How Fresno City Hall works, and a look at the Assemi empire

Posted by George Hostetter on December 30, 2013 

Please permit me to use one blog to shed light on two stories too big to tell in a definitive manner.

1. How Fresno works.

2. The Assemi Empire.

My blog has seven pieces.

NUMBER ONE — Government As Partner

I attended last month’s dedication ceremony at the M Street Arts Complex. The beautiful building on the northwest corner of M and Tuolumne Street was built by GV Urban, a division of the Assemi family’s Granville Homes.

I’ve walked past that corner a thousand times on my way to City Hall or the newsroom. It was always just another blighted building. Now it’s a stunning gallery/studio. What a great change.

I described the ceremony in a previous blog. But I didn’t write about my walk back to the newsroom after the speeches.

I headed north on M to San Joaquin Street, then turned west to L Street. I wanted to take a look at Granville’s progress on Crichton Place, a project of 28 townhouses on a site once home to a parking lot of broken blacktop and two houses from the early 20th century long in varying states of disrepair.

Plans for Crichton Place turned into a political and legal war between City Hall and preservationists in 2012-13. The war is over. The townhouses are going up. Work is moving swiftly (“Swift” is Granville’s middle name).

Then I made a circuit along Fulton Street, Broadway and H Street, all the time staying in Uptown (my preferred name for the Cultural Arts District/Mural District).

I was the night clerk 35 years ago at the Vagabond Motel on Broadway. I lived by Fresno State and didn’t have a car. I rode a bicycle to work. I got off work at 2 a.m. on weekends. Uptown was no picnic back then, and seemed to only get worse over the years.

About 15 years ago I traveled with members of the Uptown Committee (City Hall and community leaders) to Pasadena to see how that city turned a decaying neighborhood into Old Pasadena. Everyone came home and bet the ranch on landing a movie theater complex for the north end of Fulton Mall. The movieplex went to Manchester Center.

Then the Assemi family took an interest in Uptown. The result has been not just the M Street Arts Complex and Crichton Place, but all the apartment complexes I passed on this day as I walked Fulton, Broadway and H.

Granville’s problem is the change has been so dramatic that it’s impossible today for the average Fresnan to grasp it. In Uptown, it’s as if the pre-Assemi era never happened.

But how did Granville do it? Why did Granville do it? And how has Granville changed Fresno?

I finished my journey back to the newsroom, fired up my computer, and went exploring on City Hall’s Web site.

It’s hard to beat March 2011 for excitement at City Hall. Fresno and the state were nose-deep in red ink. Gov. Jerry Brown was just days away from killing redevelopment agencies, those 60-year-old city-linked institutions that used tax-increment (don’t ask me to define the term; it’s sufficient to say we’re talking about your property-tax money) to jump-start commercial and residential development in blighted neighborhoods. Cities across the state were hustling to approve RDA/developer deals before Brown got his way in the legislature.

Fresno City Hall was no different. In the span of eight days in 2011 — March 3 through March 10 — the City Council met three times as the RDA board for long debates on proposed tax increment-funded deals.

Keep in mind the concept behind tax-increment financing by redevelopment agencies. Communities are ill-served by blighted neighborhoods. They are ill-served by nothing but government projects. But some neighborhoods are in such bad shape that they can’t attract private investment. Redevelopment agencies in open session provide incentives (usually called gap financing) to developers to build in these neighborhoods. That way (the logic goes) the developers make a fair profit and the neighborhoods regain positive momentum. The next developers (in theory) see the surge and invest without taxpayer assistance.

Redevelopment agencies had to spend at least 20 cents of each tax-increment dollar on housing projects that served, at least in part, the poor.

Some of the Assemi projects in Uptown, such as Vagabond Lofts, got done before Brown decided to kill redevelopment agencies. But the financing for a handful of Assemi-planned Uptown projects as well as many non-Assemi RDA projects were in doubt in March 2011 because of the governor. Most of the Assemi projects were residential-commercial.

