We printed an interview with three members of Southwest Fresno H.E.A.T. in last month’s issue of the Community Alliance newspaper. In that interview, the organizers raised concerns about high density development, the displacement of longtime residents and the misallocation of funding that was intended to improve this community. Brunette Harris said that “the City of Fresno needs to be investigated, just like the little town of Bell. What they did with those CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funds, how they went about doing it, they didn’t have community input, we did not have representation, and we would love for the federal government to get up off their butt and investigate the City of Fresno.” I asked, “And if they did that, what do you think they would find?” Harris said, “They would find that they misappropriated money and a whole lot of people who sit on the City Council would be locked up, plain and simple as that.”
I wanted to find out what the City of Fresno’s response would be to what I thought were some pretty strong accusations. Much to my surprise, Craig Scharton, director of the Downtown and Community Revitalization for the City of Fresno, was as concerned about what was going on in southwest Fresno as anyone. Here is that interview:
Community Alliance (CA): Craig, tell me a little about yourself and your job here at City Hall.
Craig Scharton (CS): I’m mostly a lifelong resident, other than spending some time in the East Bay area and most of my life I have been interested in revitalization. I got started working in the Tower District in my 20s, and one of my mentors, Dan Whitehurst, asked me about my interest in revitalization and suggested that I start traveling and going to other cities and meeting with mayors and redevelopment directors and developers in learning about how revitalization works and bring that information back to Fresno. So, that’s what I started doing. I think I visited 25 cities my first year and I have just become a lifelong student of how cities work, especially urban areas. If I had to say what my No. 1 passion was in life, I would say that is what it is.
So now I have the opportunity to head a department that is focused on the revitalization of downtown Fresno, the neighborhoods that surround downtown Fresno, basically Southwest, Lowell, Jefferson and Southeast. We still have an economic
development function which we are focusing the city’s economic development resources on supporting our locally owned independent businesses as opposed to the older traditional practice of trying to attract businesses here and we are putting our resources into supporting the businesses that are already here.
CA: I want to talk about the unique characteristics of southwest Fresno. In other words, tell me about how the City of Fresno looks at the advantages and challenges of that part of Fresno.
CS: I look at it through the lens of revitalization. The etymology of that word is getting life back. You have an assumption that there was life there and you start with looking at how things used to work and then you understand where they were broken and then you go about fixing things based on what used to work. That is the mental process I go through and that is what I have seen work well in other cities.
When you go into southwest Fresno you can see that it was a healthy, proud, great part of our community and then unfortunately when planning came to the forefront as a profession we messed a lot of things up. Not just Fresno, but everywhere. The invention of land-use planning and the separation of uses and the suburbanization of our cities had an especially bad impact on our urban neighborhoods in Fresno more than many others.
If you look at Fresno, pre–World War II, when you think about the neighborhoods that have old homes, those are now the cities of concentrated poverty. It has been a nearly complete lack of regard for old Fresno, for the Fresno that was built prior to World War II. That includes southwest Fresno. What we are doing now is going back into that pre–World War II footprint of Fresno, and we are redoing all of the land-use plans, design guidelines, transportation, open space, street, trees, you name it. We are going through 7,200 acres, and we are fixing the plans so that it will support the character that was there and so that anything that is built new will add to the value of the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, the plans that we have had since 1964 destroy the character of the neighborhoods. So, everything that gets built actually reduces the character and value of the neighborhood and that is the trend we are reversing. I see huge assets in southwest Fresno, but I also see 50 years of neglect that we are going to try to reverse.
CA: Some of the development that is taking place in southwest Fresno is high-density apartments. Is that a part of the city’s development plan?
CS: Historically, that has been true and it’s not just southwest. Again, it’s this whole urban older part of Fresno where we have had no design guidelines. You have had a weakening of the fabric of these neighborhoods so that they are unable to defend themselves against bad projects, and the bad projects come in and they drive even more people with homeownership opportunities and economic growth potential and education and all of that out of these neighborhoods. So they are even easier to victimize going forward.
In our department, we are trying to be the advocates for these neighborhoods so that we have rules and regulations that allow good development to happen and discourage or stop bad de-velopment from happening. We also know that we have the highest concentration of poverty of the top 55 largest cities in the United States. That is getting an “F” on your report card. Right? We can’t even argue that we’re number two or number three. We got number one based purely on statistical analysis. That should give us the freedom to do things completely different than we have been doing—when you get “F.” Right?
