Fresno City Council Member Lee Brand is ruining my walks.
I used to stroll through neighborhoods and do nothing more strenuous than enjoy the scenery. Then Brand, in the wake of a key 2035 general plan vote, got the council to create an Infill Development Subcommittee. Now I’m constantly on the look-out for infill parcels worthy of greatness.
I jest. Far from ruining my treks, the subcommittee’s charge inspires me to explore new neighborhoods with a new outlook.
I predict the subcommittee’s work will produce a memorable body of work. Whether that work is popular with some segments of the public remains to be seen.
I went for a walk on Monday, March 4 with the subcommittee, as usual, on my mind.
Let’s review what’s at play here.
I. PLAN UPDATE BEGINS
The city this year is required by law to update its growth blueprint. Everyone at City Hall is busy on the 2035 General Plan update. There is a theme to their labor. The council last April directed staff to deliver an update that stresses infill development and higher-density living.
That means city planning experts must deliver a law (probably two inches thick) guaranteeing nothing less than a total change in the house-buying and shopping behavior of hundreds of thousands of Fresnans. And these experts don’t get the help of a firing squad to make sure it happens. The change has to be voluntary.
Fresno now covers about 105 square miles. As public testimony at the April hearing made clear, many people think the city is a poster child for urban sprawl. They said justice — social, economic, racial, environmental — demands two things. First, sprawl must end. Second, the people who had been fleeing to the city’s outer ring must be convinced to move to the inner city.
Brand noted in April that about 2% of Fresno’s annual residential and commercial growth in recent decades has been infill development. The general plan update’s theme wants 45% of future growth to be infill.
How is that to happen? The council’s infill subcommittee — Brand as chairman along with Oliver Baines and Clint Olivier — is holding a series of meetings on this question. The subcommittee is getting plenty of help from Keith Bergthold (No. 2 in the Planning Department), Scott Mozier (No. 2 in the Public Works Department) and Doug Sloan (City Attorney’s Office).
The subcommittee has met a couple of times. Mike Prandini, head of the local Building Industry Association, is always there. So, too, is Granville Homes Vice President Jeff Roberts.
Here’s my guess: The subcommittee may send a report to the full City Council that says the 45% infill goal simply can’t be met.
If that happens, there’s sure to be an explosion of anger from many anti-sprawl, anti-developer folks. They see the council’s vote for an updated general plan mandating 22 times more infill development than Fresno normally gets as, all by itself, clearing the really big hurdle.
All that’s left is the simple job of making it happen, they think.
But Prandini at the first subcommittee meeting on Jan. 15 asked the tough question: How do you convince people to live where they don’t want to live?
There will be plenty of time in coming months to dig into the subcommittee’s challenges.
II. BERGTHOLD THE MAPMAKER
Bergthold at the Feb. 4 subcommittee meeting presented three maps of Fresno.
One explored “improvement to land valuation” ratios. You get this ratio for a parcel by dividing a building’s value by the land’s value.
Let’s say a piece of land has a shed. If the assessed value of the land is $10 and the assessed value of the shed is $5, then the improvement-to-land-value ratio is 0.5.
In other words, the land is worth twice as much as the shed.
Change the value of the land or the shed (i.e. improvements) and you change the ratio. A $10 piece of land with a $10 shed has a valuation ratio of 1.0. A $10 piece of land with a $15 shed has a valuation ratio of 1.5.
Bergthold said Fresno is expected to be home to 870,000 people by 2035 and 1 million by 2050. The 1 million would live in the city’s current sphere of influence — the 105 square miles of the current city and a fairly unincorporated large area on the outskirts that is already earmarked for future annexation.
Bergthold’s improvement-to-land-value map is full of green, brown and blue dots and squares.
The green markings indicate parcels with a valuation ratio of less than 0.5. The brown markings indicate parcels with a valuation ratio of 0.5 to 0.9. The blue markings indicate parcels with a valuation ratio of 1.0 to 1.5.
Areas of the city that aren’t green, brown or blue indicate valuation ratios higher than 1.5.
Why does this matter?
Well, one of the big reasons that Fresno grew so far to the northeast and northwest was cheap land. Or, to be more precise, low improvement-to-land-value ratios.
We know the story.
Prosperity came to many after World War II. More people had cars. Roads and freeways improved. People could drive farther and more cheaply and still get to work. New houses were built. They were nice houses. Demand for suburbs full of nice houses shot through the roof.
