It was seven years in the making, but the Big Fight is finally here.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin bearing the mantle of Long-Neglected Ideals vs. mega-developer Darius Assemi shouldering the burden of No-Nonsense Reality.
The Fresno City Council on Dec. 17 slogged its way through a two-hour hearing on several proposed changes to the new Development Code.
How convoluted and frustrating was that hearing? Well, a fresh and cheerful Council President Oliver Baines was wearing his suit coat when things began. His tie was neatly bunched at the neck. When things ended, Baines’ coat was gone and his tie knot was on his chest. He had the demeanor of the broken warrior in those “End of the Trail” statues.
Here are 25 quick thoughts on a hearing that isn’t over – it resumes on Thursday.
But the main thing to keep in mind is this.
Swearengin took office in January 2009 vowing to bend developers to her will. It’s been all talk so far. She now has to make Assemi do her bidding, and do so in a very public manner.
Assemi never meant made a boast he didn’t back up with results. He knows Swearengin is a lame duck. His feels his time has come, once again, to remind City Hall of the unstoppable power of market forces.
You thought the development code was boring? No way. It’s the arena where titans clash.
1.) DREAMS ARE EVERYTHING
The context begins April 19, 2012. That’s when the City Council approved a theme to guide city officials in the drafting of a new general plan, Fresno’s blueprint for growth.
The theme was anti-sprawl, pro-infill development.
Three other themes, unofficial but soon to become conventional wisdom throughout the city, emerged that night.
First, developers in general, and residential developers in particular, were blamed for all of Fresno’s ills. The nature of those ills – social, cultural, economic, political – didn’t matter. What counted was to lay everything at the feet of greedy developers. So much easier that way.
Second, those evil developers would soon employ their usual underhanded, behind-closed-doors efforts to convince city officials to amend the most important parts of the general plan and all of its supporting documents. Developers know how to manipulate.
Third, developers will soon learn to love everything about the new and egalitarian Fresno. They will develop up a storm. All will be wonderful.
Sure, Nos. 1 and 2 seem to be in conflict with No. 3. But only a party-pooper would notice.
2.) THE NECESSARY CATALYST
The City Council in December 2014 approved the 2035 general plan. But something extra was needed to turn rosy vision into hard reality. That was to be a new development code – rules and regulations for actually building stuff.
The council in November 2015 approved a new development code. But the 600-page document didn’t include everything. At the request of Council Member Lee Brand, staff was asked to re-evaluate certain sections regarding multi-family and mixed-use (apartments and commercial space in the same building).
In particular, pedestrian and façade development design standards were to get a closer look all by themselves.
3.) SQUARING THE CIRCLE
All the key players – administration, council members, staff, developers – went back to the drawing board. They met as a group. The group didn’t have a formal name. Let’s call it the Design Group.
The Design Group’s basic operating principle during two meetings in December was, according to a staff report, “one size doesn’t fit all.”
In short, how was Fresno to have design standards with teeth while also giving plenty of flexibility to developers and their paying customers?
The Design Group would have had an easier time turning lead into gold.
4.) NEED A TRANSLATOR
But that didn’t stop Planning Director Jennifer Clark and Assistant Planning Director Dan Zack from pitching something to the City Council at the Dec. 17 hearing.
Two staff recommendations went to the council.
First, adopt the environmental finding of Environmental Assessment No. TA-15-001A, that Text Amendment TA-15-001A is within the scope of the Final Master Environmental Impact Report blah-blah-blah.
Second, approve Text Amendment Application No. TA-15-001A, to adopt Pedestrian Access and Façade Design Development Standards blah-blah-blah.
Hard to believe that bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo could consume two hours of some of the most expensive taxpayer-funded employees in all of Fresno, right?
5.) HERE IT COMES
Well, keep in mind the mindset that took hold of Fresno after April 2012 council meeting on the general fund theme – developers are incessantly cunning.
Granville Homes President Darius Assemi about a week before the Dec. 17 council meeting submitted a three-page proposal. He wanted to make some changes to the proposal that had made its way out of the Design Group (he was a member of the group).
Exhibit A of Assemi’s proposal was a one-page executive summary.
Exhibit B was his two-page recommendation on how the legislative language should read.