What we are doing right now is we are completely changing the rule book. We are completely changing the focus of the city back into our urban areas away from the sprawl development that we have had before. The mayor is changing the budget so it is not reliant on developer fees, so we don’t have to perpetuate our addiction to growth. We will have the ability to have a balanced budget and only approve the projects that really are good and helpful, and not just anything that comes along.
I would say historically all of south Fresno was pretty much rezoned to high-density multifamily with no design guidelines. That is why you drive around Fresno and you see a lot of really poorly built 1970s-ish apartments with really bad construction, really bad design, and that was all according to the rules. It’s amazing the stuff we don’t like was according to the rules and the stuff we want is often very difficult to build, and so that is why we have to rewrite the rule book if we are going to have any kind of a different outcome.
Density in some ways is good if it is put in the right place, along a transportation corridor or if it has good design. But the plans we have been working on with the neighbors will assure that buildings that come in fit the neighborhood style and character and density. As you get closer to downtown, you will see more density and as you move into the neighborhoods you will see projects whether they are commercial or multifamily or single family that will reflect the neighborhood around them.
CA:I have been talking to some members of Southwest Fresno H.E.A.T., which is an activist group in southwest Fresno, and they have talked to me about CDBG monies. They say this money is received by the City of Fresno because of the blighted areas in southwest Fresno but that this money is not being used to help the existing residents who have homes in that area. Furthermore, they say that money is being redirected—that the city is receiving this federal money because conditions are so bad in southwest Fresno, the concentrated poverty that you were talking about a minute ago, but it is their belief that the money is not being used to help the residents there. Your response.
CS:I agree with the group H.E.A.T. and I think historically they are correct, but we have an administration in place now that I think views that very differently and the number one priority of the city at this point is to revitalize urban Fresno. That is why our new
department was created, and we are doing some things that I think are going to be the next best practice for neighborhood revitalization in our country. We are using the best practices of those before us, and I think we are really leapfrogging them. It takes a little bit of time and we have been in office for about a year and a half, and we are correcting about 50 years worth of what I would consider neglect of our urban area.
To see these changes coming is going to take a little bit of time. Now I wouldn’t encourage H.E.A.T. or any other advocacy group to relax or take their eye off the ball because it is going to take everyone being really sharp and clear and focused to keep Fresno from not falling into its old ways of sprawl and lack of attention to the inner city. I would say H.E.A.T. should keep advocating for more attention and resources but also recognize that the city is giving more attention and resources than it has during my lifetime. We are really working hard in these neighborhoods. But there is a huge mountain of neglect we have to overcome.
CA: One of the things that Southwest Fresno H.E.A.T. representatives told me is that even with CDBG money coming into the city and being spent in southwest Fresno, that money is being used to widen streets and increase the density. Their argument, if I understand it correctly, is that they would like to see the money used to improve the housing that already exists. What is happening as a result of the higher-density developments and the loss of single-family residences is that the people who are living there now are being forced out and the new people that are moving in are benefiting from the new housing and the higher density.
CS: Well, it is good planning and design all around that is the goal. I agree with them and have been making the same argument for the last 20-plus years. Coming from the Tower District, we are in a little bit better situation to start with, but you are still overcoming the bad land-use planning, the lack of design standards, the scattering of resources.
I’ll give you an example. There is a senior paint program that we use for the Community Development Block Grant. Years ago, that was available to any senior in the city, regardless of income. CDBG is specifically supposed to go to people with low to moderate income and so that has been changed to where there is an income requirement for the senior paint program. Because you have to put your resources where they are the most needed and you can make the most change. Someone in Southwest Fresno who is a senior and may be on a fixed income just got moved way up the list.
Concentration of resources and focus is really what’s worked well in other places, and we are using that here. Now you are going to get the resources where they are the most needed so we can solve this issue of concentrated poverty, which is this disastrous whirlpool that people have almost no statistical chance of escaping. If we are not putting our resources there, then we are just dooming hundreds or thousands of Fresnans to a really low quality life. So that is where we are putting our resources and attention.
So H.E.A.T. is correct in some of this historically but what I think we need to recognize is that we are making policy changes putting our investment into good land-use planning for the neighborhood. I think you are going to find the word street widening eliminated from our vocabulary. I don’t think we are going to widen any more streets. I mean, there is just no need for it. We have so much asphalt in this town. We have almost no streets that are truly impacted by traffic and so just continuing to widen and spend our money on that and take people’s property and all that—like a teenager would say, “That is so 1970s.” You are just not going to see that, and that is not the proper use for CDBG or other city, state or federal funds at this point.
CA: Then, what’s going on with the development of California Street as it is being widened in southwest Fresno. Why is that happening?
