By Chip Ashley
April 19 might go down as one of the most important dates in the history of the City of Fresno. That evening, the City Council finalized a General Plan Update, approving on a 5-2 vote a plan for “smart growth”—called A2—that will set a course for Fresno’s future—a quantum leap from the past and business as usual.
Just a few years ago, the subject of general plans was pretty humdrum. But this is an exciting time. Fresno finally seems to be coming around—as a collective—to understanding that how we use our living space matters in all sorts of ways that affect our lives—the lives of all people who form this community, at all economic levels, among all the diverse groups that make up Fresno, so that it actually might become a “community” in the most positive sense of the term. And there are real signs that Fresno is actually learning how to be a community. That’s what urban planning, at its best, should be all about.
The process started two years ago with many local organizations, such as Fresno Metro Ministries, the Building Healthy Communities and the Fresno Housing Alliance, as well as individuals, contributing to the discussion led by chief planner Keith Bergthold and consulting architects Mark Steele and Michael Dyett. A General Plan Update Citizens Advisory Committee had 18 meetings, and 13 public workshops were held. On March 21, the City Planning Commission, under the brilliant leadership of presiding member Jaime Holt, voted unanimously to recommend Alternative A (the precursor of A2).
The General Plan Update was the subject of a special meeting of the City Council on April 5. At the end of that meeting, the Council postponed a vote to April 19. Council members were to vote for one of five alternatives, A through E. This vote was all about Smart Growth and computer modeling. City of Fresno planners, led by Bergthold, have been working with architects Steele and Dyett for more than two years on this update.
Briefly summarized, Alternative E was recently put in play by the Building Industry Association (BIA)—the developers. It represents business as usual—more sprawl, more greenhouse gases, more pollution, less health.
“A” was the most radically environmental alternative. It would require growth to stay within the so-called sphere of influence (SOI)—a narrow strip of land around the already developed city. It would focus on a revitalized downtown as the community core and utilize a concept called “complete neighborhoods” to develop self-contained communities along boulevards—Shaw, Blackstone, Ventura and Kings Canyon. These “complete neighborhoods” would contain housing for all income levels, as well as shopping, schools, parks and other recreational opportunities, entertainment, financial and medical services—in short, everything an individual or family needs for daily life—all within walking or biking distance. Walking and biking would reduce vehicle miles traveled by an amazing 32%.
Alternatives B, C and D represented the middle ground between A and E, with D being the next most environmental plan after A. But Alternatives B, C, D and E all proposed development outside the SOI—sprawl.
The prime mover of this vote was the 300 or so folks that took time out of their busy lives on April 5 to fill the Council chamber to the brim, standing room only. Most of these folks came from Fresno’s progressive community—the audience of this newspaper—You.
At the April 5 meeting, by the time Council President Clint Olivier had collected all the cards from those who wanted to make a public comment, he had 87. Five hours later, about 80 of the 87 had recommended Alternative A.
Why? Quality and quantity of life is a big part of the answer, and Alternative A, also called the “Boulevard Plan,” would do the most, in these folks’ opinion, to improve the quality and quantity of life. It would do the most to improve residents’ health and create real community—a place where people can become citizens, not just consumers, not just cogs in a machine. In these folks’ opinion, Alternative A offered the best opportunity for Fresno to become a healthy, vibrant community.
Commenter Kevin Hamilton of Clinica Sierra Vista summed it up well, saying previous general plans had been designed for cars, not for people. “This city should be designed for people…Cars do not breathe. Cars do not have a society. They do not join together for events. They do not have a community. Cars put us in little boxes so we don’t have to meet each other.”
Hamilton’s comment aimed at both health and the difficult-to-define concept of community, inseparable concepts—the yin and yang of Alternative A. Hamilton works with a low-income mostly non-White clientele—a group disproportionately
affected by air pollution. And, of course, cars—those little moving boxes that let us avoid interaction with other people while we travel—produce lots of air pollution in Fresno. Specifically, they produce not only lots of the greenhouse gas CO2 but also lots of ozone precursors and particulates, some of the worst concentrations on this planet, which kill thousands of people every year in the San Joaquin Valley, significantly reducing both the quantity and quality of life, especially in the so-called environmental justice communities (served by Clinica Sierra Vista), communities located in spaces most adversely affected by pollution of all sorts.
There is more to health than freedom from environmental pollution. Indeed, getting rid of pollution requires that people care about each other enough to get rid of it, and that’s what community is about—people caring about each other. Hamilton believes Alternative A will get us out of our little fossil-powered isolation cells. It will begin slowly to dismantle and rebuild a city that up to this point seems to have been designed to isolate individuals, to atomize us, to separate us all and possibly—could the hidden plan be so diabolical?—make us easier to control, to keep the reins of power in the hands of some elite cabal—to prevent community. And by community I mean a living situation that encourages interaction among members, which breaks down barriers that separate us geographically, physically, economically and racially.
