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‘Forgotten Fresno’ looking for puzzle pieces to solidify its future

Land Use

‘Forgotten Fresno’ looking for puzzle pieces to solidify its future

Fresno’s west of Highway 99 population hopes to become a sustainable borough. Traffic and historically-bad planning stand in their way.

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The good work of repairing the “Forgotten Fresno” mess continues to pick up steam.

Steve Brandau helps lead the effort at Fresno City Hall.

April Henry helps lead the effort on the ground.

Forgotten Fresno is Jacky Parks’ shorthand for the neighborhoods west of Highway 99 and north of Roeding Park. No need here to repeat the entire backstory.

Forgotten Fresno’s residential growth took off late in the 20th century. City Hall didn’t plan for the proper infrastructure. The city council of the 21st century’s second decade and the administrations of Mayors Ashley Swearengin and Lee Brand once again play the role of cleanup crew.

Let’s begin with Brandau, whose Council District 2 includes the piece of Forgotten Fresno that is north of Shaw Avenue. He represents part of Highway City.

Brandau told me on Saturday that he met last week with top City Hall officials and regional transportation leaders about a major challenge in the Forgotten Fresno campaign – traffic congestion on Shaw where it crosses 99.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since I’ve been on the council – how to open up West Shaw,” Brandau said.

The area we’re talking about is actually bigger than just the intersection of Shaw/99. We’ve got to throw in Island Water Park, Golden State Boulevard, the Union Pacific railroad tracks, county islands and all the big retailers in this neck of the woods.

Add a bunch of traffic signals, and the result is daily snarls worthy of a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour.

“We’ve just got to do something for Shaw and 99,” Brandau said.

In a word, that something is “coordination.”

Brandau’s meeting last week included Mayor Brand, City Manager Wilma Quan-Schecter, Assistant City Manager (and former Public Works Director) Scott Mozier, and Fresno Council of Governments Executive Director Tony Boren.

It was a meeting with folks who could speak with authority on City Hall, the county, Caltrans and Measure C.

Mobility – or the lack of it – is one of the big reasons Forgotten Fresno is such a disaster. Brandau said a key step to doing something for Shaw/99 is completing a project study review.

“Our biggest challenge is where to find the money to do that review,” Brandau said. “My goal is to at least get the process started.”

If that sounds a bit wishy-washy, well, Brandau said there’s a good reason. Measure C money almost certainly would be a factor in funding a major project at Shaw/99. But the Shaw/99 bottleneck is a Tier 2 transportation project for Measure C. The immediate task for local leaders is clearing the list of Tier 1 projects.

These Tier 1 projects include better infrastructure in the South Fresno industrial area where City Hall hopes to attract major e-commerce companies (Amazon and Ulta Beauty are already headed there) and completion of Veterans Boulevard.

Veterans Boulevard, of course, is pivotal to fixing the Forgotten Fresno mobility crisis. Brandau finds himself in the delicate position of pushing hard for a Tier 2 project at the same time he’s already got a Tier 1 project for his constituents.

But even with Veterans Boulevard, Brandau is playing a juggling game. To be totally funded, the project needs another $48 million. Brandau and other Fresno leaders recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to gauge the level of support within the Trump Administration for a $48 million grant.

Brandau said the Trump team essentially told the Fresno contingent: We like your idea; here’s a Fastlane Grant application; fill it out and send it to us; we’ll get back to you with an answer in the Fall.

As all this suggests, Forgotten Fresno isn’t really overlooked these days. The area is slated to get a specific plan in the near future. The 2035 general plan pays close attention to the area.

“We’re telling the world this is the next area where we want 50,000 more people,” Brandau said. “We’ve got to prepare for that.”

April Henry and her colleagues at Highway City Community Development (HCCD) have been preparing for the area’s future since the beginning of the rush to build in the area.

My interest in HCCD was triggered when City Hall earlier this year reallocated a $329,000 grant that had been awarded to the non-profit. HCCD was going to use the money to help fund construction of a community center. However, federal prevailing wage rules made the grant more trouble that it was worth. HCCD gave the money back.

Turns out the grant fiasco is of no consequence to the future of Forgotten Fresno. HCCD is a different story. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, HCCD trying to give the area a “there.” (Stein supposedly once said of Oakland that “there’s no there there.”)

Henry became HCCD’s executive director in 2014.

“I came on board and I began looking at what we needed west of 99,” Henry told me. “This area has a population of Reedley and Sanger put together – we’re over 44,000 people. And yet we’re just a part of Fresno. We don’t have a hub, we don’t have a center point. We don’t have a civic square, a gathering spot or even our own post office.”

Services are slowly but surely making their way to the area. For example, City Hall recently opened Inspiration Park near Gettysburg and Polk avenues, a short walk from HCCD headquarters.

Still, the area has no one-stop resource center that serves as a binding agent for diverse peoples, which is what an old fashioned civic square used to provide. HCCD decided it would build one. It’ll come in the form of a community center on the HCCD campus on North Polk.

Henry said Phase 1 of a multi-phase project will cost $1 million – and the money is in hand. The ribbon-cutting for start of construction is “imminent,” she said.

The plan for Phase 2 in five to seven years is a regional branch of the Fresno County library, Henry said.

Put all the visions together, Henry said, and HCCD (working with Central Unified School District) would have that “hub” for west of 99.

Henry said HCCD’s goal is to help make the area west of 99 “our own sustainable center.”

So it is with Brandau (and, he is quick to note, so it is with District 1 Council Member Esmeralda Soria and District 3 Council Member Oliver Baines, who represent the rest of Forgotten Fresno. HCCD headquarters is in District 1.)

Brandau in March hosted a community meeting at Herndon-Barstow Elementary School to talk about the status of Veterans Boulevard. It was here that Jacky Parks (the former president of Fresno Police Officers Association and possible future City Council candidate) described the area west of 99 – his neighborhood – as Forgotten Fresno.

Brandau’s community meeting in the school cafeteria attracted a standing-room-only audience. Residents began their comments with Veterans Boulevard. Then they brought up the Shaw/99 intersection. Then they moved to the multitude of challenges of living and working in Forgotten Fresno.

Brandau is thinking about hosting another community meeting. He initially thought the Council Chamber at City Hall would be the best location. Now he’s giving serious thought to returning to a convenient site somewhere west of 99.

Veterans Boulevard. Shaw/99. Fastlane Grant. Project Study Review. High-Speed Rail. Measure C Tier 1. Measure C Tier 2. Highway City Community Development. The Hub.

“They’re all connected,” Brandau said. “If you do one without the others, you’ll have good results. But you won’t have the best results.”

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George Hostetter

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

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Dan Waterhouse

    July 17, 2017 at 9:35 am

    George-the 99/Shaw interchange was first looked at in the early 1990s. Caltrans has long recognized it needs improvement. The stumbling block has always been money. In addition, widening Shaw and reconfiguring the interchange would require substantial right of way relocation, especially west of 99. Every business west of the freeway would be wiped out. Caltrans would pay for relocation but it’s still a substantial cost for both taxpayers and business owners.

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