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Smart Growth Advocates in Fresno Have a General Plan -- If They Can Keep It

Martha Bridegam on
Jan 22, 2015

The 2035 Fresno General Plan adopted by the City Council on December 18 puts the city's foot down on sprawl. Supporters see the approval as a major victory for Smart Growth principles, though it had critics on left and right.

A strong center/left coalition joined Mayor Ashley Swearengin in backing the plan, However, environmental justice and equity activists asked how strongly the plan would limit suburban expansion and who would benefit from infill development. They sought policies for affordable housing and against displacement, and attention to industrial polluters such as the notorious Darling International rendering plant southwest of downtown. 

Meanwhile, local developers and small-government advocates questioned whether the plan would curtail property rights or lifestyle choices, and asked if people accustomed to suburban densities and private auto use would remain in Fresno if it meant accepting denser housing, especially in the stigmatized downtown area. Tea Party-oriented opponents recoiled at federal funding for projects such as bus rapid transit (BRT).

Something new

As passed, the General Plan represents something new in Fresno, and uncommon in the Central Valley. It does not seek to expand the city's existing 157-square-mile sphere of influence. It projects about half of future growth within city limits; delays expansion in a southeast growth area; requires mitigations for lost farmland; and requires developers to study and share costs of peripheral projects.

Keith Bergthold, who led the General Plan process as the city's Assistant Director of Planning until his move to the Fresno Metro Ministry in February 2014, said the plan is clearer about goals that also appeared in past plans, and that clarity will be "further supported" by the imminent update of the Development Code, last fully rewritten in the 1960s. 

He said, "I'm not sure there was always a clear way to say no in the previous General Plan" to development that didn't fit the city's goals. Whereas now: "There are some ways to say no if appropriate and be more clear about it." 

"We're trying to marry our land use policies with our transportation policies," said Arnoldo Rodriguez, Planning Manager with the city's Long Range Planning Division, who has led the General Plan process since Bergthold's departure. The plan raises densities in Fresno's demolition-ravaged downtown and on two corridors where BRT lines are projected to operate by 2016. The north-south Blackstone Avenue corridor and east-west Ventura/Kings Canyon are to form an "L" with its hinge downtown, near the hoped-for high-speed rail station. (At Swearingen's urging, the Fresno City Council finally accepted a state grant to do high-speed rail planning in October after rejecting the grant twice.) Rodriguez said the city was working on lowering parking requirements to encourage density -- for example, allowing denser re-uses of older buildings without requiring added parking.

Rodriguez said the General Plan redesignates some land uses to separate future residential and industrial expansions while streamlining permitting for commercial, light industrial and business park uses, in hopes of attracting employers "that do more than warehousing". For heavy industrial uses the new code will provide "additional teeth" to avoid exacerbating existing conditions.

Further goals include five acres of parkland per thousand residents and improved access to healthy food. 

Bergthold said he looks forward to seeing some permits granted quicker, notably for mixed-use projects. He said: "The zoning code was almost incapable of implementing the infill policies of the General Plan adopted in 2002." Or rather, it worked well for suburban subdivisions at five units to the acre. "It was just fine for the kind of development that became predominant and became unbalanced." The existing code authorized mixed-used development in some commercial zones but didn't describe it specifically so the category was rarely used.

Drama in December

In the General Plan public process, begun in 2009 the City Council's most visible turning point toward "smart growth" was its 2012 approval of the "modified Alternative A" framework, to maintain existing sphere of influence boundaries and emphasize infill. 

But the runup to the December 2014 final approval was dramatic. Some players, including the Fresno Bee editorial board, viewed the pace that the city set for the final approval round as unnecessarily brisk. Rodriguez responded that the final draft released November 21, 2014 "was simply a refinement of the draft plan that was originally released on July 2, 2014, and we made every effort to accurately reflect changes... we felt that the General Plan, in draft and final form reflected the values of the community while also addressing items discussed during the plethora of meetings and public hearings." 

In making the case for an infill-focused plan, Rodriguez said arguments for fiscal responsibility "really resonated with a lot of folks". Apart from the service and infrastructure costs of expansion, an existing agreement entitles the county to share tax revenues from any further areas the city annexes. Bergthold wrote that the new plan shifts cost advantages toward infill: it "calls for fair and proportional payments to support public services and infrastructure, and fiscal impact analyses from development at the city's peripheries requiring annexation or asking for a General Plan amendment." (A lingering question, however, is if enough costs are factored in for police, fire and maintenance services.)

In a published op-ed December 14, Fresno City Council president Steve Brandau (elected since 2012) criticized "social engineers," wrote that density increases would create "regional sprawl" by driving population to neighboring towns, and complained, "some pansy in Sacramento thinks we need to live closer together and ride the bus". A Fresno Bee news photo of the December 18 approval meeting showed Brandau glowering behind a tray of flowers. A Fresno Pansy Association appeared on Facebook.

Christine Barker, who is Project Manager, Resilient Communities with the Fresno Metro Ministry, commented (speaking as an individual), "People are angry because he seems to think that only outsiders from Sacramento (i.e. state government and federal agencies) want to have a nice downtown, investment in existing communities and walkable neighborhoods." She wrote that some responded by claiming the term "pansy" -- "Then, fine, call me a pansy. But I'm a local pansy."