Jose Luis Barraza addressed all these issues in his Walt Whitman like, Fresno poet style comment: “I have lived in central Fresno all my life. I have lived in the confines of that triangle of highways, freeways and byways between the railroads of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe. I have witnessed large portions of my neighborhoods disappear to those developments that left behind long strips of land sitting without development for nearly two decades. I’ve seen homeowners turn into renters, watched major businesses dwindle away or be relocated to the north.” Barraza supported Alternative A.
How will Alternative A break down social barriers separating ethnic and economic groups? That’s a big part of “complete neighborhoods.” These complete neighborhoods, arranged along Shaw, Blackstone and Kings Canyon–Ventura, will provide housing to all income levels, mixed-use buildings (which contain commercial and residential space and could be 3–5 stories in height), schools, parks, recreational and entertainment facilities, shopping, medical and
financial services—in short, everything one needs to live a decent, comfortable life. All of this will be located within less than a mile so that one can easily walk or bicycle instead of utilizing the fossil-powered isolation cell, aka the automobile. Imagine! It will now become possible to live in Fresno without a car.
Jack Schutt, longtime Fresno architect and university urban planning instructor, has been involved in urban planning in Fresno for many years. Schutt explained that Fresno has a footprint of 112 square miles and a population of 500,000, compared to San Francisco with 48 square miles and a population of 805,000 (2010) and Boston, containing 43 square miles with a population of 617,000 (2010). “You can put two San Franciscos and two and a half Bostons in the footprint of Fresno.” Schutt ended by asserting, “Sprawl is most expensive because it is least efficient. You have one way out, and that is Alternative A.”
Commenters included speakers from at least three language groups—English, of course, as well as Spanish and Hmong. They were ethnically and economically diverse. All age groups were represented. The disabled participated. Children spoke. Commenters came from all walks of life, from affluent business owners, to middle and working class. Nearly all supported Alternative A.
Several spoke up for the homeless, including J.D. McCubbin, who numbered the homeless in the thousands and said, “Where will you put the homeless? Where will they sleep at night?”
Bill Simon said, “Nobody in our city should have to sleep at night behind an oleander bush or on a sidewalk.”
Farmers supported Alternative A, including Ryan Jacobsen, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. Pat Ricchiuti, president of P&R Farms and Fresno County Farm Bureau board member, thanked the diverse coalition that filled the chamber and referred to Operation Rezone. “We have now built a community of honesty and integrity and we will never revisit [Operation Rezone] again.”
Jacobsen supported Alternative A in a letter dated April 4 to Council President Olivier: “Only one alternative significantly follows the growth principles of A Landscape of Choice, preserves prime farmland and aims at bettering the communities the City currently has as well as reshaping the City’s future: Alternative ‘A’—Boulevard Plan.”
Dr. Robert Merrill discussed Operation Rezone, the antithesis of current planning culture: “Stop supporting urban sprawl, which privatizes profits while leading to subsidies at taxpayer expense…Fresno’s past suburban sprawl model allowed
developers to reap exorbitant benefits and profits by taking options on agricultural land beyond the sphere of influence. They then came before this Council asking for a zoning change, which often violated the General Plan. When the Council approved zoning changes, the value of the land increased astronomically. With their options, developers were able to buy at the old price, pocketing the profits. Then they invested pennies of these profits on campaign contributions.” Merrill supported Alternative A.
Kevin Hall, director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, said the city has to do a better job at dealing with costs than do businesses, like the developers represented by the BIA. “Businesses externalize costs to taxpayers,” Hall said, referring to taxpayer-funded subsidies to support infrastructure needed by new housing tracts, especially those outside the city SOI, which means developers profit at taxpayer expense. “City governments have to account for all the costs.”
Francine Farber of the League of Women Voters answered the BIA’s criticism that Alternative A won’t work because of the market: “They say, ‘It can’t be done.’ The same was said about the four-minute mile, crossing the Atlantic in an airplane, walking on the moon, and the telephone.”
Elizabeth Jonasson of the Coalition for Clean Air also addressed costs: “When someone says Smart Planning, Scenario A is ‘unfeasible’ or ‘costs too much,’ whose costs are we looking at? The health costs a family must endure: 62% of bankruptcies in the U.S. in 2007 were caused by health problems—and 78% of those had insurance…Asthma is the No. 1 reason for school absences in Fresno Unified.”
