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Rushing to make Fig Garden the lab for Fresno's general plan could wreak havoc

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Fresno’s much-ballyhooed 2035 general plan is about to get its first big test.

City Hall, near as I can tell, isn’t ready.

I’m talking about the Fig Garden Village area in northwest Fresno and its prospects for the kind of socially enlightened development demanded by the city’s new growth blueprint.

Full disclosure: My wife and I have lived in the neighborhood for 23 years.

Let’s start at the beginning.

There is a vacant lot on the corner of Colonial and San Jose avenues. It’s a bit over an acre in size. There used to be a house on the lot. A couple (elderly when I moved into the area) used to live there. One thing led to another, and the couple was gone.

Granville Homes bought the property, cleared the site and went through all the paperwork needed to build an apartment complex there.

Granville Homes is owned by the Assemi family. Granville President Darius Assemi knows how to get things done.

The project has been several years in the making and gone through various changes. Assemi’s plan now is to build 13 units. There would be six buildings with two apartments each and one building with one apartment. It’s my understanding that most, if not all, of the buildings would be two-stories – townhouses.

The proposed project goes before the Planning Commission at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 15 at City Hall. Among other things, the project needs a rezoning, from “residential single family/medium density” to “residential single family/medium density/planned development.”

I asked a planning department official on Thursday to explain the significance of “planned development” in zoning code. If I understood him correctly, it means the project’s specs aren’t precisely in line with the current zoning requirements, but they’re darn close.

I have wonderful neighbors. Many have serious concerns with the project. Nearly 100 neighborhood residents signed a petition for City Hall consumption memorializing their worries. Some neighbors told me they plan to voice their concerns to the commissioners on Wednesday.

Their fear is that the Assemi project will permanently change the nature of this neighborhood. The neighbors have asked Assemi to make the units owner-occupied rather than rentals. Near as I can tell, Assemi said no.

I reviewed the project file at City Hall on Thursday morning. My neighbors in their letters to planning department officials were professional and passionate.

Joan Jacobs Levie, a neighbor to my east, wrote a letter to that sums up many of the issues.

“The neighborhood is upset about the proposal primarily due to traffic and privacy concerns,” Levie wrote. “I am troubled by the level of traffic and safety on San Ramon between Palm and Maroa Avenues where people walk and ride bikes. In fact, after the Fig Garden Financial Center was constructed, causing traffic to increase, my son, a Gibson (Elementary School) student at the time, was struck by a speeding motorcycle at our corner while riding his bike home from school.

“Since then, two complexes were built on San Jose, adding to the traffic. There is no traffic signal at Palm and San Ramon or at Maroa and San Jose. Vehicles can and do travel from Palm to Del Mar Avenues to avoid traffic lights. Additional density in this quiet residential neighborhood would require additional traffic lights. There are existing lights on Palm at Shaw, San Jose, Barstow, Browning and Bullard. A light at San Ramon will be required, as well. The air is bad enough in Fresno without increased stop-and-go traffic making it worse.

“I am not opposed to infill development at this location. To the contrary, it makes sense when done right without harming neighbors. If done properly with the right aesthetics and respect for neighbors it would be a welcome addition. To that end, the development should consist of no more than 12 single-story, owner-occupied residences in keeping with the surrounding area.”

Jodi Fitzpatrick and her husband, Mark, live just a few houses from me. They are experienced and successful developers. They recently bought and modernized a house on one of the bigger lots in the neighborhood. They did a superb job of turning a drab property into something stylish.

Fitzpatrick wrote a long letter opposing the project as designed. She went into considerable technical detail. Here is a taste of her analysis.

“There is a great contrast in standards and behavior between this proposed project and its developer and the project and development to its immediate east,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “The Sevilles, a 16-unit condominium project on two acres was completed in 2003 by Valley Pacific Builders. It’s a model of sensitive and integrated infill building. At the time, city planning required Valley Pacific Builders to keep the two deodar cedars in front of their property. They went to the expense of designing and building a sidewalk that winds among the trees, making for a very attractive frontage for the neighborhood to enjoy. The project was so profitable for this developer that it built a second one a few miles away.

