Is Fresno protecting history or caving to developers?

Nine Fresno neighborhoods will be researched for possible historic district designation.

Development politics at Fresno City Hall is really getting zany.

My proof: The Historic Preservation Commission’s about-face on historic districts.


The Commission last month gave city staff the green light to explore whether nine distinctive Fresno neighborhoods merit the designation of official “historic district.”

Such a designation is one of those glass-half-full/glass-half-empty dilemmas. Some see the branding opportunities and economic incentives that can go with a historic district as a spur to stylish revitalization. Others see a historic district’s development rules as a threat to the timely modernization of aging commercial and residential areas.

The commissioners on March 26 told Assistant Planning Director Dan Zack and Historic Preservation Specialist Laura Van Onna to study the pros and cons of these potential historic districts:

1.) South Van Ness Industrial Area.

2.) Yosemite Avenue Neighborhood.

3.) Hitching Post Thematic Area.

4.) Mid-Century Modern Shaw Avenue Area.

5.) Mid-Century Modern Blackstone Avenue Area.

6.) Chinatown.

7.) Terrance Gardens Neighborhood.

8.) St. John’s Cathedral Neighborhood.

9.) Cultural Arts District’s Warehouse Area.

“Preservation and infill are not mutually exclusive,” Zack told the commissioners. “If you identify the resources ahead of time, then you know where to focus development and where not. If you don’t get ahead of it, there could be clashes.”

As far as Commissioner Don Simmons was concerned, Zack was preaching to the choir. Simmons said too much of Fresno’s distinctive architecture has been lost to the developer’s wrecking ball precisely because City Hall and community leaders didn’t get ahead of destiny’s curve.

Simmons cited an example dear to old-timers such as myself.

“We learned so much about Cedar Lanes too late,” Simmons said. “It was demolished for what – a Walmart?”

The entire Commission on March 26 enthusiastically sent Zack and Van Onna on their journey into the archives. Yet, most of that same Commission at the February 26 meeting showed zero remorse in rejecting any possibility of turning Downtown’s L Street neighborhood into a historic district.

The L Street neighborhood is essentially bounded by Van Ness Avenue, Divisadero Street and Stanislaus Street. The neighborhood was familiar to Fresnans of the 19th century. Yes, time and progress have wrought many changes in the built environment. However, the neighborhood remains home to many revered buildings from Fresno’s past. The “Alamo” house and the Marjoree Mason Center are but two of them.

The L Street neighborhood also has been home to preservationist vs. developer conflict. Recall, if you will, late 2011 and early 2012 when Granville Homes wanted to build a townhouse project at the corner of L Street and San Joaquin Street. The problem: The site contained the Crichton and Sayre homes, deemed of historic value by preservationists.

Long story short: Granville, with City Hall’s blessing, demolished the homes just days after a citizens group filed a lawsuit trying to stop the destruction. Granville then built its project – Crichton Place.

Granville Homes has done many projects in the Cultural Arts District-L Street neighborhood. Two top Granville executives attended the Commission’s February meeting, but didn’t address the commissioners. One of them told me after the meeting that Granville plans to do more projects in the L Street neighborhood.

Unfortunately, Van Onna wrote in her February report to the commission, the L Street neighborhood has lost too much of its historic “integrity” to justify the legal stature and protection of a “historic district” designation.

A majority of commissioners in February voted against recommending “historic district” status for the L Street neighborhood. Only Simmons voted no. He gave no reason.

What happened between the February and March meetings to produce what appears to be a dramatic change in the Commission’s attitude toward historic districts? No one at the March meeting provided any hints. It was clear from the agenda that staff – Zack, Van Onna, the administration of Mayor Lee Brand – initiated the discussion by asking for Commission direction on the future of historic districts in Fresno.

The Commission’s direction was simple: Full speed ahead.

Fresno currently has four historic districts – Chandler Field/Fresno Municipal Airport; Huntington Boulevard; The Porter Tract; The Wilson Island. If I heard correctly at the March meeting, Old Armenian Town is proposed to be the fifth.

A more relevant question is this: Is the Brand Administration serious about adding more historic districts, or is the Zack-Van Onna research expedition just a public relations ploy in the wake of the L Street vote?

The Historic Preservation Commission is scheduled to meet on Monday. Perhaps Fresnans will get an update on what’s really going on.

1 comment
  1. George-thank you for this! I voted against the HPC motion concurring with the new preservation officer’s decision because I thought it was an ill-conceived, poorly informed and wrong conclusion that the L. Street district did not have distinct boundaries, that much of it had lost it’s integrity and that it did not conform to a “standard district.” I thoroughly disagree-but, as you observed, I am in the minority. I know that this decision will now allow the demolition of the remainder of any authentic historic remnants of the L. Street district-my neighborhood. The demolition of the San Joaquin house (now to be given a green light since there is no district) will further erode the historic character of the neighborhood-bordered by the historic Helm Home (aka, The Alamo House) and the Einstein House (now the MMC). It’s more of the same developer-driven decision making by city staff and council. As you say, let’s wait and see if any other historic districts actually make the cut-with the current process in place, I am not hopeful.

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