When Linda Wood returned to the Fresno area 10 years ago, the mother of five chose to head northeast because of safe neighborhoods and good schools.
"The Realtors said it was the best area, and it was booming," said Wood, who bought her first house in Clovis and later moved to northeast Fresno. "It's close to so much here, and with work and all the kids, I can get things done quickly."
Over the past decade, tens of thousands like Wood settled in the emerging suburbs around Fresno, a trend that comes as little surprise but whose scope is underscored in new census data.
The boom evident along the city's northern and eastern edges, while fulfilling dreams of bigger homes and better lives for many, hasn't been good news for everyone, though -- particularly city leaders trying to redirect momentum to downtown.
Growth on the fringes, planners say, has lured housing and business opportunities away from the city's core. It has shifted taxpayer money for roads and sewers to the edges of town at the expense of an inner city in need of investment, they say.
"Those who could, moved out," said city planner Franklin Spees, acknowledging the appeal of the suburbs. "[But] what does that leave in the wake, especially when you want to revitalize your core?"
According to the data released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau, the northeast edge of Fresno and the neighboring city of Clovis saw the area's most intense growth during the past decade.
Clovis Unified School District, one of the highest performing in the state, was a magnet for residents. The district's boundaries overlap parts of Fresno.
"People are looking for good school districts," said Mike Prandini, president and CEO of the Building Industry of Fresno and Madera Counties.
The new subdivisions, he said, drew not only local families but people from Southern and Northern California taking advantage of the region's lower home prices.
Between 2000 and 2010, Fresno's northeast corner added more than 10,000 residents, many between Shepherd and Copper avenues, according to the census.
Clovis, meanwhile, added 27,000 residents.
"We're just about built out to the area we had expected to," said David Fey, deputy city planner for Clovis.
As of last year, Clovis' population had soared to 95,631, the census shows. Fresno, which grew 16% over the past decade, hit 494,665.
The Fresno/Clovis metro area also saw rapid growth in the east and southeast, much of it in neighborhoods also within the Clovis school district.
Northwest Fresno added residents as new subdivisions emerged, many west of Highway 99.
Fresno's city center, however, remained stagnant.
"I know the intent of public officials and planners and what they'd like to see downtown, but there are obstacles to people moving here," said Jim Whitlach, president of the Fresno Association of Realtors.
Perceptions about crime and the concentration of homeless -- and a lack of good housing, shopping and schools -- have made it hard for the downtown to retain and attract residents, Whitlach said.
The census shows that the population dropped in downtown neighborhoods around Community Regional Medical Center and north of Divisadero Street over the decade.
Some of the decrease was due to an expansion of the hospital and a new school built on sites that once held homes. But other losses were triggered by foreclosed properties or people choosing to move elsewhere, according to planners and the real estate community.
The bright spots for downtown were neighborhoods along Highway 99 and as far east as Van Ness Avenue, which showed a small uptick in population between 2000 and 2010.
This growth, say planners, was due to new upscale apartments such as Iron Bird Lofts that attracted young professionals. There also was an increase in new homes built in older neighborhoods near downtown during the decade's boom years, planners say.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, in her State of the Downtown Address in January, reiterated her commitment to breathing life into downtown. She pledged to cut red tape for developers and asked community members to support new shops and restaurants.
Regardless of where developers choose to build in the future and where residents choose to live, at some point the city will run out of space to grow and money to maintain faraway roads and sewers, city planner Arnoldo Rodriguez said.
"We can't grow on the fringe forever," he said. "Development will [eventually] come from within."
Fresno-area shifts in population
Much of Fresno's urban core either grew slowly or lost population during the last decade, while communities on the outskirts of town saw rapid growth. The same trend happened in Madera. The region's fastest growth came in areas east and southeast of Fresno; its fastest population decline came in areas south of Huron.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
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