“The proposed project fails in every way to support the vision of the General Plan of a vibrant, architecturally-sophisticated metropolis that Fresno has said it wants, and has spent a huge amount of resources in preparing for. Hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were spent on the General Plan document, as well as thousands of staff hours. If city planning, the Planning Commission and the City Council support this poorly-designed project, and others like it, they are squandering those funds.”

Shannon Christensen, another neighbor to my east, also wrote a compelling letter, but from a different angle.

“My late husband bought our property in 1987,” Christensen wrote. “We loved the street (and) the park-like setting along San Ramon to Colonial.

“We loved the quiet and built 3 homes and a duplex, which his parents owned one. We owned two and rented the duplex.

“He grew up in Old Fig and we always wanted to stay, so we chose this neighborhood for safety (and) quiet relaxing days.

“The most rewarding gift is the walkers, some with dogs – everyone stopping and connecting. We drive by, wave, stop, chat and enjoy our piece of heaven. There is even a mother who walks her children to school. Who does that anymore?

“You want to build an apartment building with all the extra traffic and visiting traffic of friends and family. What would these streets look like?

“No more quiet walks. The neighborhood would change. I hope you’ve noticed that not one car parks on the streets.

“Please think, really think, about us as people who love our neighborhood.”

Conflicts between developers and neighbors are as old as Fresno. But there are things at play here that makes this one different.

The first difference is the 2035 general plan. It’s about a year old. Then-Mayor Ashley Swearengin made the drafting and approval of a new growth blueprint the main goal of her administration.

There are two key themes to the general plan. The first is the end of sprawl. The second is revitalizing inner-city Fresno, which is defined as most of the city’s 110-plus square miles.

How to pull off the second theme? Infill development is the answer. It’s up to Mayor Lee Brand to support infill development with the same enthusiasm as his predecessor.

Brand is doing so.

Paired with infill development is high density housing.

The general plan’s idea is that high-density infill development, combined with all sorts of nuanced but powerful social engineering policies, will eventually eliminate one of Fresno’s major problems – stunningly high concentrations of extreme poverty.

On one hand, the poor will find new places to live in town. On the other hand, the opportunities the disadvantaged find in their new neighborhoods will allow them to rise via their own efforts to high levels of prosperity and personal satisfaction.

Fresno as a whole will be a much stronger city. Justice, too, will be served.

I’m focusing here on the 2035 general plan. Swearengin in her eight years in office delivered all sorts of plans designed to complement the general plan. For the sake of this discussion, allow me to quote from one chapter (they’re called “elements” in planning jargon) in the general plan.

It’s Element No. 10 – “Healthy Communities.”

“The Healthy Communities Element presents a broad and comprehensive initiative to improve community health,” begins the introduction. “The concept of a ‘healthy community’ also includes household income, addressed in the Economic Development and Fiscal Sustainability Element, and environmental health issues, such as air quality, addressed in the Resource Conservation and Resilience Element. This element focuses specifically on subjects not fully discussed in other elements, in particular the relationships between the built, natural, and social environments and community health and wellness outcomes, such as death, chronic disease, and the effects of drug abuse and crime. Many community partners will help the City achieve improvements in individual, family, and community health, and their roles are explained at the end of this element.”

The element identifies the “basic needs” of all Fresnans. They are:

  • Affordable, accessible and nutritious foods and safe drinking water.
  • Affordable, accessible, high quality health care.
  • Affordable, safe, integrated, and location efficient housing.
  • Safe, sustainable, accessible and affordable transportation options.
  • Safe, clean environment.
  • Access to quality schools.
  • Access to affordable, safe opportunities and spaces for physical exercise and fun activities.
  • Safe communities, free of crime and violence.

The element notes that all Fresnans deserve access “to opportunities to thrive regardless of income, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, identity, creed or disability.”