CS:Well, again that was from a process that happened a few years ago and we are going back through all of those. Ventura is another one where there is money to widen it, and there are a few other widenings on the books. We are getting now to the point where we are going through this community plan that we are talking about shrinking streets. So the idea of widening them really runs counter to the knowledge that we have about how urban areas work.
There are some things that are put in place and have some momentum historically, but we are doing our best right now to change the course for those things. There was a community process, but we hear a lot from the community that they were not happy with the outcome of that. Sometimes you can do a community process and there is not enough outreach or it is not the right time, you don’t provide transportation, child care or those kinds of things and you don’t get the participation that you really need to make sure that it’s community led.
CA: So are those policies changing? Do the community meetings that are taking place now have child care and better outreach? One of the issues that Fresno H.E.A.T. brought up to me was that what happens at a lot of these community meetings is that many of the decisions have already been made by planners and developers and experts. They come and present that plan at the meeting. They were saying, “Why don’t they come to us first and engage us and ask us what we want.”
CS:I can only take responsibility for the plans that I am involved with now. So I will give you an example. We are doing a community plan in south Fresno that covers 7,200 acres of primarily old Fresno, mostly the neighborhoods that you would think of as a big U-shape around our downtown. In that case, we had a legal notice mailed to property owners about those plans. But we went the extra step and mailed twice, not only to property owners but to residents, which is a substantial cost. There were two mailings of 44,000 people. We did something that was above and beyond, and we’re really very happy about and proud of [and] that every one of the mailings was also a bus pass. Anyone that got that could use the postcard and ride to any of the community meetings for free. I don’t think I’ve seen or heard that anywhere else in the country.
The next community plans we are doing will not only have a bus pass on the postcard, but there will be a newspaper advertisement that will also act as a free bus pass. We are really trying to do all we can to get as much participation [as possible]. With the planners, they actually have stakeholder meetings that have included the members of H.E.A.T. and other organizations well before plan development begins, so all of their concerns can be addressed as the plan is created.
In the design charrette we did for the community plan, the best attended table was from southwest Fresno. They are doing a great job in getting the word out and getting folks to participate in the process. In fact, we kind of use that with some of the other sub-geographic areas, some of the other neighborhoods, to say “look at southwest Fresno—how come you don’t have as many people here as they do?”
Again, I would never say back off because things are working perfectly. Advocacy groups have a very important role, and we probably need 10 times as many of them to really keep things moving in the right direction. But at the same time, I do think we are making some pretty good progress.
CA: The Running Horse development was going to build a golf course and luxury homes in southwest Fresno. Can you tell me your view on how this plan fit into the city’s development plan and what went wrong?
CS: (long laugh) My first disclaimer is that was a long time before I was here at City Hall. I have only been here for a year and one half. Running Horse is symbolic of a community that does not know best practices in neighborhood revitalization. If I were going to write a professional biography, it would be called Damn You Dan Whitehurst for challenging me to go and find out what other cities were doing and learn how cities and urban areas work. Because sometimes you come back to your hometown and you see the exact opposite happening and it is like a kids’ game of opposite day.
It is absurd to think that you can revitalize a neighborhood by building a large project outside of the neighborhood, but next to it, with gates around it removing it from the school district that all the other neighborhood kids attend. I mean, it is just comically tragic that our community thought that was going to be the saving project for southwest Fresno. That is like saying I’m going to solve my weight problem by putting you on a diet. Right? You don’t solve southwest Fresno’s issue by working on something next to southwest Fresno. You go into southwest Fresno and you work on the problems where they are, you build on the assets that you have with incredible homes, incredible neighborhoods, incredible people, and you build on that. That is what they have done everywhere else.
Everywhere you see a successful city, that is the approach that they have used. Community led, building a base of community support, good communications systems. You do put the CDBG money into roofs, fences, irrigation systems, for yards so that when the little lady that lives down the street breaks her hip and she can’t water her lawn the whole thing doesn’t just fall apart. It is those kinds of things that revitalize the neighborhood. Then all of a sudden you have the 28-year-old couple with a baby on the way looking where they can buy a home and they say, “I would like to live here. It is in our price range. It is close to activities.” And that is how you create a market and stabilize a neighborhood. Not by building big gated community private golf course silver bullet projects.
CA: If the high-speed rail comes through Fresno, which it looks like it will, there will be a station in or near Chinatown. How do you think that will impact southwest Fresno?