The question before John Doe the Developer was simple. Does he pay top dollar for 40 inner-city acres with three successful factories on it, rip down the factory buildings, then build his homes? Or does John Doe, after calculating improvement-to-land-value ratios of various parcels, opt to buy 40 acres of grapes at a time when the per-ton price of raisins was going south?
For 70 years in Fresno, it’s been bye-bye grapes.
“Historically, Fresno has accommodated much of its new growth by developing the cheaper, larger and undeveloped parcels on the fringe,” Bergthold wrote to the subcommittee. “However, much of the remaining land on the fringe of the city within the SOI (sphere of influence) is comprised of smaller and fragmented parcels in less desirable locations with limited access.
“These disincentives, coupled with immediate fiscal and infrastructure deficiencies, could signal a structural shift of our development community to a new focus toward the redevelopment of existing parcels within the city limits.”
In other words, the council with its April vote put the kabosh on leap-frog growth. There aren’t many (if any) 40-acre grape vineyards left in the sphere of influence. The fifth largest city in the richest state in the world’s richest nation remains a good place to live and make money. Developers still love money. Therefore, the Mother Lode of future development in Fresno is to be found in older neighborhoods full of properties full of worthless sheds.
Bergthold’s improvement-to-land-value ratio map tells us the location of all those sheds.
In Bergthold lingo, the map’s green markings (less than 0.5 valuation ratio) mean “very underutilized” parcels. The brown markings (0.5 to 0.9) mean “underutilized.” The blue markings (1.0 to 1.5) mean “good utilization.”
III. BERGTHOLD’S GOOD NEWS
For all you infill-development supporters, Bergthold has some encouraging news and some sobering news.
“Properties within these three categories (very underutilized, underutilized, good utilization) have the greatest potential for redevelopment within Fresno’s SOI,” Bergthold writes.
Bergthold then gives the subcommittee a sense of how much land we’re talking about.
He breaks it down by land-use classification: residential, commercial, industrial, other.
He breaks it down by whether the land is in the city or the unincorporated part of the sphere of influence.
He breaks it down by valuation ratios: very underutilized, underutilized, good utilization.
I’m guessing the subcommittee and staff will eventually chew on the significance of these numbers. For now, let me note that only 6,913 acres out of Fresno’s approximately 67,200 acres within the city limits fall into Bergthold’s green, brown or blue markings. That’s 10.3%. To a layman like me, that doesn’t seem like much raw material to work with when Fresno’s population is expected to double in the next 33 years and the infill growth goal is 45%.
That’s the good news in Bergthold’s report — there’s infill land ready to be redeveloped.
Then there’s the sobering news.
“In general, land values in Fresno are significantly lower relative to the value of their improvements,” Bergthold wrote. “With construction costs being relatively the same throughout the city, there is little advantage to develop on existing land within the urban core.
“This has undoubtedly influenced local development patterns and real estate market trends over the last few decades which have almost exclusively favored fringe development over infill or redevelopment.”
I take that to mean: Fresno may be chock full of modest housing and struggling strip malls. But, for the most part, those houses and apartments and storefronts retain enough market value to prevent would-be inner-city developers to take the risk of buying them, razing them and putting up something new.
IV. BERGTHOLD RAISES SOME QUESTIONS
That brings me to a second interesting point, thanks to Bergthold’s maps. The raw material that an inner-city developer has to work with is actually more than the 6,913 acres identified on the improvement-to-land-value ratio map.
Bergthold also gave the subcommittee a map showing the location within Fresno city limits of open farm land and vacant land. Green markings indicate the 2,714 acres of open farm land inside the city. Red markings indicate the 5,541 acres of empty lots inside the city.
Add it all up — less than ideally-utilized land, farm land, vacant lots — and you’ve got 15,168 acres within the city limits. That’s nearly 23% of Fresno. (We’re not including here the unincorporated land within Fresno’s sphere of influence.)
Then we come to three more questions: Where is all this land with modest improvement-to-land value ratios? Where is all this farm land and all these vacant lots? How big are the parcels?
It’s here that things appear to get even more complicated for the anti-sprawl, rebuild-the-inner city folks.
One of Bergthold’s maps shows farm land in green and vacant lots in red.
Almost all of the farm land within the city limits is on the edges of east Fresno, southeast Fresno, south Fresno, southwest Fresno and northwest Fresno (west of Highway 99).
