Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Another interesting Infill Subcommittee meeting

A dozen thoughts on Tuesday afternoon’s meeting of the Fresno City Council Infill Development Subcommittee:

1.) A key unquestioned answer has been: What is infill? Planning Department Assistant Director Keith Bergthold delivered a possible answer.

The No. 1 priority infill area should be the 7,000 acres of pre-World War II Fresno. This includes downtown, Uptown, the neighborhoods along Blackstone as far north as Belmont, the neighborhoods to east about as far as Roosevelt High, much of West Fresno and some of the neighborhoods along Highway 99 as far north as Clinton.

This is the area covered by the city’s nearly-finished Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan.

2.) Bergthold says the No. 2 priority infill area should be everything south of Olive that isn’t covered in No. 1. This fills in the blanks in West Fresno and Southeast Fresno.

Combine No. 1 and No. 2 and you get an infill area that pretty much conforms to the hopes of the strongest supporters of the city’s 2035 general plan theme. That theme aims to limit growth on the city’s edges and emphasize new construction in Fresno’s urban core.

3.) Bergthold says the No. 3 priority infill area should be the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors.

This one is a bit more complex.

BRT in its initial phase will run along Blackstone (from Woodward Park to Courthouse Park) and along Kings Canyon/Ventura (from about Clovis Avenue to Courthouse Park).

Bergthold includes the Shaw Avenue corridor from Willow on the east to Highway 99 on the west. Shaw is part of BRT’s second phase.

This did not escape Council Member Oliver Baines, one of three Infill Subcommittee members. Baines is a tiger about getting BRT up and running along California Avenue, in the heart of his West Fresno district.

California Avenue is supposed to be part of BRT’s second phase.

California Avenue as a priority infill area is already covered in Nos. 1 and 2. But Baines is touchy on anything connected to this street and BRT. He’s been around City Hall long enough to know that promises have a way of disappearing.

Baines asked: Why isn’t California getting the same treatment as Shaw in this priority business? Is something funny going on here with BRT?

Bergthold was quick to answer: No offense, Council Member Baines — California Avenue and BRT are still high priorities.

4.) Bergthold showed how these three priority infill areas look on a map — blue for old Fresno, pink for south of Olive, purple for the BRT corridors.

Bergthold gave a map to each person in the audience.

Note to Keith: We love those maps. They’re fascinating.

5.) Council Member/Subcommittee Member Clint Olivier raised three key questions:

* Will developer incentives be available to the little guy as well as the big guy?

* Will incentives be available to projects outside the three priority areas?

* Will incentives end up hurting the city’s tapped-out general fund?

Staff’s answers weren’t clear to me. But I think they were (in order): Sort of yes, sort of yes, sort of no.

6.) Council Member/Subcommittee Chairman Lee Brand said the subcommittee’s work probably won’t be finished by summer. The group’s task is huge — come up with development code and developer incentives that eventually lead to at least 45% of annual growth occurring in the inner city.

7.) I get the distinct impression that the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin would love to see the Blackstone Avenue Corridor (especially south of Shaw) be the first beneficiary of the subcommittee’s work.

The southeast corners of Blackstone/Gettysburg (former site of Fresno Ag) and Blackstone/Ashlan (once home to a Mervyn’s store) are major eyesores on what used to be Fresno’s Boulevard of Dreams.

No expects big-box retailers to move into these empty big boxes. The Big Box era among many retail niches is evolving (if not dying).

City Hall would love to see “mixed-use” development on those two corners — residential for the most part, with some commercial/retail/entertainment.

8.) But how to make that happen? That was the question posed to the subcommittee by Mike Prandini, head of the local Building Industry Association.

Let’s say the cost of turning the old Mervyn’s store into this mixed-use dream is $200,000 per residential unit, Prandini said. And let’s say the neighborhood demographics can support rents applicable only to a $100,000 per unit cost, he added.

Such math rules out private development, Prandini said. Developers couldn’t recoup their costs, let alone make a profit. And, Prandini added, City Hall currently doesn’t have the money to help developers bridge the gap.

9.) No one argued with Prandini.

Brand said the likely answer is twofold. First, reform the development code in such a way that reduces the per unit cost in this hypothetical example to $150,000 (without harming city finances). Second, improve the surrounding neighborhoods so residents can afford rents worthy of a $150,000 per unit cost.

The first part of Brand’s solution will be hard. The second part is social-engineering at its most difficult.

10.) Prandini said the subcommittee needs to get honest-to-goodness, flesh-and-blood developers in the room. Get their advice, he said.

Brand said he’s been inviting those folks for weeks. For some reason, Brand said, they never show up.

11.) The meeting concluded with subcommittee members and City Manager Mark Scott discussing the staffing of something called the Interdepartmental Infill Development Team.

Scott said that’ll be a challenge since so many of City Hall’s top staffers (in Planning, Public Utilities, Public Works, Code Enforcement, Downtown Revitalization) are also involved with the city’s High Speed Rail Relocation Team.

Construction of high speed rail will displace many of Fresno’s top businesses. City Hall doesn’t want these orphaned businesses to find a home in another city.

Scott said City Hall expects high speed rail officials in the very near future to begin sending letters to Fresno businesses within the train’s path. Scott said he’s not sure what these letters will say — whether they’re actual offers for property or a heads-up that appraisals are beginning.

Either way, Scott said, the Relocation Team in a matter of weeks almost certainly will become extremely busy.

12.) Everyone’s infatuation with high speed rail escapes me.

I left the newsroom on Tuesday evening and headed to my pickup in the far southeast corner of The Bee parking lot. I stood next to my pickup and looked east, across G Street.

I saw OK Produce. I saw 10 big OK trailers, connected to their trucks, backed up to loading docks. I saw two rows of trailers elsewhere in the OK parking lot. I saw employees’ cars. I saw workers busy at work.

The sight was amazing. And beautiful.

We’re getting rid of OK Produce and filling in with high speed rail.

We’re insane.

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