s take a look at the City Council’s May 19 meeting.

One of the first items before the council was a contract with Fresno Unified School District. The deal enables the city to use 14 FUSD campuses on weekends and holidays as public sources of green space and city-sponsored programming. The council had already set aside $1.2 million to pay for everything. Approving the contract was the final step to get things moving (beginning in phases on June 4).

Central Unified School District is opening two of its campuses under similar rules. The council had already approved that deal.

The council on May 19 approved the FUSD contract 6-0, with Clint Olivier absent.

Council Member Esmeralda Soria asked Parks Director Mollinedo to make sure the port-a-potties, which is how the public using the FUSD green space will answer nature’s call, are serviced regularly. Mollinedo said he would.

Soria has been a persistent critic of what she sees as Swearengin’s tepid support for parks. Soria on May 19 viewed the joint-use agreement with the two school districts as a necessary but ultimately unsatisfactory answer to Fresno’s notorious shortage of green space. After all, Soria noted, the schools in this deal are off limits (for understandable reasons) to the public five days out of every seven.

Still, Soria said of the FUSD deal, “this is the first step in the right direction.”

FUSD has been publicly supportive of the deal. But the district’s primary mission is education, not public green space. District officials’ focus must be on maintenance and security of its physical plants so that the primary mission isn’t compromised. The reverse is true – City Hall loves to have school kids visit its facilities, but places like fire stations and water plants aren’t classrooms.

Hence Soria’s cautious view of the school districts-City Hall open space agreement.

Later on May 19 the council tackled a contract with a consulting firm – Wallace Roberts and Todd, LLC – to oversee the long process of updating the city’s Parks Master Plan.

In the end, the council on a 7-0 vote agreed to spend up to $450,000 for the firm’s expertise.

A new parks master plan is viewed by community activists as the key to transforming inner-city Fresno.

The thinking is that Fresno is infamous nationwide for its concentrations of poverty – the poor live in one part of town, the comfortable live in another. Valuable community assets, in particular green space where people can gather and thrive, are deemed to be in short supply in poorer neighborhoods. The changing of lives, not to mention simple justice, means building more and better parks in those deprived neighborhoods.

Cities don’t build more parks unless the intent is codified in policy. The master plan is that codified policy. The activists correctly think: Control the creation of the master plan and you control public expectations. Control public expectations and you control city politics. Control city politics and you control funding.

There was some confusion at the May 19 council meeting as to when the Parks Master Plan was last updated. There was talk about something occurring in the 1980s, and something else happening in the 1990s.

To my thinking, the last update of the Parks Master Plan came in 2008, a few months before Swearengin took office. That’s when the city sold $35 million to $40 million of 30-year bonds to pay for the construction of a slew of new parks. The impetus then was the same as today – Fresno is failing because we don’t have enough parks.

Make no mistake – you don’t go to the bond market for that kind of money unless you’ve first created a detailed plan for how you’ll spend the money. That plan was created with considerable public input during Autry’s second term.

(By the way, Fresno did borrow the millions. Some parks were built. But residential development dropped dramatically due to the Great Recession. That dried up revenue from parks impact fees. That meant the general fund had to step in to help pay bondholders. As part of the effort to stave off bankruptcy, City Hall decided not to spend all the bond money as originally intended. That meant all the parks on the list didn’t get built. Most of those were to be in poorer parts of town. That furthered embittered the politics of parks construction in Fresno. One last point – we’ll be paying $2.2 million annually on those parks bonds until 2038.)

Now, it was no surprise that a consulting contract to oversee public outreach for a Parks Master Plan update came to the council. The council last June approved a Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget that set aside money for just such services. The surprise (at least to one council member) was that the consulting contract didn’t come across the council dais until a mere six weeks remained in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

“I thought it (the master plan) would be moving toward resolution by this year,” Council Member Lee Brand said on May 19.

But neither Brand nor anyone else on the dais asked why it took 10-and-a-half months for the Parks Master Plan consulting contract to get to the council.

Maybe that’s because Wallace Roberts and Todd LLC right out the chute isn’t going to work on an official Parks Master Plan. According to city records, the firm will begin by crafting a Vision Plan. This Vision Plan will involve many public meetings. This Vision Plan, said planning director Jennifer Clark, will answer a key question: “Are we going on the right track?”

It is only with the completion of the Vision Plan that City Hall will embark on the actual writing of an updated Parks Master Plan.

The Vision Plan is expected to be finished by the end of December 2016. Mayor Swearengin is termed out at the end of December 2016.

In other words, Fresno’s wish list for its parks system will be created during Swearengin’s final seven months in office. The hard stuff – deciding which neighborhoods get parks and which don’t, the size of the parks, the amenities at each new park, the scale of upgrades at existing parks, the scope of programming at each park, the cost of building/updating everything, the cost of maintaining everything, the source of all this money – will be left to the new mayor.

That new mayor most likely will be Brand, Henry R. Perea or H. Spees.

Good luck, fellas.

I had to smile on May 19 as I listened to Soria and Council Member Sal Quintero strongly encourage the Swearengin Administration to hold as many community meetings as possible during the Vision Plan phase. If there’s one thing Swearengin wants during her last months in office, it’s a bunch of no-risk community meetings where Fresnans pour out their hearts about green space.

Finally, to top off everything during the May 19 master plan debate, City Manager Rudd told the council that he would add one detail to Vision Plan before it transitioned to the Master Plan phase. Rudd said he would announce exactly what it costs to maintain the current array of parks.

I had to laugh. The new mayor gets a recession. He gets an existing parks bond debt in the tens of millions. He gets national parks pundits breathing down his neck. He gets a Vision Plan containing demands for everything but the kitchen sink. He gets to craft and implement a utopian Parks Master Plan. He gets sky-high expectations from the voters who put him in office.

And on top of all that, the new mayor gets from Rudd a ball-and-chain in the form of a very public accounting of what it costs to maintain our already existing system of parks.

No one will remember if Darius Assemi fails to keep his word at the Cultural Arts Park.

Everyone will remember if the new mayor doesn’t keep Ashley Swearengin’s word as revealed in the Parks Master Plan.

Brand, Perea, Spees – you volunteered for this gig.

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

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