Van Ness housing development puts daylight between general plan, reality

Infill development is coming to what might be the snazziest stretch of residential real estate in Fresno.


Infill development is coming to what might be the snazziest stretch of residential real estate in Fresno.


Looks like the Planning Commission will have another opportunity to opine on the uneasy marriage between the 2035 general plan and equality.

The commissioners on Wednesday will debate an application to annex to the city a vacant lot of about four acres on the southeast corner of Van Ness Boulevard and Bullard Avenue.

A developer – Butler Construction – wants to essentially cut the lot in half.

The eastern portion would be turned into a planned development of four single-family houses. The smallest of the four lots would be 21,227 square feet, or roughly a half-acre. This project apparently would proceed with dispatch once all of the regulatory hurdles have been cleared.

The City Hall staff report leaves unclear the future of the lot’s western portion, a bit more than two acres in size. City officials told me the developer might someday build one house here. This portion of the lot fronts onto Van Ness.

The report states that “it is staff’s opinion that the proposed project is consistent with respective general and community plan objectives and policies and will not conflict with any applicable land use plan, policy or regulation of the City of Fresno.”

No neighbors have complained, city officials said.

I find this to be a most interesting project. It appears that a “sense of place” is the overriding concern of everyone when it comes to the design and regulation of the project. The project must fit into the overall pattern of a neighborhood that has evolved organically over many decades or the project is dead.

But why isn’t densification, not a definition of neighborhood unity that has perhaps outlived its usefulness, the overriding concern of City Hall? You know what I mean by densification – more and more people living in tighter and tighter quarters. After all, a strong case can be made that the 2035 general plan loses its value and its moral authority if putting the maximum number of residential units on every infill acre throughout the city isn’t Priority No. 1.

Then, again, we’re talking about a remarkable two-mile stretch of Van Ness. Maybe that has something to do with City Hall’s cautious stance on land-use policy in this particular case.

Van Ness between Shaw Avenue and Herndon Avenue is to Fresno what Boardwalk and Park Place are to the game of Monopoly. Even more than Old Fig Garden, it’s where Old Wealth lives.

Near as I can tell from my brief Internet research, the hoi polloi on this stretch live in half-million-dollar homes on lots of a half-acre or more in size. The upper price range for Van Ness mansions between Shaw and Herndon? It’s got to be $1 million-plus. I remember the afternoon about 15 years ago when a Bee editor sent me to the site of a huge house on Van Ness a bit north of Bullard. The owner was ripping down what appeared to be a perfectly serviceable palace because he wanted to build something even more opulent. To the ink-stained wretches at The Bee, that was big news.

There are businesses on the north side of Shaw at Van Ness. Otherwise, the two miles of Van Ness between Shaw and Herndon are full of big, beautiful houses on big, beautiful lots.

Well, almost full. There are empty lots here and there. The four-acre lot at Bullard and Van Ness is halfway between Shaw and Herndon.

Some of the houses along this two-mile stretch of Van Ness are in the city. Most of the houses are in the county.

(To be precise, the matter before the Planning Commission includes a handful of regulatory requests, such as a conditional use permit application and a rezone application, in addition to the annexation request. The total amount of property in the annexation request is 5.07 acres. This includes a vacant lot of about two-thirds of an acre on Bullard across the street from Butler Construction project. This smaller lot belongs to a different owner and is not part of the Butler Construction project.)

The bottom line, as the staff report makes clear, is that Butler Construction is not asking for anything outlandish. The Van Ness area is zoned for big houses on big lots. That’s what Butler Construction intends to build. (If I read the staff report correctly, homeowners would access the new four-unit project from a side street to be constructed that would connect to Bullard. Based on my walk past the site on Saturday, the remaining portion of the four-acre lot would be accessed from Van Ness.)

“Upon consideration of this evaluation,” the staff report states, “it can be concluded that the subject applications are appropriate for the project site.”

The owners of private property doing what they want (within the law) with their property – can’t beat that in America.

But the commissioners on Wednesday also have an opportunity to bring some clarity to what City Hall means when it talks about “complete neighborhoods.”

City Hall land-use policy since January 2009 (when Ashley Swearengin was sworn in as mayor) has, in theory, been focused on breaking up Fresno’s high concentrations of poverty. Fresno is infamous throughout America for both the scale of its impoverished neighborhoods and the concentration of poverty within them. In a different era, we would be talking about ghettoes.

Swearengin, new Mayor Lee Brand and the City Council promise that the 2035 general plan and a new development code will eventually end this tragedy.

The general plan and the development code run to hundreds of pages. It’s sufficient for this piece to note the general plan’s Goal No. 8: “Develop Complete Neighborhoods and districts with an efficient and diverse mix of residential densities, building types, and affordability which are designed to be healthy, attractive, and centered by schools, parks, and public and commercial services to provide a sense of place and that provide as many services as possible within walking distance. Intentionally plan for Complete Neighborhoods as an outcome and not a collection of subdivisions which do not result in Complete Neighborhoods.”

And we haven’t even touched on the federal government’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (part of the huge regulatory edifice that is the Fair Housing Act) and City Hall’s own 2016 Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice.

All this civil rights law and egalitarian housing policy is integral to the Planning Commission’s charge.

At this point, it’s unclear to me how City Hall in good conscience could insist that infill development policy be the spearhead to densification and the expansion of affordable housing opportunities in some established Fresno neighborhoods but not in others.

I’m guessing Fresno Housing Authority Chief Executive Preston Prince would love to build a couple of his superb projects on the empty lots of Van Ness between Shaw and Herndon. I’m guessing the Housing Authority’s clients would be well served by living in the “high opportunity” area that is Van Ness between Shaw and Herndon. I’m guessing Fresno’s reputation for housing equality and justice could only be enhanced by effective City Hall policy that ensures that the next residential infill project on Van Ness between Shaw and Herndon is something of the Preston Prince ilk.

On Wednesday, the integrity of the 2035 general plan is in the planning commissioners’ hands.

Photo: AVD Mansion

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