The element leaves no doubt that, for reasons too many to tackle in a single book-length general plan, tens of thousands of Fresnans don’t have access to these basic needs. But many Fresnans in strong, stable neighborhoods are blessed in this regard.

“According to the American Community Survey, 27.5 percent of individuals in the city were living in poverty, significantly higher than the state average of 15.3 percent,” the element states. “Thirty-eight percent of related children under 18 were below the poverty level.”

A study in 2006 by the Brookings Institution, the element states, “listed Fresno as the largest city in the United States with the most concentrated poverty, meaning the degree to which its poor are clustered in high-poverty neighborhoods. High poverty neighborhoods, generally defined as areas where more than 40 percent of people live below the poverty line, are in the central and southwestern part of the city including the Edison, Roosevelt and Lowell communities. Some areas within these communities had between 60 and 70 percent of people living below the poverty line in 2000. For example, the Lowell community, located in Downtown, has a population of nearly 14,000 with approximately 70 percent of individuals living below the poverty line of $15,219 (the federal poverty threshold for a three-person family in 2004) for a family of three in 2000. Neighborhood poverty increased dramatically on the south and west sides of Fresno between 1980 and 2000, and this disparity has not changed in the past decade. Many factors have contributed to this increase in poverty. Immigrants, for example, are more likely to be poor than native-born residents. Growth patterns have also exacerbated the concentration of poverty. Housing in the northern part of the city caters to upper income families, while affordable housing investment has occurred in more distressed neighborhoods….The concentrations of poverty in the central, western, and southern portions of Fresno suggest several opportunities for the City, such as targeting the development of jobs that pay a living wage in and near these neighborhoods, and dispersing low-income households to more mixed income neighborhoods.

(My emphasis, not the general plan’s.)

Before I go any further, let me state my opinion on the Assemi project. I’d like the lot at the corner of Colonial and San Jose to remain just as it is – dirt and weeds. I lived in my early years on a five-acre chicken ranch halfway between Lindsay and Tonyville. I like dirt and weeds – they’re quiet.

But the status quo is doomed in my current neighborhood. And judging by the 2035 general plan’s journey – thoroughly vetted by Fresnans over the course of four years, approved on a 5-2 vote of the City Council, signed by the Mayor, now part of the city’s legal framework – I would be less than a good citizen if I didn’t bury my doubts and submit to the people’s will.

We’ve already explored one reason why my neighborhood’s status quo is doomed – the general plan demands it. My neighborhood has too many empty lots. The lots for many of the single-family homes are well over 10,000 square feet each. The homes in my neighborhood’s higher-density complexes are single-story. City Hall can’t have any of that.

Another reason is Fig Garden Village and Fig Garden Financial Center, which anchor the neighborhood. Those two sites, along with good neighborhood schools and the housing stock’s high quality, make the area a “high opportunity” area (to use another piece of planning jargon). There aren’t a lot of high opportunity areas in Fresno. If there were, most of the city wouldn’t need revitalizing. The Fig Garden Village area has to be a focal point for City Hall’s “dispersal” policies or the 2035 general plan is a lie.

Finally, there is Darius Assemi. Soon after I left The Bee in October 2015, we met at Fig Garden Village to discuss my future employment options. Nothing came of it. But, it’s fair to say we get along. (It’s also fair to say reporters don’t eat if they don’t nurture their sources.)

As I said at the beginning of this piece, Assemi gets things done. And if you’ve been paying attention to the excellent work of Bee reporter Pablo Lopez, you know that Assemi and partners are trying to buy Fig Garden Financial Center from Richard Gunner and George Andros.

There’s more to the site than just the three big office buildings. The Gunner-Andros property includes about five acres to the east of the center. This property is on San Jose Avenue, across the street from the proposed 13-unit Assemi project that goes to the planning commission next week.

The five-acre site contains one house, a big vacant lot and an old, empty apartment complex. The site, located as it is next to the “high opportunity” area of Fig Garden Village and Fig Garden Financial Center, is perfect for the kind of egalitarian development mandated by the 2035 general plan.

