City Hall's General Plan rhetoric finally collides with reality

As the City Council readies debate on a slew of housing issues, here’s what the General Plan delivered beyond high-minded rhetoric.


A riot is slated for the Fresno City Council chamber today – an absolute riot of housing theory.


But on Tuesday I saw what all this egghead stuff looks like when it collides with real live human beings.

No wonder government must rely on coercion to get its way.

Let’s begin with Tuesday.

About 70 people who live to the immediate north and northeast of Fig Garden Village gathered at dinnertime in the Bullard High School cafeteria for a community meeting.

The sole issue on the agenda: Granville Homes’ plans to build an 18-unit housing project on a one-acre site in the neighborhood.

Granville earlier this month had mailed notices to several hundred nearby residents. Most live on San Madele, San Ramon and San Jose avenues, between Palm Avenue on the west and Maroa Avenue on the east.

My wife and I live within those boundaries. We were among those to get a written invitation to the meeting.

Granville Vice President Jeff Roberts hosted the get-together. Granville President Darius Assemi sat to one side. A half-dozen other Granville officials were there. So, too, were trays of snacks.

Granville knows how to do the full court PR press.

Here are the project’s particulars:

  • The site is at the corner of San Jose and Colonial Avenue.
  • There will be nine two-story duplexes – 18 units.
  • Three bedrooms, two baths, two-car garage – about 1,450 square feet per unit.
  • All 18 units are rentals; monthly rent figures to be $1,500 or a bit higher.
  • Visitor parking is on the street.
  • Access is via driveways from Colonial and San Jose.
  • Not a gated community.
  • Lots of City Hall red tape still to negotiate, so (best case scenario) the place opens for business in 2017.
  • The units may be turned into condos, but not for at least 10 years.

A wall screen showed an artist’s renderings of the duplexes. The pictures were impressive. Anyone familiar with Granville’s products, from townhouses in the Cultural Arts District to single-family houses throughout the city, knows the company consistently delivers quality.

“We think this project will fit (into the neighborhood) very well,” Roberts said.

Those of us who have lived in the neighborhood for any length of time have known for several years that something like Granville’s proposal was coming to this spot.

My wife and I have lived on San Ramon for 22 years. The site at Colonial/San Jose is a three-minute walk and a couple of right turns from our house. There used to be a house on the site. Tall trees in the backyard were popular with owls.

The owners lived full lives, and died. The heirs sold.

The house wasn’t new. It clearly was built in the mid-20th century or earlier, when the area was largely rural. Slowly but inevitably, many of these rural-residential relics are yielding to modern demands.

Mary and I get it. So do our friends in the neighborhood.

But Assemi and Roberts got some pushback from us on Tuesday. I won’t bore you with all the concerns. A quick summary is sufficient.

For example, there’s a gated community of condos on the east edge of the Granville site. Condo owners wanted to know if occupants of the duplexes along their fence line would be able to look out back windows into their backyards.

I asked why Granville decided not to make it a gated community. There are several apartment complexes nearby that aren’t gated. That didn’t seem much of a problem 20 years ago. But a lot has changed in Fresno, and our neighborhood has the same crime (mostly theft of various types) and vagrancy problems that plague just about every other Fresno neighborhood. My neighborhood’s ungated apartment complexes periodically suffer waves of burglaries. Ungated residential projects seem to attract burglars. A strong Neighborhood Watch program can do only so much.

(Assemi seemed genuinely surprised about our neighborhood crime problem. He also didn’t seem to understand why I would suggest gates as a neighborhood safety measure. I reminded him that all of his projects in the Cultural Arts District are gated. He dismissed that as comparing apples to oranges. On Wednesday evening I took a walk through the charming neighborhood of vintage apartment complexes along Wishon and Roosevelt avenues, east of Fig Garden Village’s Whole Foods market and only about 75 yards (as the crow flies) south of Granville’s project site. Almost all of those complexes have secure gates guarding entrances to their parking and common areas. Perhaps Darius and Jeff didn’t have time before the Bullard meeting to drive the neighborhood streets.)

Roberts and Assemi were peppered with blunt (but respectful) questions for a good hour. The Granville folks promised to go back to the drawing board and return in due course for another neighborhood meeting.

For me, the meeting revealed two key points:

1.) Over the years I’ve seen lots of similar debates in the City Council chamber concerning proposed housing projects. Your mind is greatly focused when the proposal is in your neighborhood.

2.) Mayor Ashley Swearengin talks a lot about how City Hall’s primary responsibility is land-use policy. I realized on Tuesday that land-use policy at the personal level is also a fundamental responsibility for people like my neighbors. They are busy folks. On Tuesday they found themselves in the Bullard cafeteria trying (on the fly) to make sense the intersection of Granville business strategy, City Hall land-use policy, City Hall politics and their own personal (and legitimate) interests. It was hard enough for me, and I’ve been covering City Hall for years. Some of my neighbors, for whom I have the highest regard, had that thousand-yard stare.

Not fair.

By my estimate, the day is just around the corner when 70 people will live on that one-acre plot at Colonial/San Jose instead of the two people who lived there in 1994 when Mary and George Hostetter moved into the neighborhood.

I call it “generalplanism.” That’s my term for the still-evolving ideology that Swearengin has instituted deep into City Hall policy. My neighbors on Tuesday thought Granville Homes was the source of their concern. They didn’t realize that Granville is just a symptom. Their concern should be with generalplanism.

Thursday’s City Council meeting will be one long seminar on generalplanism. Swearengin is the local energy for the ideology, but its true power comes from the feds, Sacramento, influential community activists and the vast, unaccountable administrative state.

The council will conduct a workshop on the “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice” report. This report is tied to the feds’ Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. This rule enjoys the full power of the federal government. Its purpose is to ensure that every neighborhood has the proper mix of human beings and housing densities.

