By Kevin Hall
“The lower we go, the stronger our negotiating position becomes.”
— Mayor Lee Brand, April 4, 2018
With the latest in a string of negative declarations of environmental impacts for warehouse distribution centers, Fresno government’s institutionalized racist policies and practices have affected people’s health once more. With its early April approval of the Gap Inc.’s expansion, it also approved potentially thousands of additional daily diesel truck trips by schools and neighborhoods.
In the opinion of District 7 City Council Member Clint Olivier, “The truck traffic is kind of like the cause du jour that comes up towards the very end in order to put the brakes on what should be something that we need to move forward with that’s good for our community.” (See related story: https://fresnoalliance.com/20-years-of-documented-diesel-damage-to-fresno-children-ignored-by-city/)
Olivier, a parent and central Fresno resident, seconded the motion before the Fresno City Council on April 5 before joining in the 4-2 vote to again ignore California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements and support a “Neg-Dec” for a major polluter. And the green light was given to Gap Inc. to more than double its operations inside a pair of million-square-foot warehouses it owns just north of the Fresno airport, given to them by the city for $2 nearly two decades ago.
The international retail giant announced plans to install $80 million worth of package handling systems for its growing e-commerce and mobile sales and create more than 500 new full-time jobs with benefits starting at $15 per hour.
For good measure, the city threw in a $10 million “incentive package” through which Fresno will refund Gap Inc. its local taxes at a rate of $15,000 for every new job it creates, up to 650 full-time positions and $10 million. Those “full-time” jobs will average $15 per hour for 35 hours per week, according to the city attorney, for an annual salary of $27,300. For now. There are no provisions governing length of employment, and industry experts predict near-full automation of such warehouses within a decade.
When City Council previously “sold” the valuable airport-adjacent land to Gap for a mere two bucks, it violated the federally deeded land’s restrictions. This resulted in a $5.8 million fine against the city. There has been no report of the Gap offering to help pay the penalty or of the city making such a request.
Gap enjoys estimated annual sales of $3.5 billion through 3,700 retail outlets worldwide and increasing online sales. The corporation is financially healthy, according to industry analysts, with three-fourths of its sales in the United States. Its brands include Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta, and it enjoys a solid reputation for financial management.
It is unclear whether the city planning department will regard April’s “Neg-Dec” as limited to the financial impacts of the tax incentive package being approved by the City Council, or if it will regard it as applicable to any alterations to Gap Inc.’s existing operating permit, including the truck and commuter traffic for a facility of more than 500 additional workers.
In either case, it’s clear the city has no intention of requiring environmental review of any industrial warehouse. The State of California—its courts, legislature and executive branch agencies (because forget the governor)—are Fresno’s only hope.
But the courts are expensive and take time, legislators disinterested or too timid, and the agencies are willing to turn a blind eye to Fresno’s deeply racist ways, too. The California Air Resources Board is focused on the Valley’s regional particulate matter attainment plan and the hundreds of millions in cap-and-trade dollars gushing into Valley construction projects for high-speed rail and other Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF) outlays such as the $70 million in Transformative Communities Climate grants to Fresno developers and public agencies.
Naturally, the explosive growth in truck traffic’s greenhouse gas emissions have not been estimated for any of the city-approved warehouse projects. So, in effect, the state, by funding large construction projects in Fresno, rewards the city for its bad behavior. It is certainly not sending any word of opposition.
It’s the Stupid Economy
Sadly, Fresno residents need to come to terms with the fact that they elected a commercial property manager as their mayor, and the depth of economic discussion between Brand, his staff and the City Council is as shallow as the two-dimensional dais they rest their starched cuffs on. It’s a spreadsheet approach to land-use planning. The third dimension—the living one—is not discussed.
Yes, they fund economic analyses and calculate projected sales tax revenue, job creation and more. But the discussions by City Council members and presentations by staff are at times nonsensical. At an April meeting, Economic Development Director Larry Westerlund rambled on with “back-of-the-napkin” exaggerations and simplifications about new jobs from all three warehouses taking a full percentage point off the local unemployment rate, $80 million of imported equipment as an “investment” and more.
But air pollution creates jobs, too, and those are not being considered by the city. Which is unfortunate because there is an important choice to be made: jobs that prevent air pollution versus jobs for healthcare professionals to treat its impacts on human health.
Instead, and on behalf of the entire community, the City Council is defaulting to the city’s standard two-punch combination of the Neg-Dec and inadequate impact fees. Long-time City Hall watchers will note the similarities between this era and an earlier one in which the same arguments about jobs, the local economy and low fees were used to justify vast tracts of residential sprawl that failed to pay its way.
A former District 1 City Council member described the situation to Los Angeles Times reporter Mark Arax more than a decade ago: “Fresno is still a good old boy system, and whatever the good old boys want, that’s what gets greased,” Tom Boyajian told the Los Angeles Times. “One of the biggest shames in this city is that growth isn’t even covering its own costs.”
It certainly wasn’t. As a result, Fresno is still struggling to dig itself out of the huge infrastructure pothole it dug itself into during the 1980s and 1990s. Now Brand is returning the city to its failed past practices, and his arguments make no more sense than Westerlund’s.
When Brand told the City Council on April 5 that “the lower we go, the stronger our negotiating position becomes,” he was referring to the city’s unemployment rate and addressing the concerns of Council Members Oliver Baines and Esmeralda Soria about the Gap tax agreement’s lack of local hire provisions.
His argument was that before Fresno can consider raising the bar in any way through the slightest unnecessary requirements and risk losing that customer, the city must wait until the unemployment rate hits a historic low of 4%, which is essentially full employment. You know, never.
Despite the institutional racism inherent in Fresno’s long-established government practice of ignoring pollution impacts in low-income communities of color, the City Council went ahead. It’s the easier choice for them politically because the legal approach requires adhering to CEQA, which would push them into clean air strategies; that, in turn, upsets a mayor and development staff intent on giving away the store to major multinational corporations. (Remember, this is the same mayor who made the ludicrous offer to basically hand over control of local government to land Amazon HQ2.)
District 5 representative Luis Chavez was so desperate to avoid confronting the issue he took the surprising position that the City Council had no real say in the debate: “The concern I have today is that we don’t send mixed messages. The folks at The Gap came in here with an understanding of a plan that was presented forward. I think we need to honor that.” Presented forward? Very officious sounding but vacuous. Whatever the Mayor & co. had negotiated was good enough for Chavez, who cast a supporting vote.
He and the rest of the City Council have made it clear in earlier votes they prefer to create more air pollution jobs for doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, heart surgeons, specialists, pharmacists and drug manufacturers galore rather than for air pollution prevention and mitigation jobs in the construction and high-tech sectors.
Through the CEQA process, the Council and affected residents could identify mitigation strategies before, during and after construction. Buffer zones could be created, traffic and pedestrian routes altered, air filtration systems upgraded in classrooms and nursing homes, the list goes on.
The kicker, of course, is who pays. Polluters or their victims?
Kevin Hall is a former Fresno County Planning Commissioner and a long-time air quality advocate.