The vacant lots are mostly in the same areas. There also are plenty of vacant lots at the far north tip of the city (up there by the Copper River development).
Bergthold’s map also shows a ton of tiny red dots in all parts of Fresno — the city looks like it has the measles. That means there are lots of tiny vacant lots deep in the heart of our city.
Bergthold’s other map — improvement-to-land-value ratios — shows a similar pattern. Most of the areas with very underutilized, underutilized and good utilization parcels are on the edges of city in east Fresno, southeast Fresno, south Fresno, southwest Fresno and northwest Fresno (west of Highway 99).
And, again, there are lots of tiny dots throughout the center of the city — only these dots are green, brown and blue (very underutilized, underutilized, good utilization).
Bergthold notes that there are 580 parcels of two acres or less within the city limits with an improvement-to-land value ratio of 0.5 or less. There are 685 parcels of 2.1 to 9.5 acres. There are 1,819 parcels of 9.51 acres or more.
Judging by my quick look at Bergthold’s improvement-to-land value map, almost all of the big stuff in on the city’s edges.
All of this suggests that Fresno may very well reach its 45% infill goal — if “infill” is described as anything built on farm land, vacant land or underutilized land within the city limits. In other words, as long as “infill” includes that vacant piece of land up by Copper River, some 20 miles from Edison High School.
But if “infill” is defined as building nice new homes and nice new shopping centers and nice new job-creating businesses in the true “inner city” that was passed by during the great leap to the north after World War II, then City Hall has a nearly impossible chore ahead of it. That 45% infill goal will mean turning all those tiny dots on Bergthold’s maps into something spiffy.
How that’s to be done in a country that still prizes rule of law and private property is the challenge facing Brand’s Infill Development Subcommittee.
V. INNER CITY LAND RUSH OR BUST
I can guarantee you this — the 50 or 60 people who spoke so passionately to the City Council last April about an infill-centric 2035 general plan update didn’t view successful “infill” as merely turning 20 acres of empty land on Shields Avenue four miles west of Highway 99 into 120 homes of 1,200 square feet each.
Brand, Baines and Olivier know this. Bergthold knows this. The administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin knows this. The 2035 general plan update, the Infill Development Subcommittee and Brand’s proposed Infill Development Act won’t be judged a success by history unless the next two decades lead to a substantial rebuilding of what anyone with common sense recognizes as inner Fresno.
Brand’s subcommittee is charged with finding the design and code policies that make it financially feasible for private-sector developers to build homes and retail sites in inner-city Fresno with a minimum of taxpayer subsidy.
But … why? Why do city leaders want to have a million or two million Fresnans a century from now living in a high-density inner-city?
I know the usual answer. Fringe growth is too expensive for City Hall. That’s the conventional wisdom. Maybe, maybe not. I’d be more willing to buy that notion if headquarters for the northwest police district weren’t on Hughes Avenue, south of Dakota Avenue. The northwest police district station resides in an inner-city neighborhood because many of the neighborhoods in far northwest Fresno don’t need all that much 24/7policing.
The real answer to why City Hall is trying to repopulate inner Fresno with the kind of people who had previously been moving farther and farther north came at last April’s council hearing on the 2035 general plan update.
High-density living by all Fresnans, regardless of background or income, is what government and America all about, audience members said. Such living is transformative, they said. Anything less is unjust, they said. Anything less is not to be tolerated by centralized political authority — the State, they said.
Sounds good to me. It sounded good to Fresno’s elected leaders, as well.
But I don’t understand how it’s all going to work. I love Keith Bergthold’s maps. I love those subcommittee meetings.
But I don’t see how all this data and theory will reform reality.
VI. BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
We’ve been down this path before. Fresno, I mean. Starting in the mid-1950s, all of Fresno got behind the idea of a government-mandated urban utopia. We gave it a heck of an effort for a full decade, if not longer.
I’m talking, of course, about Victor Gruen’s downtown revitalization plan.
“Pedestrian malls, multi story parking structures, landscaped and shaded plazas, play areas for children, sidewalk cafes, a complete new traffic pattern to get in and out of downtown Fresno — these are a few of the items in a comprehensive plan disclosed today for the revitalization of the downtown area,” The Bee reported in a Page 1 story on Feb. 1, 1960. “The heart of the plan is to keep automobiles out of the core area and make the pedestrian the king there.”
The public was to get its first good look at Gruen’s plan that night at the downtown library.