The Granville Homes development company was among property owners seeking land use designation changes in the General Plan. Rodriguez provided tabulations showing that of 61 Granville requests, the City Council granted 32, rejected four, and deferred the rest for staff consideration, including a cluster of requests within Granville's Copper River Ranch development at the far north end of the city. Rodriguez said 11 outstanding designation change requests from various landowners remained to resolve after the approval, counting the Copper River matters as a single request. (The Granville requests' proponent was legendary Fresno developers' advocate Jeff Roberts, now a vice president with Granville. He declined to comment for this article.)

The city's December 5 "land use change requests" document, reflects several requests to lower residential densities on peripheral land. Rodriguez said city staff opposed many, and often the City Council backed the staff.

Public health, urban planning and activism

Adoption of such a plan in an auto-oriented city reflects a shift in local thinking, though what kind of shift is debated.

As discussed in the recent dissertation of Miriam Zuk, now Project Director at the UC-Berkeley Center for Community Innovation, the past decade saw a partial reunion of the public health and urban planning fields along New Urbanist and Smart Growth lines -- and, in Fresno, a revival of neighborhood community activism.

Fresno-area organizing for public health has been better funded in recent years, notably by the California Endowment, which began funding a Building Healthy Communities (BHC) Initiative in Fresno in 2009. 

The dissertation sees some remaining distance among goals pursued, whether by BHC grantees or other organizations: air quality; Smart Growth infill and healthy land use principles such as reducing auto use; campaigns for affordable housing, other economic equity, and environmental justice efforts to redress geography-based wrongs such as pollution in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

A key question has been how much the General Plan's framers feel it can or should do to redress Fresno's long history of de jure and de facto racial segregation, which the dissertation recounts. People of color were historically restricted to the south and southwest sides of downtown by "whites-only" deed restrictions and redlining. Racial and economic disparities persist between the north and south of the city. Rodriguez said the south and west of the city are downwind and downslope, hence have historically received industrial uses. CalEnviroScreen 2.0 identifies California's most environmentally and socioeconomically burdened census tract as covering the downward-opening triangle between Highways 99 and 41 south of downtown. The dissertation finds that health goals were promoted largely where they were complementary to economic development goals. 

Ashley Werner, an attorney with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, was working on General Plan advocacy with a coalition of social justice groups associated with the BHC Initiative. She said the coalition sought more economic equity guarantees, including affordable housing, and more enforceability for "visionary language," including assurances that the city would genuinely hold the line on expansion.

A further cascade of processes

The General Plan's approval clears the way for a further cascade of planning processes.

To start with, a public draft of the Development Code rewrite is expected around April.

Bergthold looked forward to mixed-use zoning specifics in the new code and to provisions "to connect authorized development density/intensity to specific designated areas and realistic infrastructure capacities." He said more density would depend on a water system upgrade bringing in treated surface water and looping transmission grid mains to strengthen the existing well-based system.

The city also can now resume work on the Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan. That process started out ahead of the General Plan but was suspended around 2011 to let the General Plan complete environmental review first. Drafts call for a form-based code, greater densities, flexibility for business growth, and coordination with plans for the high-speed rail station. A Fulton Corridor Specific Plan process will likewise resume.

Additional specific and community plans will follow, notably for Southwest Fresno. A plan by consultant Peter Calthorpe, not yet adopted, is on hold for the Southeast Growth Area, where the General Plan defers development. 

Housing element on deck

Later in 2015, revision of Fresno's housing element will help decide who gets to live in the new infill housing.

Rodriguez said the General Plan uses infill to meet Fresno's assigned regional housing growth goal, about 20,000 housing units -- where the old approach would have expanded the sphere of influence: "Oh, yeah, we just add five square miles and we're done."

It's debated whether gentrification and displacement are dangers in Fresno. Werner wrote that a few low-income people live downtown, and "we are concerned about potential displacement downtown as well as in surrounding neighborhoods targeted for revitalization and around the BRT corridors." Homelessness is substantial enough to imply not everyone can afford rent; Mayor Swearengin has presided over demolition and dispersal of large encampments south of downtown.  

Bergthold and Rodriguez viewed downtown as too starved for investment to have gentrification or displacement problems. Bergthold supported an affordable housing policy "that distributes affordable units throughout the entire metro area." He wanted to see "a little bit of a trend" of increasing rents and property values "to attract private market development into areas that have been disinvested and neglected."

Werner said density is not in itself enough to guarantee affordable housing though it often is necessary to allow it. She wrote that people in disadvantaged neighborhoods "have asked for grocery stores, retail outlets and more housing, including mixed-income and mixed use housing," so infill could help "long-abandoned and distressed neighborhoods." But she said displacement concerns were real in the absence of affordable housing commitments. She also argued there were not enough high-density designations in growth areas. 

Suggestions for inclusionary zoning did not gain traction during the General Plan process. Barker said a former Council member called the idea "a bomb".

Bergthold wrote: "I have personally stayed away from thinking about inclusionary zoning because of the urban decay we want to mitigate through market mechanisms and the hope that the new GP land use map with significant multiple-family shown as part of mixed income, mixed housing type, and mixed density neighborhoods designated throughout the growth areas and in infill target areas would provide a better platform for achieving the ultimate goals of inclusionary zoning without the fight."

Making it stick

The next several planning processes will establish whether the General Plan is more than "visionary language."

"If there's anybody who thinks we're through, then we are really through," said Bergthold. He said the city now needs "constant encouragement" from an involved public to monitor the plan and ensure it takes effect.

And Rodriguez said, "The hard part begins now with the implementation."