Assemi and Granville Homes have a great deal of experience in the development of housing that fits the general plan’s egalitarian edicts. All you have to do is take a look at the Cultural Arts District.

I called Granville President Jeff Roberts on Thursday. Is Granville preparing plans for a big project on the south side of San Jose to complement the small project on the north side of San Jose?

“Honestly, it’s too early to talk about it,” Roberts said. “If the sale goes through, I’m sure they’ll be looking into it.”

I won’t speak to the planning commission on Thursday. But if I did, I’d tell the commissioners what I told City Hall Communications Director Mark Standriff on Thursday.

You see, my neighborhood to the north and east of Fig Garden Village/Fig Garden Financial Center is a jurisdictional mess. When I walk my dog in the morning, I cross from county to city to county to city and back to county. The varying condition and width of the streets (San Ramon, Colonial, San Jose) reflect this chaos.

OK, I said to Standriff, the neighborhood will change. Public policy demands it. But far bigger change is coming to this neighborhood than just one small apartment complex. Where’s the combined city-county planning effort to make sure this first big high-profile test of the 2035 general plan isn’t another city-county disaster? Mayor Brand gives big speeches about how Supervisors Buddy Mendes and Brian Pacheco are his best buddies, and how City Hall and the Hall of Records will work together like never before. Based on the absence of such teamwork in my neighborhood, am I to assume the Mayor is full of hot air?

“I’ll get back to you,” Standriff said.

He didn’t.

I’ll wait.

My suggestion to the planning commissioners: Tell Darius Assemi and his Colonial/San Jose project to wait, as well.


Photo: Eric Paul Zamora/The Fresno Bee

George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

4 Comments

  1. I disagree on the waiting part. Fresno waits too much before doing anything. There are two story apartments in the area so I don’t see that another two story apartment building would be that much different. I do understand the neighbors not wanting their “piece of heaven” changed, but changes do come, and Fresno needs more housing options. Perhaps 13 units is too many and there could be a compromise made to build fewer.

  2. This same is happening in Sunnyside…social engineering or “Healthy Community” mandated by the 2035 plan. When an organized, passionate group of people appeared before the Planning Commission to protest, they were ‘schooled/scolded’ publicly by the commission for not wanting apartment dwellers/complexes. Not okay. Ever. Commissioners are appointed and are there to listen to concerns. Hope there will not be a repeat of this behavior at tomorrow’s meeting with the Fig Garden residents.

  3. Sunnysiders tuned in and watched as the Fig Garden residents appeared before the Planning Commission to express their concerns. Guess what? Residents of both of these established family neighborhoods had the same concerns regarding the wisdom of infill with regard to how it will affect the fabric and rhythm of their neighborhoods. Perhaps ‘infill’ is best situated in the severely blighted, crime infested areas of Fresno (as in tear down and rebuild) instead of increasing density with two story apartments in established healthy family neighborhoods where homes are single story. Drive down Olive, Belmont or Kingscanyon and look at the blight and squalid living conditions. The City needs to ‘revive’ those areas (perhaps some new ‘infill’) before experimenting with the healthy community concept in established family neighborhoods where people are concerned about how greater density will affect their life style and property value. Watch the Planning Commission Meeting where the Sunnyside property owners presented their concerns. Remember that Sunnyside is a hodgepodge of intermingled county and city parcels. The County and City need to come together to resolve issues regarding the impact of the General Plan on these unique parts of Fresno. Thank you for speaking to the commissioners George.

  4. George,

    I am your neighbor whose letter you quoted in the article about the proposed Assemi project of San jose and Colonial. I was unable to attend the planning commission meeting and have not seen or heard any follow-up on the outcome of the meeting. I would like to know what occurred at the meeting and what effect, if any, it will have for the neighborhood in the immediate and intermediate future. Please advise.

    Joan Jacobs Levie

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