The council will conduct a workshop on the city Housing Division’s quarterly report. What is the Housing Division’s reason for existence? See the paragraph above.

The council will take action on the city’s 2016-2017 annual Action Plan. The Action Plan is another of the government’s vehicles to ensure that every neighborhood has the proper mix of human beings and housing densities.

The council will vote on a proposal to give the Code Enforcement Division more authority to levy big fines against landlords who don’t take good care of their residential rental units. Landlords – all of them are already stigmatized in City Hall’s eyes as “slumlords” – are the cause of social dysfunction wherever it occurs in Fresno.

The council will decide whether to adopt the Housing Element. This plan is designed to do what the 2035 General Plan, the Development Code, the Action Plan, the Housing Division, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule and the Code Enforcement Division are also designed to do: Give government the power and the mandate to make sure there’s the proper mix of human beings and housing densities in every neighborhood.

There was going to be one fly in the ointment. Council Member Steve Brandau was going to propose an amendment to the 2035 General Plan. The amendment would have loosened to a small degree government’s control over the voluntary sale of farmland by farmers to developers. Brandau told me he pulled the item from the agenda, and will bring it to the council this summer.

The council on Thursday has a stunning amount of housing theory – generalplanism – to get through. I wish them well.

I’m not complaining about any aspect of generalplanism. In this regard, I’m one with George Orwell’s Winston Smith: Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

But I’m sure my neighbors would love to know how all of Thursday’s generalplanism dovetails with Granville’s plans to put 70 people on an acre in the middle of their neighborhood.

Please – give it to them in 25 words or less.

  1. When talking in an empty house, no one listens but, what becomes of the spoken words? At every public meeting I’ve ever attended, a panel appears and does the speaking, it is the way of government bureaucracy. These meetings are filled with empty rhetoric and no one can hear. There is a particular sentence of your article that is problematic in this bureaucratic process: “Give government the power and the mandate to make sure there’s the proper mix of human beings and housing densities in every neighborhood.”

    The government bureaucrats gave themselves power and authority to do what they decide. Their opinions are self-imposed by the people they select to listen to. The people they choose to listen to and speak at the public meetings are politically engaged to sooth the ears of the incompetent with compliments and fill campaign coffers.

    The misconception is that land-use and urban growth design has nothing to do with politics. To clarify: land-use is a separate issue and politics should not be involved in urban design. When politics designs urban growth land-use design becomes dysfunctional; politicians are not land-use designers. Politicians profit from land-use design. When politician get involved, the government mandate rules and regulations regarding housing densities.

    The number one rule to land-use: land-use design is not zoning.

    To comment here is a personal struggle to refrain from writing a few pages on this topic. My highest regards to your very thoughtful writings.

  2. So Granville bought that San Jose project from the original developer. I recall reviewing the entitlement package for the original proposal. If I remember correctly, that house and one of the apartment complexes were to be torn down to make way for an office tower in the Figarden Financial complex. The economy crashed and this project never moved forward. Granville has been buying other people’s crash and burns around the area. This is one of ’em.

  3. No, Dan. The project to which you are referring was an expansion of the Fig Garden Financial Center into a mixed use situation by Gunner/Andros. The economy did crash, but that wasn’t the reason the project was stopped. A neighborhood coalition and and Environmental Impact Report that determined the neighborhood couldn’t support that kind of vehicle traffic is what ended it in that form. (I believe G&A plans to complete the office tower portion and have put the condemned apartments and neighboring open parcel up for sale). Although Mr. Hostetter travels mostly by foot, he can probably attest to the traffic pile-ups that occur between 3 and 6 p.m. when the residents of the existing low-density neighborhood attempt to safely exit onto Palm or Maroa Avenues. I wonder if Granville will need a new EIR under the 2035 General Plan.

  4. Granville is proposing 18 3BD/2BA apartments in a two-story, developer style-Mediterranean duplex layout, with a six-foot setback from the neighboring condominium community. The existing neighborhood consists of gracious, well-preserved one-story ranch-style and mid-century homes, some architect-designed, with 35-foot front setbacks. I’m all for multi-family. I’m all for increased density. But 18 TIMES the density? In a non-complimentary architecture, in this character of neighborhood? This IS generalplanism; the taking of a good idea (infill/increased density) and Fresno-izing it by provincial, profits-above-all-else developers. (Does anyone read Inc. or Fast Company around here? Purpose-driven business is the new paradigm, everywhere else but Fresno). Granville paid $250,000 for the property. The point I raised at the meeting (not too graciously I’m afraid), is that I’m pretty sure an outfit as efficient as Granville could make a one-story development pencil just fine. In my job, I’m currently pricing such projects. Also, there is a neighboring 16-unit condo project by developer Dave Wasemiller and a four-unit by Jeff Christianson that are one-story and fit beautifully in the neighborhood. We know both of these gentlemen, and they made plenty of money on their projects. I was told a one-story project wasn’t in Granville’s marketing plan. Yet it’s clear from their lack of knowledge of the neighborhood crime and traffic issues, as Mr. Hostetter pointed out, they didn’t spend much (if any) time researching or getting to know the neighborhood. The day after the meeting I spoke to three appraisers, all of whom estimated the loss of value to the neighboring condos to be $50-100,000 (and all the homes in the neighborhood, thusly). This is a middle-class/upper-middling-class neighborhood of mostly retirees. The Assemi family’s net worth is vast and contains almond ranches and huge real estate holdings. For my neighbors, the bulk of their net worth is in their homes. I don’t think it’s fair, or plain decent, for a wealthy development conglomerate to come in and slice a quarter to a third of these ordinary folks’ estates in order to maximize their profits on a project that can turn a decent dime in a different form.

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