The Assemi family’s plan to expand Fig Garden Financial Center has me thinking of David McCullough’s marvelous 1977 history of the Panama Canal, “The Path Between the Seas.”
I recently reread the National Book Award winner, subtitled “The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914.” There were lots of reasons why it took nearly a half-century to build an efficient waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. That’s what makes the effort such a compelling tale.
As McCullough brings to life, there was no doubt that a canal should be built – the world’s maritime powers, most especially the one headed by President Teddy Roosevelt, didn’t want to spend the next thousand years steaming around Cape Horn. But what type of canal? The French, first to give it a go, opted for a sea-level canal. They failed spectacularly. The Americans were next up. After much debate and skullduggery, they chose a canal based on a system of locks and a massive man-made lake. Success!
Engineering decisions concerning transit can make or break a project.
That brings me to Fig Garden Financial Center. The local media, including the Central Valley Observer, have already written about the Assemi Group’s desire to build a fourth office tower on the site. Well, make that a portion of the center’s current site. The plan is to expand the center’s footprint to the east. The fourth tower and additional parking would go in an area that now includes two empty fields and portions of San Jose and Colonial avenues.
The Assemi family owns the financial center. It owns the empty fields. The proposed project would require City Hall to agree to vacate the needed portions of San Jose and Colonial.
I live in the neighborhood. Granville Vice President Jeff Roberts and his staff have been diligent in keeping neighbors informed about what’s going on.
What’s going on is more than a developer’s desire to build. Fig Garden Financial Center is next to Fig Garden Village in Northwest Fresno. It’s what’s known in urban planning circles as a “high opportunity” area. The surrounding neighborhood, as we’ve seen, has several empty fields. Those are high-density and high-intensity infill opportunities in City Hall’s eyes. Bottom line: The Assemi family’s desire to build something in the neighborhood fits in perfectly with City Hall development policy as memorialized in the 2035 general plan.
I won’t rehash here all the political and public relations complexity involved in building the fourth office tower. It’s sufficient to note two points: 1.) The new tower and its parking would eliminate the Colonial-San Jose connection. In essence, if the proposed project is built as planned, there would be an isthmus of asphalt, steel and glass separating what is now the unbroken pathway of Colonial and San Jose; 2.) Roberts on Tuesday (Jan. 15) and several of his project colleagues hosted a neighborhood meeting in the lobby of one of the center’s towers. The purpose was to give neighbors an update on where the project stands. The purpose was also to talk about dogs.
I attended the meeting. The part about dogs is where I got to thinking about the Panama Canal.
Roberts in his letter to neighbors for the Jan. 15 meeting wrote: “During that meeting (a previous get-together about the project), we mentioned plans to build a small neighborhood park on the property for area residents and their pets to use. We’ve identified the location of the park, and would like to hear your thoughts on its design!”
About 35 of my neighbors showed up on Jan. 15. Some of them walk their dogs in the neighborhood. The Colonial/San Jose connection is a popular part of their journey. I walk our family pug just about every morning, taking in the Colonial/San Jose connection.
Roberts told the neighbors on Jan. 15 that the project design remains in a process of “evolution.” At the same time, he added, the Assemi Group is moving as rapidly as possible with paperwork at City Hall. Vacating pieces of two public streets is not a simple matter, he said. The vital underground public infrastructure – pipes delivering or removing all sorts of civilization-type assets – would have to be moved. You can’t have a 100,000 square foot building sitting atop these pipes when they need repair.
“We don’t have all of the conditions” set down by City Hall for the project, Roberts said. “But I can tell you there will be many.”
Roberts, though, clearly is optimistic. And judging by my limited contact with them, my neighbors for the most part accept the Assemi project as a workable idea. Count me among them.
Change, in the form of concentrated development, is coming real fast to the developable lots in the neighborhood. The old days are long gone, never to return. The only question now is what kind of change. My wife and I have lived in the neighborhood for nearly 25 years. We’ve never been kept awake at night by anything happening at Fig Garden Financial Center. Peace and quiet! I fear the same won’t be true if the proposed site for the fourth office tower is turned into high-density residential complexes.
Our one major complaint with the neighborhood is the use of the San Ramon-Colonial-San Jose path by motorists as a shortcut between the major streets of Maroa Avenue on the east and Palm Avenue on the west. Too many of those motorists speed their way through the neighborhood. The Assemi project would fix that problem. As to getting from Palm to Maroa and vice versa for the general public, that’s what Barstow Avenue (100 yards to the north of my house) is for.
We met for about an hour on Jan. 15. It was a diverse group, so the questions to Roberts were equally diverse. For example, some neighbors spoke of the difficulty we have of making a left turn from San Ramon onto Palm. It’s an old problem, with no easy answer.
But a fair amount of the give-and-take concerned the proposed neighborhood park for “area residents and their pets to use” (as Roberts wrote).
Roberts said something that caught the attention of this old City Hall reporter. Roberts said the current plan is to have some type of security fence bordering the expanded portion of Fig Garden Financial Center. We’re talking about the part that would jut into neighborhood, cutting the connection between San Jose and Colonial.
This makes sense. The parking areas for employees and general public need safety. Normal vehicular traffic would access the new office tower via the Palm/San Jose intersection to the west. The only vehicles to have access through the new security fence would be those belonging to public safety.
If I understood Roberts correctly, the security fence would have two pedestrian gates. One gate would be at what would be the new cul-de-sac on San Jose. The other gate would at what would be the new cul-de-sac on Colonial. There would be a park-like setting near both gates. Both park-like settings would be connected by a landscaped pathway.
Again, if I understood Roberts correctly, area residents would be given the access code to unlock the gates. The residents could move as freely from one side of the neighborhood to the other side as they do now. They could cross the “Isthmus of Assemi” at any time, thus walking their dogs with no hitch in the routine.
But no one else in the general public could freely move between San Jose and Colonial on foot.
I saw two potential problems with this scenario (again, this assumes I heard Roberts correctly).
First, how does the developer protect the code? People move in and out of the neighborhood. Visitors come to neighborhood homes to stay for the day or several days. Seems to me the code could leak far and wide rather quickly.
Second, how would the developer respond should City Hall officials raise the equity issue? If you live in the neighborhood and have the access code, you get to make the transit on foot from San Jose to Colonial or vice versa just as easily as if portions of two public streets hadn’t been vacated to accommodate the fourth office tower. If you don’t have the access code, your journey by foot (or bicycle or scooter or skate board or any of the other modes of our modern, non-vehicular transportation revolution) is made much longer.
Maybe not as long as sailing around Cape Horn, but long enough to cause anger of a populist/egalitarian type.
I don’t see how staffers in City Hall’s Development and Resource Management Department, commissioners on the Planning Commission, Mayor Brand, City Manager Quan-Schecter and the seven Council Members could turn a deaf ear to citizen complaints that the Assemi plan, despite its many benefits, violates the principle of fairness because of something as simple as a linear doggy park bounded by a security fence and two locked gates.
The Assemi dilemma is that simply eliminating the doggy park and its pathway would almost certainly turn the entire neighborhood against the project. The “isthmus” created by the fourth tower would cut the neighborhood in two, thus destroying a beautiful and successful neighborhood. According to the 2035 general plan, infill development is not supposed to do that to established neighborhoods.
On the other hand, to remove the pathway’s locked gates would make the security fence irrelevant.
There’s got to be a solution to this transit challenge that turns this slice of Fresno into a model of effective infill development. The Assemi Group’s engineers are the ones to do it.
If they do, I’d say to them what Teddy Roosevelt said during his 1906 visit to Panama during the canal’s construction: “Bully!”