By Ray McKnight
Should a small cabal in City Hall be allowed to ignore and thwart the wishes of Fresno’s citizens regarding Eaton Plaza?
On April 14, 1947, by a yes vote of 71 percent, the citizens of Fresno approved a bond issue to purchase the land between Fresno, Mariposa, N and O Streets to create a public green space. Designated Eaton Plaza, the area, except for the historic Water Tower in one corner, was mainly used as a parking lot for more than a half-century. Public support for bringing the dream of Eaton Plaza into fruition never disappeared, however. In 1994 a Fresno County Grand Jury report strongly condemned a proposal to create a farmer’s market on the Eaton Plaza site, declaring that the city “should take necessary steps to ensure for perpetuity Eaton Plaza as public open space by recording appropriate deed restrictions.” Early in this century efforts to build first a federal, then a state courthouse on Eaton Plaza were successfully opposed.
In 2003-04 the City of Fresno finally engaged in a concerted effort to reach the goal set in 1947. The City Council in June 2003 chose MPA Design of San Francisco to create an Eaton Plaza Master Plan (EPMP). Over succeeding months MPA Design conducted a number of public stakeholder meetings in which dozens of citizens participated that produced the EPMP. The EPMP was adopted by the Council on August 31, 2004, and was incorporated into all existing city plans. The EPMP called for implementation in five phases. On November 14, 2005, a ground-breaking ceremony was held for Phase One, and a grand opening ceremony was held on August 3, 2006. Work on the second phase was shovel ready in 2010 when newly-elected Mayor Swearengin canceled the project.
Over a period of seventy years, the public’s intentions regarding Eaton Plaza have been clear, but a few people in City Hall think they know better and have attempted in a covert manner to create something very different. Only by chance was it discovered that the City’s budget contained a line item for constructing basketball courts on Eaton Plaza. The courts would take up a large portion of the Eaton Plaza site, thereby ruining the EPMP design and violating a plan that was adopted as part of the City’s General Plan in accordance with established City policy.
There are already many basketball courts surrounding downtown Fresno at the following parks and recreation facilities: Dickey at Divisidero and Blackstone; Ted C. Wills at San Pablo between Belmont and Olive; Fink White at Amador and Whitesbridge; Frank H. Ball at Inyo and A; Romain at Belmont and First; Holmes at First and Tulare. Also, the City and the Fresno Unified School District have an agreement for the use of various school playgrounds for park use, many of them with basketball courts.
No public announcement, solicitation of public opinion, or move to amend the General Plan has taken place. When a concerned citizen raised questions about the basketball courts at a Council meeting in February, City Manager Rudd said there would be a notice and public meeting about it. So far as of May 10, there has been no notice or public meeting.
The only details available to the public about the proposed basketball courts has been a rendering published in the Fresno Bee based on plans the Bee reporter was allowed to look at and then describe to a Bee artist. The rendering reveals that almost all the parking lots would remain. The only addition to trees already standing at some corners of the Eaton Plaza area is a row of a half-dozen trees running through the middle. This plan makes a travesty of what Fresnans envisioned for seventy years for Eaton Plaza, and it does nothing to redeem Fresno from its position of number 98 among 99 cities in the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore Index.
A pleasing array of trees, plantings, fountains, and seating areas is appropriate for this site, which is part of the cultural and governmental center of the City of Fresno, Fresno County, and the entire region known as the central San Joaquin Valley. The City Hall cabal wants to give us a wide expanse of asphalt and chain link fence instead.
Author’s Update: On May 17 the Planning Commission voted to repeal the Civic Center Master Plan. Despite earlier assurances from City staff to the contrary, the vote to repeal the Civic Center Master Plan also repeals the Eaton Plaza Master Plan, which was adopted in 2004 as an amendment to the CCMP. City staff promised that the EPMP would be separated from the Civic Center Plan before the City Council voted on the matter. The staff member did not keep his word and said nothing about this when he introduced the agenda item to the City Council.
The efforts of five concerned citizens to get the Council to prevent the repeal of the EPMP was ignored in a manner that one of the citizens has described as “disrespectful.” Council Member Baines, whose district includes the downtown, was the only member to respond to the citizens’ comments. He pointed out that only one of the five lived in his district, suggesting that this disqualified them from having any say about what happens to Eaton Plaza. He called on a representative of the City Attorney’s office who made questionable statements about the Eaton Plaza Master Plan never being formally adopted. Without any more discussion by the Council, the vote to repeal was passed.
Please inform City Hall of your support for the Eaton Plaza Master Plan and your opposition to the basketball courts. To reach Council Members or the Mayor, call (559) 621-8000 or (559) 621-CITY. To contact City Manager Bruce Rudd, call (559) 621-7770.
Or send emails –
- Mayor: Lee.Brand@fresno.gov
- District 1: Esmeralda.Soria@fresno.gov
- District 2: Steve.Brandau@fresno.gov
- District 3: Oliver.Baines@fresno.gov
- District 4: Paul.Caprioglio@fresno.gov
- District 5: Luis.Chavez@fresno.gov
- District 6: Garry.Bredefeld@fresno.gov
- District 7: email@example.com
- City Manager: Bruce.Rudd@fresno.gov
Ray McKnight is a professor emeritus of English at Fresno State. From 2002 through 2012, he was chair of the Downtown Fresno Coalition.