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Is the City of Fresno prepared for Fresno State’s rapidly-growing footprint?

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Fresno State

Is the City of Fresno prepared for Fresno State’s rapidly-growing footprint?

Fresno State’s growth is undeniable. So are the impacts. Will City Hall get involved or serve as a bystander?

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A collision is coming to Cedar and Shaw avenues. I’m talking about the clash of Fresno State’s eye-popping progress and City Hall’s heroic land-use policy.

Let’s begin with Fresno State. It’s largely a secret among the local media, but the university in recent years has become a stunning success.

I know, I know – the university has always done its duty with style and efficiency. But it seems like the final years of the John Welty era and the beginning years of the Joseph Castro era have seen supercharged excellence become the norm.

I don’t have space here to list all the feats. I can only promise: Just wait until that new Student Union is approved and built!

Yet, there’s trouble at Fresno State. Crime is capturing the attention of many in the student body. In the past half-year, I know of one carjacking. There was the young man arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a number of women. Two students were allegedly robbed at gunpoint. Locked vehicles have been burglarized. A number of cars in a single night had their tires slashed.

Some of the incidents occurred on-campus, some off-campus near the university. The man accused of sexual assault was a Fresno State student at the time of his arrest. It’s reasonable to assume that at least some of the off-campus incidents were the work of non-students.

My main interest in this piece is the area around Fresno State – let’s call it the university’s “sphere of influence” – and how it interacts with the campus. I don’t have Fresno Police Department statistics for the past 10 years to say for sure whether crime is up or down in Fresno State’s SOI.

We do know that Chief Jerry Dyer said violent crime in Fresno as a whole was up 11.7% in 2016 compared to 2015. Robbery was up 10.9%. Aggravated assault was up 14.2%.

We also know that Council Member Paul Caprioglio, who represents the Fresno State area, got city officials at last June’s budget hearings to fund the creation of a police report-writing station in the El Dorado Park neighborhood west of Bulldog Stadium.

My point: Anecdotal and circumstantial evidence strongly suggests public safety in the Fresno State SOI is (or was) a City Hall concern. Dyer’s officers have jurisdiction in the SOI; the university has its own police department.

Fresno State’s student government is definitely worried. Student Body President Tim Ryan and Executive Vice President Blake Zante are making student safety a priority this semester.

So, too, is The Collegian, Fresno State’s student-run newspaper/multi-media platform. Collegian reporters and editors have repeatedly scooped their local competitors on public safety issues at Fresno State.

Folks, I sense the stresses between the Fresno State campus and the Fresno State SOI are only going to get intensify. And the reason is simple: Fresno State is the most valuable “high opportunity area” in the San Joaquin Valley; City Hall policy under Mayor Ashley Swearengin, and now Mayor Lee Brand, is focused on leveraging high opportunity areas to transform Fresno’s many disadvantaged residents; high-density housing mandates very easily could be the source of a “town-gown” conflict the likes of which Fresno has never seen.

Like most of you, I watched with considerable interest as Mayor Swearengin guided Fresno through a most unusual eight-year period. The city during the Great Recession came close to needing the protection of federal bankruptcy court. At the same time, Swearengin was laying the foundation for a new community attitude toward growth.

In a nutshell, no more sprawl. Sure, we’ll continue the march toward a population of one million. But we’ll handle the extra people by building up; or building on empty lots; or by building smarter. Grape vineyards and orange groves outside the city’s current sphere of influence are safe from the developer’s bulldozer.

And in saying no to sprawl, Swearengin promised, Fresno would also eliminate the concentrated poverty that has made the city a pariah in urban planning circles. We’re all in this together, she said, and our housing patterns will reflect this collaborative sentiment.

The new 2035 general plan is central to this vision.

Fresno, the general plan vows, will “develop complete neighborhoods and districts with an efficient and diverse mix of residential densities, building types, and affordability which are designed to be healthy, attractive, and centered by schools, parks, and public and commercial services to provide a sense of place and that provide as many services as possible.” Fresno will “intentionally plan for complete neighborhoods as an outcome and not a collection of subdivisions which do not result in complete neighborhoods.” Fresno will “emphasize increased land use intensity and mixed-use development at densities supportive of greater use of transit in Fresno. Greater densities can be achieved through encouragement, infrastructure and incentives for infill and revitalization along major corridors and in activity centers.”