“Fresno Chief Administrative Officer Robert N. Klein said he is not aware of any plan for any other city which is as comprehensive and as broad in scope as are the proposals for Fresno,” The Bee reported. “There are many plans which have taken a few blocks of a downtown area for a shot in the arm treatment. The Fresno plan appears to be the first one which has taken the entire central area — nearly 2,000 acres of it — torn it apart and put it back together.”
We’re talking here about three square miles of Fresno’s heart at a time when the city’s population (130,000) was a quarter of its 2013 size. Except for Highway 99, Fresno had no freeway system in February 1960. But new freeways were already on the drawing board. The three square miles of Gruen’s plan encompassed what is now everything within the highway 180-41-99 triangle. Gruen’s plan in spots also went as far north as Belmont Avenue.
The essential premise of the Gruen plan was that “the dominance of the automobile in American life and its parking and traffic problems is running the shopper out of American’s downtowns,” The Bee reported on Feb. 1, 1960. The plan proposed to put the automobile in its proper place and bring the pedestrian shopper back to downtown.”
Downtown business would grow with revitalization, the Gruen Plan said. Downtown business would die without it, the plan said.
But the future wasn’t the main reason for tearing apart three square miles of downtown Fresno and putting it back together, the Gruen Plan said. The main reason was that downtown Fresno in February 1960 wasn’t a disaster. In fact, it was doing pretty good. But that was all the more reason to rebuild from the bottom up, the report said.
“Traditionally it has been the downtown areas which have had the greatest concentration of investment and yielded the highest tax returns,” The Bee reported. “But downtowns all over the nation now are up against the wall and constant head banging is not enough. The report notes that while Fresno is no exception to the downtown ailment which is spreading across the nation, it is unique among cities of its size. It is young enough to be facing its greatest growth and development rather than having passed it. It is far enough away from large cities that it will not be absorbed into a metropolitan ‘conglomeration’ and it is the heart of a rich and vigorous region.”
The Bee quoted directly from the Gruen report: “At present, the city, including the central area, is in better health than most cities of a similar size. Thus the opportunities for Fresno are exceptional and the time for action is now.”
VII. FRESNO COULDN’T STAND PROSPERITY
Let’s pause for a moment and see if I have correctly deciphered what’s going on. It’s February 1960. The big high school football game each year is Roosevelt vs. Fresno. Fulton Street between Tuolumne and Inyo is open to cars. Broadway between Tuolumne and Inyo is open to cars. There’s all sorts of retail action on those two streets. American is a free-market country. Competition is, as it has always been, the name of the game. Nobody in Fresno is afraid of competition. Things in downtown could be better. But, all in all, they’re pretty good.
Yes, I think I’ve correctly deciphered what’s going on in Fresno in February 1960.
Then Victor Gruen comes in and says to rip everything up and start from scratch because….
Because all those ships stopping in San Francisco would switch to Fresno? No.
Because the Dodgers would move from Los Angeles to Fresno? No.
Because the state capital would move from Sacramento to Fresno? No.
The Bee on Feb. 1, 1960 wrote 2,500 words on the Gruen Plan and could find only one reason why it was vital public policy to completely transform three square miles of downtown Fresno in one big orgy of revitalization: Downtown would get an estimated 6.1% of business in the entire Fresno trading area without the Gruen Plan; downtown would get 14% to 17% of business in the entire Fresno trading area with the Gruen Plan.
As Peggy Lee would sing a few years later, “is that all there is?” Yup. Downtown Fresno was to be bulldozed for eight percentage points of business in some vague, almost mythical thing called “the entire Fresno trading area.”
The Bee on Feb. 1, 1960 again quoted directly from the Gruen Plan: “The logic of the plan is the realization of maximum cultural and economic benefits for the entire city as well as for the many diverse public and private interests within the city. The one constant is the desired goal, namely a city which is beautiful, healthy, safe and prosperous and which will be a source of pride to all its citizens.”
The Gruen Plan may have been light on reasons why it was pivotal to Fresno’s future. But the plan was absolutely positive that all the pieces would somehow mesh together to create perfection.
There would be a freeway system among those pieces.
There would be a 65-acre super block bounded by Inyo, Van Ness, Tuolumne and Broadway/H Street.
There would be a 36-acre central business district “in which most of the structures in the project would be leveled and replaced with new ones,” The Bee reported.
There would be two main pedestrian malls — Fulton Mall and Mariposa Mall.
