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Nov 29th Fresno City Council Meeting May Change The Character Of Fresno

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Nov 29th Fresno City Council Meeting May Change The Character Of Fresno

Fresno City Council agenda this Thursday includes a discussion of: an 11-member Displacement Task Force, RDA’s housing successor with the sale of BRIO in downtown, BRT, and more which will guide Fresno’s growth into the future.

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Sometimes there is a common theme running through what seems like disparate items on a Fresno City Council agenda.

I suggest this is the case with a handful of items on this Thursday’s council agenda. The common theme: Growth toward Fresno’s edges is both natural and a good thing.

To begin, there is the resolution from the Development and Resource Management Department asking the council to establish an 11-member Displacement Task Force.

The purpose of the task force, according to a staff report from Planning Manager Sophia Pagoulatos, is to “explore ways to provide opportunities for low income residents and merchants to remain in their neighborhoods if displacement is observed due to substantial and sustained increases in rent.”

The Task Force is to have a specific composition.

There will be three residential tenants, one residing in the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan area, one residing in the Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan area, one residing in the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan area.

There will be two commercial tenants, one from Downtown, the other from either Chinatown or Southwest Fresno.

There will be three developers. One will be an affordable housing developer, one will be a market rate developer and one will be a Community Development Corporation developer.

There will be three advocates, one from a non-profit, one from a neighborhood organization and one person who is not affiliated with any formal advocacy group.

Mayor Lee Brand will appoint all 11 Task Force members.

The Task Force’s creation is inspired in part by higher government. Pagoulatos writes that the Task Force “is of critical importance in maintaining good standing with the State Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), as new housing legislation at the state level has now empowered HCD to revoke Housing Element certification of any city that fails to implement its Housing Element programs in a timely manner.”

Pagoulatos explains in blunt terms what that means to City Hall’s interests: “Consequences of de-certification range from disqualification of grant funds for housing and transportation to referral to the State Attorney General.”

Sacramento, obviously, carries the bigger stick in local land-use matters. But as Pagoulatos makes clear, the Task Force also is a result of the flurry of planning activity started during the first term (2009-2013) of Mayor Ashley Swearengin. It was during that time that the Swearengin Administration began drafting the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan, the Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan and the 2035 General Plan. Making the good people of Fresno an important part of the entire creative process was key.

The Fulton and Downtown plans, in particular, seemed so new and full of potential. Remember the charrettes hosted by the consulting firm of Moule & Polyzoides? We were going to transform the dowdy Fulton Corridor and the struggling neighborhoods that were Fresno’s pre-World War II footprint into something worthy of a major American city in the 21st century.

That transformation presented a policy challenge. What was to become of the low-income renters and bottom-sector retailers when well-heeled renters and deep-pocket condo buyers flocked to the reborn Downtown, and upscale commercial services (shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, etc.) followed in their wake? Were the poor simply to accept their fate as the dispossessed? Were they to passively find a new corner of Fresno to live out their days while plying their trades, looking from afar at the great things (money-making things, no doubt) happening in areas where they once held down the fort because no one else was willing to do so?

Of course not. The makers of gentrification like to have their cake and eat it, too. The plan was to turn old-time Fresno into something dynamic, forever eliminating a stagnant culture that kept the city from achieving national greatness and at the same time finding a way for that culture to stay in place, partake to the fullest extent possible of the new order and in no way be made to feel as if it had been a problem in City Hall’s eyes.

The Displacement Task Force is to square that circle.

But nearly a decade after all those big redevelopment plans got rolling, I wonder if the Task Force has any work to do. Fulton Mall is now Fulton Street. I’m not so sure any low-income renters and Mom-and-Pop retailers have been shoved out the door because someone else is willing to pay higher rents. If rents have skyrocketed in the certain neighborhoods, I suspect many of the landlords doing so simply want to be rid of their current tenants.

The best example of what I mean is the Hotel Fresno. Some 10 years ago, developers said they would turn the historic but abandoned building on the border between Downtown and Uptown into a mixed-use project with a nearly 50-50 mix of affordable housing and market-rate housing. The building remains abandoned. The current hope is that government assistance further up the food chain can turn Hotel Fresno into 100% affordable housing.

You don’t need a Displacement Task Force if your policies are not displacing any protected special interest.

The council on Thursday will tackle a similar issue, doing so as the Housing Successor to the old Redevelopment Agency (clunky title, to be sure; just think of it as one more gasp in the RDA’s long death rattle).

What’s at play is Brio on Broadway, an apartment complex in the Cultural Arts District (Uptown). Brio was one of many projects built in the area by the Assemi family over the past decade or so. The staff report describes Brio as an “affordable housing project.” The same could be said for many of the relatively new mixed-use projects in the Cultural Arts District. The affordable housing part of the equation is how the developers got substantial public financial help from the Redevelopment Agency to make their projects pencil out.

It turns out that the Assemis last year sold Brio to Russell Long. Long wants to immediately repay a $1.74 million RDA loan on Brio that goes to 2050. Both sides (the old RDA and Long) have agreed on a discount rate and a loan payoff amount: $941,966. The council will be asked to approve the deal.

What counts for purposes of this blog is this.

The staff report says the RDA’s original deal with the Assemis provides for the sale of Brio “to entities having experience in the operation of affordable rental housing.” Long fits the bill, the report says. To me, that affirms the Cultural Arts District as an affordable housing area rather than an area where low-income renters are being displaced.

And, the staff report adds, the lump sum payment of nearly $1 million will enable the city “to immediately reinvest a substantial sum in the production of affordable housing at a critical time of need.” The staff report doesn’t identify potential locations for these new affordable housing projects. I’ll go out on a limb and predict city leaders are looking at sites in Chinatown and nearby West Fresno, within easy walking distance of the proposed High-Speed Train depot.