Now, there’s a lot more to the Swearengin vision (now the Brand vision) than just the 2035 general plan. Eli Setencich, the great Fresno Bee columnist, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s used to call Mayor Daniel Whitehurst “Travelin’ Dan” because Hizzoner liked to hit the road on official business. Eli would have had ample reason to describe Swearengin as “Plannin’ Ashley.” City Hall shelves creak with all the growth blueprints and development codes created under her watch.

The state and the feds had a hand in everything, too. The feds late in Swearengin’s second term came up with a growth blueprint that bears on this story. It’s called the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. The rule has all the clout of federal Civil Rights law.

The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule is complex, but it’s essentially a quota system for housing. Neighborhoods, especially those deemed to be “high opportunity” because of all the good schools and nice shopping centers and beautiful parks and life-affirming cultural amenities in the area, had best contain the appropriate percentages of federally-protected classes of people. These classes include the economically disadvantaged.

Cities failing to meet these quotas (vague as they currently are) are likely to find themselves in federal court. Fresno-based housing activists say City Hall purposely skewers zoning rules to keep the poor concentrated in inner-city ghettoes and far from “high opportunity” neighborhoods.

What exactly is the nature of Fresno’s housing challenges? Here’s a snapshot of the local housing landscape, according to the Consolidated Plan (yet another of the government-mandated blueprints):

  • Cost is the most common housing problem. Forty-seven percent of households (we’re talking 71,090 households) spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs. Fifty-four percent of renter households pay more than 30% of income toward housing costs.
  • Twenty-four percent of households (36,305 total) face what the Consolidated Plan calls a “severe cost burden” – spending more than 50% of income toward housing costs. This represents 32% of renter households and 15% of owner-occupied households.
  • Overcrowding is the second most common housing problem. Overcrowding is defined as more than one person per room, not including bathrooms, porches, foyers, halls or half-rooms. Nearly one of every five households in Fresno (12,420 total) fits the “overcrowding” definition.
  • Twenty percent of households (31,490) have five or more persons.
  • Households receiving public housing or Housing Choice Voucher assistance have an average annual income of about $11,500.
  • The waiting list for Section 8 housing help contains applicants from about 36,000 households. Applicants can expect to be on the waiting list at least two years.
  • The waiting list to get into public housing has applicants from 24,233 households.
  • The 2014 Point In Time Count found 2,116 homeless persons living as they best they could throughout the city. Of these, nearly 75% were unsheltered and living in places not fit for human habitation.
  • Nine percent of Fresno’s residents (46,513) are 65 years of age or older. Nearly half (46%) have a disability.

I didn’t see in the Consolidated Plan where these housing challenges are concentrated. I’m guessing they’re concentrated rather far from the Fresno State campus. I’m guessing the plan at the City Hall, state and federal levels is for many of the people represented by these statistics to move out of their impoverished, high-crime Fresno neighborhoods and into more modern quarters in a “high opportunity” area whose assets will help them get on the road to realizing the American Dream.

The Fresno State SOI almost certainly will be a prime target for many of these relocations.

Now, Fresno covers more than 110 square miles. All of these growth, development, and housing plans impact a lot of neighborhoods. (Does the term “Downtown revitalization” ring a bell?) It will take a while for each and every neighborhood to meet every housing and equal-opportunity quota. But the Fresno State sphere of influence is already feeling the momentum.

The City Council last summer approved a rezone application for a developer with a 66-unit apartment complex on Maple Avenue, about a quarter-mile south of Fresno State. The 66 units of Vintage Wood Apartments will be torn down. According to the staff report, the complex sitting on 4.7 acres will be rebuilt with 138 units.

Vintage Wood’s density is going to double.

This kind of reform of land-use and housing-density patterns is what City Hall wants to happen throughout Fresno, including all across the Fresno State SOI.

I’m sure the residents of the current Vintage Wood complex are law-abiding Fresnans. I’m sure the same will be true for the residents of the new Vintage Wood complex. But looking at the bigger picture, I’ve interviewed enough Fresno State criminology professors over the years to know that increased crime in absolute numbers can go hand-in-hand with growing populations. It’s not guaranteed to happen. But it’s a possibility.

Public transportation is vital to making all these social-engineering dreams come true. In that regard, City Hall and Fresno State are working as teammates.

On Jan. 9, Transportation Director Brian Marshall, City Manager Bruce Rudd and Fresno State President Castro gathered on campus to launch FAX15, an enhanced service for those who use the city bus.