There would be four smaller pedestrian malls — Fresno Mall, Merced Mall, Tulare Mall and Kern Mall.
There would be a mini-bus system to help pedestrians navigate the Fulton and Mariposa malls.
There would be a new convention center (that, in 50 years, would be so broke it would need huge subsidies from the city’s already broke Parks Department).
There would be a new civic center to replace the civic center that was working just fine.
There would be room for retailers, industries, homeowners and apartment renters.
There would be three phases to the plan, the last fully in place by 1980.
There would be plenty of money to do everything, especially from the private sector.
There would be the political will at City Hall to make absolutely sure everything went according to plan.
There would be public acceptance.
The Bee reported on Feb. 1, 1960: “A citizens organization with the broadest possible base of representation should be formed to interpret the plan and its significance to the community. There should never be a final plan but rather a continuing process of planning, review and reevaluation. Almost every citizen of the community can make some contribution toward shaping the future city pattern.”
Finally, The Bee, summarizing the Gruen Report, explained how Fresno on Feb. 1, 1960 was caught between an unnamed rock and an imaginary hard place: “It would cost less to implement it (the Gruen Plan) than not to implement it because without it the central area will continue its steady deterioration.”
Well, we know how it all turned out. In essence, Brand’s Infill Development Subcommittee is trying to clean up the Gruen mess.
VIII. ELITES CAN’T STOMACH EQUALITY
But I’m still stumped.
Near as I can tell from The Bee’s archives, the Gruen Plan never suggested that the three square miles of central Fresno circa February 1960, if left unattended by highly-trained urban architects for the next 53 years, would become a ghost town. The place would continue to have lots of people living in and around it.
But they apparently wouldn’t be the “right” people. They apparently wouldn’t be people with the smarts and character to take full advantage of free public education and the opportunities of a capitalist system and their own ambitions. They apparently would be people capable of maintaining central Fresno as a “shinning city on a hill” all by themselves, regardless of how many neighbors moved to new subdivisions on Shields or Ashlan or Shaw or Herndon.
So, Victor Gruen, in the name of pure egalitarianism, came up with a plan that would use the unchallenged power of the State to make sure the “right” people remained working, shopping and living in central Fresno in sufficient numbers to offset the “deteriorating” effect that the “wrong” people would inevitably have on those three square miles if those “wrong” people continued living there.
That’s not my kind of egalitarianism. But I’m not a legal, certified, State-sanctioned urban architect as were Gruen and some of his Fresno supporters in 1960.
One thing is certain. Much of downtown and many neighborhoods in the much-expanded inner city as of March 2013 have problems on a scale unfathomable to Fresnans of Feb. 1, 1960. That was made clear by the extensive public testimony of April 2012 on the 2035 general plan update.
There’s a reason today’s Fresno is deemed “Appalachia of the West.” There’s a reason the federal government’s Strong Cities Strong Communities program pairs today’s Fresno with today’s Detroit.
And yet, as was the case 63 years ago, the inner-city neighborhoods of Fresno in 2013 have no shortage of people living in them. Why isn’t that human capital enough to transform the neighborhoods? Why is the Infill Development Act necessary in an egalitarian, democratic city like Fresno?
We’ve been asking similar questions about American cities for 200 years. Experts have been suggesting answers for just as long. Those possible answers should be part of Fresno’s 2035 general plan process.
IX. MAYBE FRESNO ISN’T A SINNER
Fresno in 2013 has an urban core with almost no retail action. If not for government offices, most people living on the city’s fringe would have no reason to go downtown.
The neighborhoods ringing the city’s heart are among the poorest in urban America. Social workers seeking a graduate degree flock to Fresno to study the city’s concentrated poverty. Joblessness is as concentrated as the poverty. The homeless are everywhere.
That’s just the first ring of neighborhoods around central Fresno. Nos. 2, 3 and 4 are scarcely any better.
On the edges of Fresno, things do get better. Homes are nicer. Schools are better. Violent crime is less common. (Police Chief Jerry Dyer recently unveiled a full-scale map identifying locations of Fresno’s 28 gangland murders in 2012. Twenty-five of the map’s dots were south of Shaw Avenue. Dyer had a separate map identifying locations of the 205 gangland shootings in 2012. The vast majority occurred south of Shaw.)
This is the nature of American cities, wrote Edward C. Banfield more than 40 years ago.
