A huge residential project -- the epitome of developer excellence or the gateway to more sprawl, depending on one's point of view -- is coming out of the shadows at Fresno City Hall.
Granville Homes heads to the Fresno Planning Commission tonight in pursuit of a key endorsement for Westlake, the master-planned community proposed for wide open spaces west of Highway 99.
The Assemi-owned builder wants, among other things, commission certification of the 430-acre project's environmental impact report. If the commission says yes, the next step is the City Council, perhaps in December.
Council President Blong Xiong, who represents neighborhoods near the proposed project, said it's too early for him to form an opinion.
"Let's let the process go forward and see where it goes," Xiong said.
Granville Homes Vice President Jeff Roberts said the city as far back as 1984 recognized that urban growth would come to the Westlake area. He said Westlake will not harm the environment or be a burden on city services. He said the project will serve a market need and raise nearby property values.
But Westlake as it slowly made its way through City Hall bureaucracy occasionally raised public concerns. No one is sure what such a large project will mean to air, water, traffic, public safety and city budget issues. It also figures to affect Mayor Ashley Swearengin's efforts to implement a 2035 general plan update that calls for 45% of residential development to be infill.
One thing is certain -- this part of metropolitan Fresno has never seen anything like Westlake.
There is to be a private lake, nearly 300,000 square feet of commercial space, an elementary school and about 2,600 residential units. At full buildout, Westlake is estimated to have 8,000 residents -- about the population of Firebaugh.
The site -- bounded by Gettysburg, Garfield, Shields and Grantland avenues -- is within Fresno's sphere of influence, but not the city limits. The sphere of influence is land legally recognized as in a city's growth path.
Westlake, should it get City Hall's green light, must be annexed. That raises two key questions facing the commissioners:
<SC120,116>Is Westlake the best thing to happen in a part of town long viewed by City Hall as an planning afterthought?
<SC120,116>Or is it another example of the leapfrog development that, according to critics, led to 50 years of sprawl?
Swearengin is trying to get people able to pay for market-rate housing to move into the city's struggling neighborhoods. City Hall has yet to define "infill" development, so it's unclear where Westlake would fit in the mayor's plans.
The Bee was unable to reach administration officials. The staff report states that Granville's applications and environmental findings "are appropriate for the project site."
The subtext to tonight's meeting is City Hall's love-hate affair with Granville.
Granville President Darius Assemi on Saturday helped cut the ribbon on the company's new $2 million M Street Arts Complex in downtown's cultural arts district. The neighborhood is full of Granville-built apartments, with more on the way. City officials seldom miss a chance to brag about Granville's work as proof of high-density living's potential in Fresno.
Assemi told a crowd of about 200 that turning Fresno into the "mecca" of central California's art world will go a long way toward revitalizing Fresno's core.
The Fresno County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a "sustainable communities" growth strategy that, among other things, authorizes major new developments in the Friant/Millerton Lake area north of Fresno. The Assemis are key developers in this largely untouched area, much to the frustration of Swearengin, who sees the projects as potentially fatal to her central city plans.
The Westlake project cuts both ways in this growth debate. It would eat a big chunk of productive farm land. It's nowhere near the pockets of concentrated poverty targeted by the new general plan. But it's located south of Shaw Avenue (usually the dividing line in former Mayor Alan Autry's "tale of two cities") and could give the immense west-of-99 area a high-profile boost.
And on Thursday the Assemi family heads to the Fresno City Council seeking a change in city law that would permit it to grow almonds on 360 acres in west Fresno at what was once the failed Running Horse residential/golf course project. Critics don't know whether to blast the Assemis for proposing a commercial farm in the city or praise them for relieving a neglected neighborhood of a major eyesore.
IF YOU GO
What: Fresno Planning Commission meeting
Why: Review of Westlake project
Where: City Council Chamber, Fresno City Hall, 2600 Fresno St.
When: 6 p.m. today
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.