The city is about eight months away from unveiling its Bus Rapid Transit system. This bus route along Blackstone Avenue and the Ventura/Kings Canyon corridor features 10-minute intervals between buses. FAX15 provides 15-minute intervals along the Shaw Avenue and Cedar Avenue corridors, thus turning BRT into something approaching a swift and operationally-integrated public transportation system.

FAX15 is a boon to students who want to get to campus or go home. FAX15 is also a boon to anyone who wants to take advantage of Fresno State’s cultural and entertainment opportunities.

“Public transportation in the City of Fresno is going to be markedly more convenient to use,” Rudd said at the Jan. 9 ceremony. “The Shaw Avenue-Cedar Avenue-FAX15 service is just the first step.”

The 2035 general plan and City Hall’s expansion of transportation services were much on Rudd’s mind.

“More importantly, (FAX15) is indicative of the commitment that will continue to be made in which we align a lot of our resources, including public transportation, to support land-use (policy), our general plan, that focuses on reducing vehicle trips,” Rudd said. “The only way you can do that is you have to have the infrastructure in place in order to accommodate and support that kind of initiative. BRT, FAX15, running later hours at night – they are just as important to furthering that general plan as the higher densities” championed in the plan.

Castro said the university can’t fulfill its mission if students, faculty, staff and visitors can’t get to the campus.

“Fresno State has become what I call a ‘mini-transportation hub’ here in Fresno, thanks to this strong partnership with the City of Fresno and with FAX,” Castro said. “I am grateful for that.”

Castro said the records show that about 1,300 individual Fresno State students – each an avid FAX customer – made a total of about 266,000 trips on FAX during 2016.

“I believe, with this new innovation of FAX15, we’ll see those numbers climb dramatically,” Castro said.

Castro said enhanced public transportation is a win-win for the university – less need for students to drive to the campus in their own cars, thus saving students the cost of parking while sparing the air, and less need for the university to invest in land-eating parking lots or money-eating parking structures.

“I’m very excited about FAX15,” Castro said. “It’s a great model for our partnership with the city. I look forward to new ways of working Mayor Lee Brand – our bold Fresno State alumnus.”

The City Hall-Fresno State partnership is to the point where both sides are making tactical plans for the future. FAX15 is one such example.

But is the City Hall-Fresno State partnership to the point where both sides are working together on a strategic plan for the future? It doesn’t look that way. For example, Council Member Caprioglio told me last week that he still can’t find a site in the Fresno State SOI for that police report-writing station promised during 2016 budget hearings. Caprioglio sounded as if he’s at a total loss about what to do next.

There are only about four months left in the fiscal year. That police station, viewed by many Fresno State students as key to enhancing security in the Fresno State area, more than likely is dead until the next round of budget hearings.

I chatted last fall with Dan Zack, the No. 2 executive in Fresno’s planning department, about City Hall’s vision for the Fresno State neighborhood.

“The general idea of ‘hey, by this university being along the Shaw Corridor, do we want to intensify things?’ Yes. That is part of the general plan’s big picture,” Zack said.

Fresno State’s layout is such that most of the prime growth opportunities in the sphere of influence are to the west and south. Zack said those areas “are good places for mixed uses/higher-density housing.”

Parts of Fresno State’s SOI are zoned for 30 to 45 housing units per acre. Zack said Sierra Madre Avenue between Maple and Cedar is a prime spot for new residential and mixed-use projects of this kind.

But when it comes to City Hall creating a Fresno State specific plan to affirmatively guide all this expected growth around the campus, the response at City Hall is a big yawn. City officials are busy with specific plans for parts of Southeast Fresno and West-Central Fresno, plus an update of the Towner District specific plan. But no one has given a thought about drafting a Fresno State specific plan.

“That’s not to say its out of the question,” Zack said. “But it’s not what we’ve been talking about as to the next year or two’s worth of specific plans that we would be focusing on.”

In closing, I asked Zack if City Hall and Fresno State officials are at least talking about potential impacts of city growth/housing policies on the campus and its students.

A specific plan would at least bring some cooperation and logic to the challenge of public safety – the hook of this piece in the first place.

“I haven’t been in any of those conversations,” Zack said. “I haven’t heard of any issues, though.”

Dan – pick up a copy of The Collegian.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver and advisor to The Collegian, the student newspaper of Fresno State.

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