CS: Southwest Fresno and downtown are linked, so a healthy downtown Fresno, a vibrant downtown Fresno benefits all of the neighborhoods around it. It gives you a reason to want to live there because now I’m a mile from all of these great things I can do and experience and my kids will think it is cool going there and hanging out, you know sitting outside and listening to a band on a rooftop bar or whatever it is. Right?
All of the things that happened in downtown Fresno help southwest Fresno and having a healthy southwest Fresno helps support a healthy downtown Fresno. We view those two as inseparable. That is why we focus on downtown and revitalization and at the same time neighborhood revitalization.
To get to your question more specifically, the siting of the high-speed rail station has to be done in a way to maximize downtown vitality and Chinatown vitality. Unless you really work on how downtowns and cities function, it is possible to put the station a block or two away from the perfect site and lose 80% to 90% of the vitality that the station could provide. It is key to get the siting right, to get the design of the station right, to get the parking done in a way that just doesn’t turn into what they call an airport in the middle of downtown with a building surrounded by asphalt. It has to be done in a way that activity is spilling around the area, the businesses, the community, and in a good positive way.
CA: Part of the concern that I’ve heard on the high-speed rail is that it will accelerate the move for higher density in the area, and you might even say gentrification could develop because people are now living there because they can commute to the Bay Area. Is that a concern of the city?
CS: Our hope is that the revitalization benefits the people who are already here. You have a constant balance that you want to be careful of. Gentrification, in a lot of ways, would be a distant problem. You know, when you’re going from number one in concentrated poverty, you would have several steps (before gentrification). Like I said, if you got an “F,” you have a ways to go before worrying about being a geek “A” student. You would have to pass through “D,” “C,” “B” and “A” first to even get there. But we don’t want to forget that is a potential negative outcome if we don’t revitalize thoughtfully.
We are putting the high-speed rail station as close in to the Fulton Mall as possible so that people that come out of the station will only be a block or two from our historic downtown core area. The likelihood that density will spread to southwest Fresno, I would say, is fairly low. If you look at other high-speed rail stations or even BART stations in the Bay Area for a closer example, the effect has been within a quarter mile or so. About the amount that people are willing to walk. If you look at the Pleasant Hill station, for example, there is a lot of transit-oriented development going on right around that station but none of it more than an eighth of a mile from the station itself. I don’t think that we would see that happen here.
I was fortunate to go to France a couple of years ago and ride the high-speed rail around and I saw examples of the airport style, which does not fit well in the downtown, and more of the urban kind of stations, and really they just became these great multimodal systems where you had cars and bikes and buses and bus rapid transit and high-speed rail in an area and it really just became more of a vital urban center where there were a lot of shops, activities and people watching and all the fun stuff we like about downtown and neighborhood commercial districts. That is what we are going to try for here.
Whether high-speed rail happens or not is a force bigger than us. Our goal is to make sure that if and when it does happen that we get the maximum amount of vitality for our downtown area.
CA: Let’s talk about Darling International rendering plant. First, describe what Darling is and then if the City of Fresno is doing anything to relocate Darling to another location. Do you think the rendering plant is an inappropriate business for southwest Fresno, too close to residential neighborhoods?
CS: Again, this is really a problem of historic bad planning to put industrial uses that are not really compatible with the existing residential neighborhood right next to each other. What’s hard and what’s difficult about this, of course, is that things are already built and things are already done.
While I have not been directly involved with this one project, I know that the mayor has toured the facility. I know there have been talks about what it would take to move the facility. I know that there is work being done to make sure that Darling lives up to its legal requirements in terms of keeping the odors of the plant inside. There is no great easy solution for this one. I know that it would be nice if there was. It is something that is going to be an irritant for quite a while for the city, mostly for the residents and probably for the business itself because of its history and its uses and its negative interaction with the neighborhood.
I think that the best at this point we can hope for is a longer-range solution, but it needs to really be a reminder of how important good planning and good policy is at protecting neighborhoods. Protecting neighborhoods should be our first priority and not the byproduct of bad planning. We need to put neighborhoods first, so we don’t have those kinds of problems and put our money into good planning and good design and good community-led activities so we don’t have these problems down the road. Because once we have the problem here, sometimes legally and otherwise it’s a very difficult problem to solve. Being proactive is a lot better than having to deal with these things once they’re already on the ground.
I think that the people of Fresno could be very proud if they get involved with seeing the change in course and the change in direction. We are taking methodical approaches to neighborhood revitalization. We are bringing in every department, and we are working together as a group, which has not happened historically, so that there is a coordinated approach to revitalizing our neighborhoods. It is really pretty remarkable, and I’m not aware of any other city that is doing it to the level that we are doing it now.