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Fig Garden residents chafe at by-right development after housing complex gets green light

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Fig Garden residents chafe at by-right development after housing complex gets green light

Granville Homes President Darius Assemi won again. He came, he saw, he conquered on behalf of what City Hall sees as the meaning of the 2035 general plan.

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Granville Homes President Darius Assemi won again.

He came, he saw, he conquered on behalf of what Fresno City Hall views as the real meaning of the 2035 general plan.

I’m talking about Assemi’s successful effort to accelerate the transformation of my neighborhood, located north of Fig Garden Village in Northwest Fresno.

The City Council on May 25 approved some paperwork that allows an offshoot of the Assemi empire (a subsidiary called AFREI, LLC) to build a residential complex on the northeast corner of San Jose and Colonial avenues.

The vacant site is a bit over an acre in size. It once held a large one-story house owned by an elderly couple. Assemi bought the property, and for more than a year has wanted to build a “planned development” there.

My neighbors pushed back. I’ve already written two pieces for CVObserver about how this backwater dispute is pertinent to Fresno as a whole.

In a nutshell, the original Assemi idea was for 18 residential units. In the end, Assemi settled for 13 units. Near as I can tell, the project has always been an apartment complex.

My neighborhood is full of single-family residences and condos. My wife and I have lived in our house on nearby San Ramon Avenue for 23 years.

The planning commission twice gave the Assemi project a thumb’s down, essentially saying the project as designed didn’t fit the pattern of a neighborhood that has evolved in a unique way over the decades. That essentially is what many of my neighbors were saying.

The council last month gave Assemi the green light on a 7-0 vote. Council members said Assemi’s project fit the 2035 general plan like a glove. Council members said the 2035 general plan should prevail because this three-year-old blueprint for Fresno’s growth earned the public’s blessing through a long and arduous vetting process.

Who in a democracy can argue with that?

Jodi Fitzpatrick, my neighbor and friend, doesn’t fight democracy or the general plan. But if you want a sense of my neighbors’ basic beef with the Assemi project, I suggest you read Jodi’s superb op-ed published June 3 on The Bee’s “Valley Voices” page.

(As a quick aside, let me sing the praises of the work produced under trying circumstances by Editorial Page Editor Bill McEwen and Bee colleague Gail Marshall. The Fresno Bee, my old employer, is going through some mighty rough times. Scorched-earth attrition has taken a terrible toll on the newsroom and the overall product of a once-great newspaper. The few journalists who remain over there on E Street are first class, but their number and the depth of their local experience will almost certainly continue to shrink. “Valley Voices” is an example of the strong product consistently delivered by Bill and Gail.)

Jodi began with a counter-intuitive touch. The problem with the Assemi project wasn’t its high-density nature (13 single-family units on a site that once held just one single-family house), something mandated by the general plan. The problem, Jodi wrote, is that the project actually violates the letter and the spirit of the general plan, which seeks higher densities, infill development and the protection of established neighborhoods.

My neighbors’ concern went beyond theory.

“Local property owners object to the plan for many reasons,” Jodi wrote. “Two-story in a one-story neighborhood creates privacy problems. Twenty-four foot attached townhouses rising only 10 feet from the curb pose a safety hazard for a street corner that’s tight and tricky as it is, even vacant.”

Jodi is a third-generation Fresnan. She founded Pax Domus Inc., a design/build company. In other words, she knows her stuff when it comes to development regulations. She doesn’t talk down to the general reader as she gives her side of a complex argument.

“In its vote, the City Council approved a grab bag of code modifications that are in fact variances, but misleadingly packaged in the application as a conditional use permit,” Jodi wrote. “Reduced lot sizes, reduced setbacks and reduced street frontage all (flout) the requirements put in place to ensure a project is dense but not overcrowded, that it integrates with the existing neighborhood and that the land is used efficiently.”

Jodi begins her final paragraph on a stoic note. The Assemi project is coming. The neighborhood’s essence will change.

But Jodi ends the piece on an upbeat note. She points out that the 2035 general plan repeatedly refers to a concept called “sense of place.” This concept as defined by both the general plan and the half-million Fresnans who back it means “the unique architectural characteristics that make us Fresno, and draw dynamic people to our city,” Jodi wrote.

More change is coming to the neighborhood Jodi and I share. Jodi in her op-ed referred to a 1.5-acre vacant lot owned by another developer on San Jose a bit east of the Assemi project. It appears that this lot is also destined to be a “planned development” that will look an awful lot like an apartment complex.

Jodi’s piece was published five days before The Bee’s Pablo Lopez had an excellent story about the Assemi family buying Fig Garden Financial Center, which is only a stone’s throw to the west of the Colonial/San Jose project. The purchase includes several prime development parcels on the other side of San Jose near Colonial. I’m guessing these lots will be turned into “planned developments” in the near future.

Still, Jodi concluded in her op-ed, “we converts to the General Plan agree that it works, but only if planning does the job we taxpayers pay it to do.”

I caught the tail end of the May 25 City Council debate. The public comment period had ended. Assemi, Granville Vice President Jeff Roberts and Jodi each got one last chance to speak at the public microphone.

One thing grated on me. That was the commentary from several council members. They echoed a point made earlier by Assemi: The general plan allowed Assemi to build “by right” (without any public input or City Hall restraint) a project on the Colonial/San Jose site that would have been far more upsetting to my neighbors.

