6.) DIVINE PRIVILEGE
Now, it’s impossible for me to say how the specifics of Assemi’s proposal differ from what’s in the proposal that emerged from the Design Group. I don’t have the necessary gray matter.
Assemi clearly didn’t see everything he wanted from the Design Group. In essence, he was making an appeal to the City Council. Appeals are an essential part of the way City Hall does business.
Assemi’s executive summary lists six changes for pedestrian connectivity. “Exempt projects that are limited by physical or similar constraints” is one of them.
Assemi’s executive summary lists seven changes for façade design. “Exempt projects limited by Title 24, structural or architectural needs” is one of them.
The third part of Assemi’s four-part executive summary concerns “by right processing.” I gather that means a proposed project that meets everything on City Hall’s development code to-do list automatically gets the green light. This speeds up a project. As businessmen and women never tire of reminding City Hall, time is money in the private sector.
Assemi’s proposal: “By Right Processing: Add a status statement that clarifies that projects that meet Code Requirements are approved ‘By Right’ as asserted by City Staff and Mayor, can be fast tracked through the approval process, and will not require discretionary approvals.”
7.) FIND THE CONNECTIONS
There may be another reason why Assemi is so keen on his “by right” language. That has to do with the fourth and final part of his executive summary.
“Appeals: Add section in the Code that allows ‘any member from the public’ can appeal a ‘Discretionary Permit’ directly to the council, to provide an opportunity for a public discussion and review of the project amongst the elected officials.”
Hmmm … you’ve got Assemi’s 13 proposed changes to the pedestrian connectivity and façade design standards. If these become part of the development code along with Assemi’s “by right” proposal (one that does not require discretionary approvals), then what exactly is the value of John Doe’s appeal of a “Discretionary Permit” made directly to the City Council?
To a Lindsay hillbilly like me, it seems like Assemi is loudly championing this new and highly democratic appeal process precisely because none of his projects will ever come in the line of fire thanks to all his other changes to the development code.
8.) NOTHING TRUMPS SUCCESS
One last bit of context before we jump into the Dec. 17 hearing. You’ve got to keep in mind exactly what Darius Assemi and Granville Homes mean to Fresno.
They’re the kings of Fresno development.
Jim Wasserman, my old reporting colleague at The Bee, came into the newsroom one day with steam coming out of his ears.
“All I do,” Wasserman said, “is write about what developers say they’re going to do.”
The Assemi family and its various subsidiaries deliver on their promises.
Take a walk someday through Uptown (some call it the Cultural Arts District or the Mural District; it’s located north of Fulton Mall). Twenty years ago, Uptown was full of decay. Today, it’s full of promise thanks to one Assemi project after another.
City Hall politicians shamelessly take credit for the Assemi-led renaissance. That’s just the way politics works.
9.) YOU’VE BEEN WARNED
The hearing began with a brief comment from a member of the audience.
Steve Spencer, an official with Spencer Enterprises and a member of the Design Group, said he supports staff’s recommendations.
His final comment serves as a judgment on the remainder of the hearing.
“Anytime you get a group of people together and ask for opinions, it’s risky,” Spencer said. “Anytime you get a group of developers and architects together, it really could be an exercise in futility.”
10.) CERTAIN FLEXIBILITY
The planning department’s Zack tried to give the council (and the public) a shorthand version of the development issues at play.
Fresno, Zack said, has been divided into a suburban area and an urban area. We weren’t told which of Fresno’s 112 square miles fit into the former and which into the latter.
On top of that, Zack said, a developer who wants to get his project through City Hall can take one of two tracks: The “certainty” option and the “flexible” option.
“Depending on the needs of the applicant and the area, they (developers) would have the choice of picking an option where they would have a little more creative latitude as long as they met identified goals,” Zack said. “And for folks that didn’t like that, and wanted a more certain path, there would be a clear set of standards that they could follow and know that if they met those standards that they would be able to be approved.”
Clear as mud, right? Council members would also struggle to make sense of this.
Finally, Zack wanted to reassure the public about “noticing.”
Fresno’s municipal government is full of volunteer committees charged with reviewing developer proposals and coming up with recommendations that go to City Hall. Specific committees are involved with specific neighborhoods. These committee meetings are where the general public – Mr. and Mrs. Fresno – go to voice their initial opinions.
In other words, Fresnans would be “noticed” or notified of projects going to the various committees.
“What we want to clarify is that any project submitting for a development permit application – which in the past would be known as site plan review, which would be pretty much any infill development project – would go before those committees,” Zack said.
In short, Zack said, the noticing and review process by the citizens of Fresno “would all work as it has in the past.”