Granville Homes President Darius Assemi won again.
He came, he saw, he conquered on behalf of what Fresno City Hall views as the real meaning of the 2035 general plan.
I’m talking about Assemi’s successful effort to accelerate the transformation of my neighborhood, located north of Fig Garden Village in Northwest Fresno.
The City Council on May 25 approved some paperwork that allows an offshoot of the Assemi empire (a subsidiary called AFREI, LLC) to build a residential complex on the northeast corner of San Jose and Colonial avenues.
The vacant site is a bit over an acre in size. It once held a large one-story house owned by an elderly couple. Assemi bought the property, and for more than a year has wanted to build a “planned development” there.
My neighbors pushed back. I’ve already written two pieces for CVObserver about how this backwater dispute is pertinent to Fresno as a whole.
In a nutshell, the original Assemi idea was for 18 residential units. In the end, Assemi settled for 13 units. Near as I can tell, the project has always been an apartment complex.
My neighborhood is full of single-family residences and condos. My wife and I have lived in our house on nearby San Ramon Avenue for 23 years.
The planning commission twice gave the Assemi project a thumb’s down, essentially saying the project as designed didn’t fit the pattern of a neighborhood that has evolved in a unique way over the decades. That essentially is what many of my neighbors were saying.
The council last month gave Assemi the green light on a 7-0 vote. Council members said Assemi’s project fit the 2035 general plan like a glove. Council members said the 2035 general plan should prevail because this three-year-old blueprint for Fresno’s growth earned the public’s blessing through a long and arduous vetting process.
Who in a democracy can argue with that?
Jodi Fitzpatrick, my neighbor and friend, doesn’t fight democracy or the general plan. But if you want a sense of my neighbors’ basic beef with the Assemi project, I suggest you read Jodi’s superb op-ed published June 3 on The Bee’s “Valley Voices” page.
(As a quick aside, let me sing the praises of the work produced under trying circumstances by Editorial Page Editor Bill McEwen and Bee colleague Gail Marshall. The Fresno Bee, my old employer, is going through some mighty rough times. Scorched-earth attrition has taken a terrible toll on the newsroom and the overall product of a once-great newspaper. The few journalists who remain over there on E Street are first class, but their number and the depth of their local experience will almost certainly continue to shrink. “Valley Voices” is an example of the strong product consistently delivered by Bill and Gail.)
Jodi began with a counter-intuitive touch. The problem with the Assemi project wasn’t its high-density nature (13 single-family units on a site that once held just one single-family house), something mandated by the general plan. The problem, Jodi wrote, is that the project actually violates the letter and the spirit of the general plan, which seeks higher densities, infill development and the protection of established neighborhoods.
My neighbors’ concern went beyond theory.
“Local property owners object to the plan for many reasons,” Jodi wrote. “Two-story in a one-story neighborhood creates privacy problems. Twenty-four foot attached townhouses rising only 10 feet from the curb pose a safety hazard for a street corner that’s tight and tricky as it is, even vacant.”
Jodi is a third-generation Fresnan. She founded Pax Domus Inc., a design/build company. In other words, she knows her stuff when it comes to development regulations. She doesn’t talk down to the general reader as she gives her side of a complex argument.
“In its vote, the City Council approved a grab bag of code modifications that are in fact variances, but misleadingly packaged in the application as a conditional use permit,” Jodi wrote. “Reduced lot sizes, reduced setbacks and reduced street frontage all (flout) the requirements put in place to ensure a project is dense but not overcrowded, that it integrates with the existing neighborhood and that the land is used efficiently.”
Jodi begins her final paragraph on a stoic note. The Assemi project is coming. The neighborhood’s essence will change.
But Jodi ends the piece on an upbeat note. She points out that the 2035 general plan repeatedly refers to a concept called “sense of place.” This concept as defined by both the general plan and the half-million Fresnans who back it means “the unique architectural characteristics that make us Fresno, and draw dynamic people to our city,” Jodi wrote.
More change is coming to the neighborhood Jodi and I share. Jodi in her op-ed referred to a 1.5-acre vacant lot owned by another developer on San Jose a bit east of the Assemi project. It appears that this lot is also destined to be a “planned development” that will look an awful lot like an apartment complex.
Jodi’s piece was published five days before The Bee’s Pablo Lopez had an excellent story about the Assemi family buying Fig Garden Financial Center, which is only a stone’s throw to the west of the Colonial/San Jose project. The purchase includes several prime development parcels on the other side of San Jose near Colonial. I’m guessing these lots will be turned into “planned developments” in the near future.
Still, Jodi concluded in her op-ed, “we converts to the General Plan agree that it works, but only if planning does the job we taxpayers pay it to do.”
I caught the tail end of the May 25 City Council debate. The public comment period had ended. Assemi, Granville Vice President Jeff Roberts and Jodi each got one last chance to speak at the public microphone.
One thing grated on me. That was the commentary from several council members. They echoed a point made earlier by Assemi: The general plan allowed Assemi to build “by right” (without any public input or City Hall restraint) a project on the Colonial/San Jose site that would have been far more upsetting to my neighbors.
In other words, council members lectured, the neighbors were darn lucky Darius Assemi is a nice guy and voluntarily modified his project.
To my neighbors’ great credit, they sat quietly in the audience and endured this patronizing rebuke with grace. I thought to myself: Maybe the general plan needs major revisions if developers can build unwise, neighbor-defying projects “by right.”