“Within the limits set by the logic of growth, the mix of class cultures more than anything else determines the city’s character and the nature of its problems,” Banfield wrote in “The Unheavenly City,” published in 1970. “Almost everything about the city — population density, per capita income, the nature and quality of housing, the crime rate, the dropout rate, the level of public services, the tenor of race relations, the style of politics — depends in some way and to some extent upon the class composition of the population. When this changes, either in a neighborhood or in the city as a whole, almost everything else changes accordingly. And except as they are compatible with the realities of class culture in the city, the most carefully contrived efforts of public and private policymakers cannot succeed, for the mix of class cultures is a constraint as real as those of income, technology, or climate. It is necessary, therefore, to form the best estimate one can of the direction that change in the class system will take.”
Banfield was a political scientist at, among other places, the University of Chicago. He died in 1999. His idea of class is complex. So, too, is his idea of normal growth in a big city.
But it’s sufficient here to make two quick points.
First — class. Race, religion, ethnic background — they’re irrelevant when determining a valuable definition of class, Banfield said. In essence, class is a matter of whether a person is present-oriented or future-oriented. A neighborhood with a critical mass of residents who live only for today is a lower-class neighborhood with huge problems. A neighborhood with a critical mass of residents capable of long-range planning for themselves and their families, and the discipline and smarts to fulfill those goals for the most part, is a dynamic middle or upper class neighborhood.
Second — a city’s cycle of growth. Banfield said there’s an inevitability to it.
“Much of what has happened — as well as what is happening — in the typical city or metropolitan area can be understood in terms of three imperatives,” Banfield wrote. “The first is demographic: if the population of a city increases, the city must expand in one direction or another — up, down, or from the center outward. The second is technological: if it is feasible to transport large numbers of people outward (by train, bus, and automobile) but not upward or downward (by elevator), the city must expand outward. The third is economic: if the distribution of wealth and income is such that some can afford new housing and the time and money to commute considerable distances to work while others cannot, the expanding periphery of the city must be occupied by the first group (the ‘well-off’) while the older, inner parts of the city, where most of the jobs are, must be occupied by the second group (the ‘not well-off’).”
Fresno in the 1960s was still a working city. It hadn’t become a city where a minority of the adult population worked while a majority of the adult population didn’t. Banfield’s three imperatives explain why Gruen’s plan fell apart even as it was being born.
X. CHARACTER ISN’T A DIRTY WORD
Ruth Evans, when she was with the Fresno Workforce Development Board’s governing body in the 1990s, came to The Bee one day to talk employment.
Give me an unemployed adult with a clean blood stream, Evans said. And no rap sheet. And a legitimate 8th grade education (i.e. knows who wrote “As You Like It”, the year the U.S. Constitution went into effect and the square root of 144). And has good public manners (i.e. punctuality, ambition, respect for others, ability to follow a superior’s orders).
I guarantee I can find that adult a full-time job, Evans said.
But, as Evans made clear, the pool of available jobs in the Fresno of 15 years ago was much bigger than the pool of applicants with the required virtues.
The same is true in today’s Fresno. Why? Character — or the lack of it in many people — is one big reason.
The 2035 general plan update’s infill development goals are doomed to failure if Fresno’s collective character doesn’t improve.
The late James Q. Wilson (political scientist at Harvard among other places) collected 14 of his essays and speeches in a book titled “On Character.” One of the book’s themes is the influence of citizen character on municipal policy.
“A central assumption of economics is that ‘tastes’ (which include what noneconomists would call values and beliefs, as well as interests) can be taken as given and are not problematic,” Wilson wrote. “All that is interesting in human behavior is how it changes in response to changes in the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action. All that is necessary in public policy is to arrange the incentives confronting voters, citizens, firms, bureaucrats, and politicians so that they will behave in a socially optimal way. An optimal policy involves an efficient allocation — one that purchases the greatest amount of some good for a given cost, or minimizes the cost of a given amount of some good.”
I know that’s a mouthful. But, please, read the paragraph again. It perfectly captures the philosophy behind Fresno’s Infill Development Subcommittee.
City Hall has been told by the public that the new general plan must thoroughly transform the landscape and culture of inner-city Fresno. The subcommittee is trying to find and codify business incentives that, by themselves, create The New Man.
Victor Gruen gave it a shot and failed. Now it’s the subcommittee’s turn.
Wilson in his essay (written in 1985) said there’s value to the notion that policy formulas can affect economic choice.