If so, then it might be fairly suggested that no one who is poor is being displaced by Downtown’s transformation. Downtown’s options for the poor are likely to be growing because that is what the marketplace, combined with government policies, deems best for Downtown.

The council on Thursday also will be asked to approve an amendment to the contract with VSCE, Inc., the firm doing construction management on the Bus Rapid Transit project. The proposal is to bump the contract amount up by $172,885 to a total of $2.41 million. The life of the contract will be extended until the end of 2018.

Says the staff report: “Many of the technological improvements, such as off-board fare collection, real time displays, and communication infrastructure specific to BRT, are new to the City and complex in design. Integration of these systems into the FAX information technology environment, resolution of software bugs, and hardware testing by the contractor has continued beyond substantial completion, preventing the construction contract from being closed out. VSCE is the technical expert on the outstanding items and is managing the resolution.”

I take the above (and the rest of the staff report) to mean: BRT is up and running. The system still has some kinks in it. VSCE can straighten them out. The project’s budget can afford the extra work. BRT will continue to evolve into an effective and expandable public transportation system. Fresno’s low-income residents will have a brighter future of citywide mobility.

I believe the staff report. And for that reason, I suggest that any displacement that might come across the desk of the Displacement Task Force becomes less imperative. I have plenty of mobility, therefore all of Fresno is my oyster. BRT and the rest of the improving FAX system are doing the same for Fresnans of modest income.

The council on Thursday will be asked to approve a half-million-dollar contract with a consulting firm, LSA Associates, as part of the city’s 2035 General Plan Environmental Impact Report update. The council also will be asked to extend to the end of 2020 the current exemption of development impact fees for certain construction projects in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The latter request comes from Council President Esmeralda Soria and Council Member Clint Olivier.

The key takeaway: The General Plan/EIR update and the development impact fee subsidy program are designed to offset any developer incentive to displace disadvantaged Fresnans from their current location. In other words, City Hall is focused night and day on anti-displacement policies, especially as they impact inner city residents.

OK – so far I’ve concentrated on agenda items that deal with inner city Fresno. Each is a sincere, if relatively modest, policy attempt to improve that part of the city. I conclude my review of agenda items with a brief look at another request from the planning department (DARM, as it’s called these days).

Jennifer Clark, the department’s director, is asking for authorization to make a deal with consulting firm Ascent Environmental Inc. The cost is not to exceed $500,000. The firm is to complete an environmental impact report assessing the creation of a South Industrial Priority Area Specific Plan.

When they’re adopted by the council at a future date, Clark writes in her report to the council, “the Specific Plan and the EIR will provide certainty to development within the South Industrial Priority Area.”

Clark goes on to note that the very first objective of the 2035 General Plan is a thriving local economy that generates jobs.

Clark writes: “The City is committed to economic development and fiscal sustainability. In fact, the outcome of many General Plan initiatives is tied to the city’s economic success. The City is committed to improving the business climate, retaining local businesses, developing a high-skilled labor force, attracting new industries, supporting the tax base, and sustaining the City’s ability to provide public services for current and future residents.”

The South Industrial Priority Area is to be an important part of Fresno’s economic engine in the 21st century.

Where, you ask, is the South Industrial Priority Area? Judging by a map accompanying Clark’s report, it’s an area of about 6,000 acres due south of Downtown. It includes a substantial portion of the Reverse Triangle. It also includes a big chunk of Southeast Fresno. Much of the area is within the city limits. Much of the area is in Fresno’s sphere of influence.

What caught my eye with the map is that the “study area” is described as the 1,208 acres bounded by American, Orange, Adams and Maple avenues. If I read the map correctly, those 1,208 acres are not in Fresno or its SOI. Adams Avenue is south of Easton. If you go a few miles to the east on Adams Avenue, you run into the northern edge of Fowler.

If I’m reading Clark’s report and her map correctly, the South Industrial Priority Area Specific Plan proposal is an important and amazing signal of Fresno’s ambitions for growth to the south. If the South Industrial Priority Area grows in the manner that Clark hints at, then a lot more than just industry is headed that way. Homes, retail, commercial, schools and a lot more are coming, too. And more county land is destined to become part of Fresno.

Exciting stuff, if I’m reading Clark’s report correctly.

But here’s my main point. All of the issues I’ve described so far are coming at just one City Council meeting on Nov. 29, 2018. Individually, no issue is earth shaking. Even taken as a group, they can hardly be described as historic. But I contend that the council’s Nov. 29 decisions, combined with hundreds of decisions it has made in the recent past and the hundreds of decisions it will make in the coming years, will profoundly change the character of Fresno. No malice is involved. Just the opposite – council members are doing the best they can in the here and now to serve both the Fresno of today and the Fresno of tomorrow. These council members do so knowing better than the rest of us that their actions almost certainly will be judged by a posterity that will care little for the pressures under which they act.

I know – if you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen.

I contend that if you take a close look at the City Hall clip files in The Fresno Bee library from November 1958, you’ll find City Hall officials and citizens tackling with sincerity similar issues concerning growth and justice in Fresno. City officials in those days long ago made what they thought were the wisest decisions. Then events took over.

No one at City Hall in November 1958 was trying to turn Fresno into a “tale of two cities.” No one at City Hall in November 2018 is trying to turn Fresno into a “tale of two cities.”

Events always take over.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. J Andersen

    December 1, 2018 at 12:15 am

    Thank you for the great articles you write – gives people like me a chance to keep up with what is going on in our city. I was puzzled about the size of the proposed South Industrial study area until I remembered the Maintenance Facility Yard that is proposed for the High Speed Rail. There is a clip on youtube about the proposal https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1LG6TvfIUQ

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