In other words, council members lectured, the neighbors were darn lucky Darius Assemi is a nice guy and voluntarily modified his project.

To my neighbors’ great credit, they sat quietly in the audience and endured this patronizing rebuke with grace. I thought to myself: Maybe the general plan needs major revisions if developers can build unwise, neighbor-defying projects “by right.”

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George Hostetter

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

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Nancy Flynn

    June 13, 2017 at 6:00 am

    Death by a thousand cuts….sad. And what about the damage created by poor planning in those years before this newly revised ‘General Plan?’

  2. Kurt Vote

    June 13, 2017 at 9:20 am

    George –

    Where was all the angst when the 2035 General Plan Update was being forced upon the City by the “community organizers” ? Who can forget the Council chamber packed with so-called concerned citizens holding up their pre-manufactured signs in support of Alternative A – with 90% of the signs being held upside down because these folks didn’t know Alternative A from Mrs. Butterworth.

    Darius took a lot of arrows for opposing the mandated infill and other unrealistic requirements foisted upon the development community by Mayor Swearingen and her development department gurus who guided the process from the inside. No one outside the building industry seemed to care despite our best efforts to warn Fresno about what they were getting.

    You wanted your 2035 General Plan, you got it folks. NIMBY isn’t going to work on this one.

  3. Paul N. Miller

    June 13, 2017 at 11:09 am

    George,
    I designed (along side Jodi) Pax Domas’ house on Barstow and another one slated for Gettysburg in Old Fig. I live in Old Fig and my office is in the Tower. You have mentioned me in articles related to Granite Park (on a side note, Terance Frazier stiffed my company for a lot of money (10’s of thousands), but I can live with it because my intention is to help my community to thrive. I have differences with what the Assemis did in downtown with the help of the RDA. I donated a large amount of work to the RDA, basically facade improvement designs. I also took a dilapidated building on the north west corner of College and Olive and made it my office. I didn’t get any RDA money like Darius did.

    I mention the above because I find that you have such a great understanding of what is important to a city. I have always tried to promote both great design and great urban planning that benefits the city as a whole as well as individuals. Jodi is a great friend and I find it very encouraging that there are people out there (you) that really believe in the welfare of the city and our individual communities that in collective make up the city as a whole.

  4. Mark Shepard

    June 13, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    Well George, maybe your neighbors sitting quietly by has been part of the problem with Bureaucrats running over them. I have taken my business out of Fresno due to crime and traffic (gridlock) in many areas of the city.

  5. Jodi Fitzpatrick

    June 13, 2017 at 5:19 pm

    George, well put and thank you for amplifying this issue. The threat issued by Mr. Assemi in the second planning commission meeting can be viewed online and it still smarts. He stated that if he didn’t get to build what he wanted, the property would sit there, a vacant lot, that someone way worse than Granville could buy it (if he sold it to them), or since the development code allowed it, he could build 35-foot structures on it. At which point, someone in the audience shouted “Do it. Do it.” Go ahead and make yourself and your company look really bad It’s ironic and hypocritical for Granville and the planning department to invoke the code when it serves them, and just modify it when it doesn’t suit. They want all the goodies the new code allows–the increased density and access to build in neighborhoods they were shut out of before–but they don’t want to follow the rest of the rules, that were put in place for a reason. Like I said in the article, if Granville had to follow the development code (like the rest of us) and weren’t allowed all these favors that makes it possible for them to cram huge units on the site, we would have a much different project. We don’t know what it would be, but it wouldn’t be this one. The rules are there for a reason. They need to be enforced. As I said in the council meeting, the project should be sent back to the planning department. They don’t necessarily have to consult the neighbors, but they should be made to submit something that keeps to the code.

    Regarding the patronizing tone of the council, as a media person, the meeting may be worth watching. It began with council president Clint Olivier deciding that the public comments should go first. As the audience groaned, the city attorney pointed out that this was not procedure. The applicant (Granville) was to do it’s presentation first, followed by the commentary, followed by Granvilles’ rebuttal. What Olivier did, I believe purposefully, violates Rule 16 of council meetings, as I looked up in the municipal code. Brandau then stepped in,, so smoothly I suspect, deeply, that it was rehearsed, and offered for his constituents to speak after the Granville presentation. The effect of this illegal procedural maneuver is that the council had no context for the points we were making. And as much as I tried in my editorial to simplify them, there are complex planning issues and difficult to describe in 3 minutes, or off the cuff as the rest of our testimony had to be with the reversed order. Were’ not people who do this for a living, like Jeff Roberts. Not that the council were interested. Caprioglio ducked out in the beginning and only returned to vote. Perhaps he’d done his reasearch. The following week I made two calls to the city attorney, neither of which were returned. By the time I learned we’d had 15 days to appeal the decision, it was too late to march back in and ask that the vote be thrown out on procedural grounds, and the case heard again.

    I feel another piece coming on.

    Anyway, brave commentary. Here are two more stories this week in Our Valley Voice that’s show some real backbone on the part of the reporter.
    http://www.ourvalleyvoice.com/2017/06/11/hanford-moves-closer-toward-selling-undeveloped-section-hidden-valley-park/?utm_source=Morning+Roundup&utm_campaign=d293fa6999-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_06_12&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_165ffe36b2-d293fa6999-78472833&mc_cid=d293fa6999&mc_eid=8f46fe3912
    http://www.ourvalleyvoice.com/2017/06/01/mooney-grove-parkpersonal-injury-case-county-dismissed/

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