“This view so accords with common sense in countless aspects of ordinary life that, for many purposes, its value is beyond dispute,” Wilson wrote. “Moreover, enough political decisions are manifestly so inefficient or rely so excessively on issuing commands (instead of arranging incentives) that very little harm and much good can be done by urging public officials to ‘think economically’ about public policy.”
But something had happened to America in the 20 years between the birth of LBJ’s Great Society in 1965 and the mid-1980s when Wilson was writing. The entitlement or welfare society took off like a rocket. A huge dependent class, in many cases an underclass, emerged.
Public-policy incentives changed the amount of money in people’s pockets. But it destroyed people’s character. The result was the ruin of the quality of life in vast swaths of big cities.
Over the past two decades, Wilson wrote, “this nation has come face to face with problems that do not seem to respond, or respond enough, to changes in incentives. They do not respond, it seems, because the people whose behavior we wish to change do not have the rights tastes or discount the future too heavily. To put it plainly, they lack character.”
How does a city’s character improve, especially in those troubled parts of the inner city that are supposed to attract legions of pilgrims already blessed with the virtues that would easily land them a job found by the Workforce Development Board?
It’s a question the Infill Development Subcommittee must answer if it expects success.
“For most social problems that deeply trouble us,” Wilson wrote, “the need is to explore, carefully and experimentally, ways of strengthening the formation of character among the very young. In the long run, the public interest depends on private virtue.”
XI. DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO
Only a bunch of really smart people could do what that crowd last April demanded of the City Council.
Only a bunch of really smart people could devise development plans that would bring justice to all corners of Fresno.
In fact, only a bunch of really smart people would put their professional reputations on the line by accepting the challenge.
I wish them the best.
The irony is that the really smart people capable of such planning feats — whether in Fresno or anywhere else in America — want nothing to do with the inner city culture they aim to change.
That’s a rough summation of one of the messages from my final expert on city life — Charles Murray in his bestseller “Coming Apart.”
The book takes a look at the white populations in two fictional communities, Fishtown and Belmont. You can easily guess which is lower class and which is upper class.
I focus here on just one aspect of Murray’s book — the amazing progress America has made in the last 50 years in identifying and making maximum use of the “cognitive elite.” In other words, really smart people.
It doesn’t matter the color of their skin, the god they worship, the nation of their ancestors, the mate they choose to live with, the political party they love to hate. It’s all irrelevant in the America of 2013 if they’re really smart and really ambitious, Murray says. Society has perfected ways to identify them early in the game, nurture them through their formative years and put them in positions (or at least on the fast-track to such positions) when they reach maturity of immense social, political and economic power.
The cognitive elite have flooded Hollywood, Wall Street and Washington, D.C., Murray says. They have flooded every big city in America. That means they are found in big numbers in Fresno.
And guess what? The cognitive elite like to stay among themselves. This is true even if their government-funded jobs are to make America (and Fresno) more egalitarian. The reasons are many, Murray says. One of the big ones is children. The cognitive elite want their children to enter the world of the cognitive elite one day. The best way to do that is to make sure the kids go to elite schools and develop elite habits and marry someone who also is elite.
“Homogamy” is the word, Murray writes. “Homogamy refers to the interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics. Educational homogamy occurs when individuals with similar educations have children. Cognitive homogamy occurs when individuals with similar cognitive ability have children.”
Rolling back income equality, be it by money transfers or a general plan that attempts to get all classes of people living in the same small neighborhood, won’t change the cognitive elite’s habits, Murray writes.
“The new-upper-class culture is not the product of great wealth,” Murray writes. “It is enabled by affluence — people with common tastes and preferences need enough money to be able to congregate — but it is not driven by affluence. It is driven by the distinctive tastes and preferences that emerge when large numbers of cognitively talented people are enabled to live together in their own communities … If the most talented remain wealthy, they will congregate in the nicest places to live, with ‘nicest’ defined as places where they can be around other talented, wealthy people like them, living in the most desirable parts of town, isolated from everyone else. It is human nature that they should do so?”
Then Murray adds a sentence that is the essential message of the Building Industry Association’s Mike Prandini when he talks to the Infill Development Subcommittee.
“How is one to fight that with public policy?”
XII. LET’S DO A REVIEW
Fresno is a great place.
Fresno has a lot of poor, badly educated people dependent on government aid.
Many of the poor live in Fresno’s center.
Many of Fresno’s affluent and well-educated live in the far suburbs.