After the huge outpouring of public comment, Larry Westerlund moved to approve Alternative A, with a second by Lee Brand. Brand explained his decision to support Alternative A: “We are at a critical juncture. We need to find ways to make it work.”
At the end of the 6-hour meeting that lasted almost until midnight, it was moved to continue the vote until the next available meeting time—April 19. The motion passed 5-2, with Westerlund and Brand dissenting. The Council also agreed to end public comment, including talking with the public during the two weeks before April 19.
Ah…well. In any case, it was surprisingly encouraging to see two members generally considered conservatives, Brand and Westerlund, move and second a motion to adopt Alternative A as the preferred alternative.
Many feared a return of Operation Rezone during the two-week interim, with the BIA surreptitiously gaining access to Council members. It was a worrisome two weeks for the progressives supporting Alternative A.
Fast-forward to April 19. The Council chamber was again packed. Many in the audience held green placards with a big block “A.” Members of the Southeast Asian and Hispanic communities wore headsets to hear a translation of the proceedings. The chamber was a beehive of lively conversation.
Members discussed the vote for more than two hours, mostly supporting Alternative A. Brand moved almost immediately to approve an amended version of Alternative A that would move 3,000 units out of multiple-family housing units into single-family units, reasoning the plan would be more realistic under Fresno market conditions. For most of the rest of the evening, the discussion centered on what to call the approved alternative, how realistic it is and what it would take to make it real.
Olivier threw a curve, inviting Granville Homes President Darius Assemi to speak. A murmur of concern came from the audience as Assemi spoke of the costs of Alternative A to the taxpayers, consumers and builders. Many grumbled that Olivier had reopened public comment without approval.
Without being recognized, Hamilton provided the evening’s fireworks display, speaking up vociferously from the first row against the out-of-order move by Olivier. Olivier admonished Hamilton, who clearly had public support on his side. But Hamilton continued for what seemed about a minute, until Olivier threatened to have him forcibly removed.
In the end, the Council voted 5-2, with members Sal Quintero and Olivier casting “no” votes.
The community will have—to echo Brand—to “make this work.” City General Plans are one thing. Their realization is another. As City Manager Mark Scott said, a general plan is only about 25% of what is needed for change. The rest has to come from the community. He added in the late night discussion on April 5 that “neighborhoods have to bring themselves back.” The planners are doing their part; we the people have to do the rest.
So what will Fresno look like in 2035? In my opinion, it will look a lot like Alternative A—vibrant complete neighborhoods inhabited by leaner and healthier citizens (not mere consumers) who actually talk with each other and know their neighbors. These complete neighborhoods will be connected by complete streets, offering multimodal transportation, including lots of public transit—maybe even light rail. (Hey! It could happen. Fresno had trolleys from 1889 to about 1940.)
Fresno will look like “A” because its progressive community gets it. We understand that we have to get down to City Hall to make it happen. We take Tip O’Neill’s adage seriously: “All politics is local.” We are also participating in the county government on planning issues. And it’s not just about the proposed mine on Jesse Morrow Mountain—which is, of course, very important. We have members on the Fresno County Council of Governments (COG) dealing with transportation, housing, community health, etc. If we stay engaged—and I believe we will—we will change Fresno profoundly for the better. We are becoming better informed and more skilled, and we are starting to find this planning business interesting, engrossing, invigorating, maybe even a little—dare I say it?—fun.
Even more encouraging—we are finding allies on some issues—as in this case—in conservatives like Brand and Westerlund. Even Mayor Ashley Swearingen supports Alternative A. What could have brought this about? My thought is that intelligent, articulate conservatives, like Brand, Westerlund and the mayor, understand the problems of climate change, pollution and class better than many of those who vote for them. This makes it possible to work with them on some issues. Wow! Who knows where this may lead? Let’s stay engaged.
The unity from the progressive community on the issue of the General Plan is an example of what the Progressive Umbrella (organized by progressive leaders Mike Rhodes, Howard Watkins, Stephen Sacks, Connie Peterson, Camille Russell, C.J. Radellant and others) is attempting to accomplish. Rhodes believes that “if we can strategically build unity around key issues like this, we will have a bigger impact on local politics.” The Progressive Umbrella even rescheduled its meeting to encourage more people to turn out for the April 19 General Plan discussion.
Fresno is growing up—and that means not only physically up for more efficient use of space, but intellectually up and spiritually up as we learn to understand that the space around us and our interior space—our spiritual and intellectual space—are inextricably linked and mixed. Fresno can grow up with our help.
Chip Ashley is an independent environmental and political activist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 559-855-6376.