Fresno backs health university site at Millerton Lake

The Fresno BeeMay 9, 2013 

The Fresno City Council on Thursday gave its unqualified support to a proposed health-sciences university at Millerton Lake -- despite an outpouring of critics who said the campus should go downtown.

Council Member Steve Brandau, who authored a resolution backing the school, said the city had tried to convince the Assemi family to build their legacy project within city limits, but there just wasn't room to accommodate it.

"We don't get to tell them where to locate," Brandau said prior to the council's 6-0 vote in favor of the resolution.

The Assemi family, which runs Granville Homes, has been soliciting support for a cluster of professional health programs, starting with a pharmacy school, above Millerton Lake about 10 miles north of Fresno.

Family members say endorsements for the venture will bolster the university's bid for academic accreditation.

While Thursday's council action signaled strong support for the project, it also exposed a growing rift between council members and the Mayor's Office.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin has led efforts to limit development north of the city and bring new projects, including the proposed California Health Sciences University, to downtown to help with revitalization.

Her office sent a memo to the council prior to Thursday's meeting asking members to hold off on their vote of support for the school.

Realizing council members weren't going to comply, City Manager Mark Scott resolved with the council that the resolution wouldn't prevent the city from voicing criticism with the project once it got into the planning stages. "We'd like to be able to have input," Scott said at the meeting.

The Assemis, whose several downtown projects have made them the city's biggest partner in restoring the area, said they tried for more than a year to find a Fresno location for the school.

Nothing was big enough and assembling adjacent properties would take four to five years, Darius Assemi said Thursday.

Still, a few dozen champions of the revitalization urged the City Council to table the resolution and try harder to get the project downtown.

"We love the idea of a medical campus to educate our own people," said Andy Hansen-Smith of Creative Fresno. But "we don't like the proposed campus because of what it will bring: sprawl, congestion and pollution."

The private university is scheduled to launch next year with a pharmacy school in Clovis, which later will be moved to the proposed 100-acre campus along the lake.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6679 or kalexander@fresnobee.com.

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