If the affluent and well-educated didn’t live in the far suburbs, they could live in Clovis.
Fresno City Hall’s new general plan seeks to stop the flight to the suburbs.
Supporters of this effort say people of all types must live together in harmony.
The City Council’s Infill Development Subcommittee will craft design standards that will bring together all types of people in the same neighborhoods.
These standards will cause developers to want to build in the inner city.
Most of the acreage to be found in underutilized parcels, vacant parcels and farm land within Fresno’s city limits — the land best suited for private developers — is located on the edges of Fresno.
Fresno has already tried utopian social planning on a grand scale.
Victor Gruen, one of the smartest urban architects in history, gave us Fulton Mall nearly 50 years ago.
Fulton Mall is a disaster.
Edward C. Banfield said there are stages to city development as inevitable in their progression as the stages of human growth.
James Q. Wilson said character is as important to a people and a city as it is to the individual person.
Charles Murray said it’s easier to jump over the moon than to get the super-smart government people who develop egalitarian social policy to live and play and inter-marry with the masses whom they claim to champion.
Somehow, it’ll all work just fine for Fresno’s 2035 general plan update.
XIII. A WALK IN THE INNER CITY
I thought about all this during my afternoon walk on Monday, March 4.
I went the long way to get to Fulton and Divisadero — out The Bee’s back door, south on E Street, right on El Dorado, left on G Street, right on Divisadero, over the Union Pacific tracks, then over to Fulton.
I went north on Fulton, then right on Mildreda. For the next half-hour, I strolled along the streets of Lowell Neighborhood.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Downtown Revitalization Czar Craig Scharton, city staff and community activists have done a lot of good work in Lowell. To walk north on College Avenue is get a sense of what inner-city Fresno could look like someday. Many of the houses neat and clean. The place isn’t gentrified. It’s pleasant.
But many of the houses also have iron bars on the doors and windows.
A big house on the corner of Franklin and College has been subdivided into five apartments. This is common in the Lowell Neighborhood.
Things got a little rougher on Glenn Avenue. The half-mile stretch of Glenn between Belmont and Divisadero is interesting. At the north end there’s the Ted C. Wills Community Center on the other side of Belmont (on San Pablo). At the south end of Glenn is the Dickey Youth Center.
Both centers are important. I just can’t see the cognitive elite sending their kids to them.
There are a lot of apartments on Glenn between Belmont and Divisadero. I wouldn’t feel safe walking this portion of Glenn at night.
I walked north on Blackstone, then made a right on Illinois. I crossed Abby, passed Effie, then turned north on Diana Street.
It wasn’t clear in the Feb. 1, 1960 Bee article, but for some reason Diana was a big deal to Victor Gruen. Maybe because it runs along what are now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. The sidewalk along Diana where kids play is only 25 feet from the tracks. There’s no fence between the trains and the kids.
I took Diana to Belmont, turned east, then made a right on Clark Street and headed back toward downtown. Clark, too, is rough in many places. A kid, about junior-high age, rode by on a bicycle.
“Narc!” he said.
Clark took me to the north edge of the huge Community Regional Medical Center. Remember 20 years ago when the Medical Center was supposed to be the catalyst for the kind of transformative miracle that the 2035 general plan update is supposed to produce? All those crumbling houses and apartment buildings along Clark and other side streets to the east were to become high-end housing for doctors and nurses and administrators who’d want to enjoy downtown’s urban charms.
I circled back to Carl’s Jr. at Abby and Illinois before returning to the newsroom. A man sat next to me as I ate chicken tenders.
“You want this? All it needs is a new front left wheel.”
He had one of those chairs on wheels that I see sometimes at council meetings. People push them, then sit when they want to rest.
“Do you need some change?”
“No, I’ve got plenty of money.”
He didn’t look like he had money. He looked like he’d been homeless for a long time.
“I thought you might want this. Take it.”
“I can’t. I got to go back to work. My name is George. And you?”
“With an S?”
“No, a C. C – i – d.”
It’s going to be awhile before Fresno’s cognitive elite choose to live and eat with Cid and his three-wheel chair.
But if the cognitive elite (or the two or three levels below the cognitive elite) don’t voluntarily make that choice, then how will the 2035 general plan update with its 45% infill goal ever succeed?
XIV. MARK YOUR CALENDAR
The next Infill Development Subcommittee meeting is 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 12 at City Hall.
Be there. You’ll see history as it’s made.