The council approved dozens of deals. City officials figured it’s far better to spend local property tax money on local deals rather than send it to Sacramento for Brown’s hare-brained schemes. Critics of redevelopment agencies disagreed. They said Brown’s plan would send money back to local public agencies (such as the general funds of the city of Fresno and Fresno County) rather than to the projects of pet developers.

Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim, a close observer of Fresno Redevelopment Agency doings, calls the council’s actions of March 2011 the “Great Spring Trust Fund Dump.”

This is what I found on Web search of Saturday, Nov. 2:

* The City Council/RDA board on March 10, 2011 approved (according to a staff report) “$172,500 of assistance” to owners of the property at 1419 M Street for a $2.5 million renovation project. That site is now the M Street Arts Complex.

* The City Council/RDA board on March 10, 2011 approved “$163,300 of assistance” to owners of the property at 1600 Fulton Street for a $1.2 million renovation of the old San Francisco Floral building. Granville owns that building.

* The City Council/RDA board on March 10, 2011 approved the expenditure of about $125,000 to demolish old buildings on the Uptown block bounded by Calaveras, Fulton, Stanislaus and Van Ness. This is the site of the former Fresno Metropolitan Museum. The Assemis plan to turn most of this 2.5 acre block into a residential/commercial project.

I don’t know if this money was spent as planned. We know the M Street Arts Complex is done, the old San Francisco Floral shop has been turned into an impressive business hub and that ugly old building that used to be a tire shop at Fulton/Stanislaus (near The Met) and a couple of nearby buildings on Fulton have been torn down.

The City Council/RDA board was busy with other Assemi projects during that hectic period of March 3-10, 2011. The elected officials approved four Owner Participation Agreements with FFDA Properties, another of the Assemi Family’s divisions.

* FFDA wanted to build a 30-unit mixed-use residential project at 1612 Fulton. Total estimated cost — $6.8 million. About $3.1 million would come from a private loan acquired by FFDA. About $1.8 million would be cash from FFDA.

The remaining $1.9 million would come from the Fresno Redevelopment Agency. Of the $1.9 million, $500,000 would come in the form of an interest-free loan with payments deferred for the first 10 years. After the 10th year, the loan would be amortized on a 25-year amortization schedule with interest at 1% a year and payable in 35 years.

The remaining $1.4 million of the RDA’s $1.9 million contribution to the project would be a grant.

The 1612 project (next to the old San Francisco Floral shop) is built. It looks great.

* The Crichton Place project with its townhouses got the council’s OK. The project’s total estimated cost — $5.55 million. About $2.7 million would come from a private loan acquired by FFDA. About $1.35 million would be cash from FFDA.

The remaining $1.44 million would come from the Fresno Redevelopment Agency. Of the $1.44 million, $720,000 would be on the same terms as the loan on the 1612 Fulton project (interest free and deferred for the first 10 years, 1% interest rate after that).

The remaining $720,000 of the RDA’s $1.44 million contribution to the project would be a grant.

* A 19-unit, mixed-used residential project at 1608 Fulton got the council’s OK. The project’s total estimated cost — $4.1 million. About $1.84 million would come from a private loan acquired by FFDA. About $632,000 would be cash from FFDA.

The remaining $1.6 million would come from the Fresno Redevelopment Agency. All $1.6 million would be an interest-free loan deferred for the first ten years. After the 10th year, $800,000 will be amortized on a 25-year amortization schedule with interest at 1% per annum and shall be due and payable in 35 years. The $800,000 balance would be interest free and forgiven upon expiration of the 55-year affordability covenants (in other words, keep the rents reasonable).

* A 27-unit mixed-use residential project at 1636-1660 Fulton got the council’s OK. The project’s total estimated cost — $5.72 million. About $2.77 million would come from a private loan acquired by FFDA. About $1.06 million would be cash from FFDA.

The remaining $1.88 million would come from the Fresno Redevelopment Agency on terms just like the loan for the 1608 Fulton project: half ($940,000) would be a long-term, zero or low-interest loan, the other half ($940,000) would be an interest-free loan that turns into a grant if the landlord keeps the rent reasonable.

The 1608 Fulton and 1636-1660 Fulton projects are next to each other, on the east side of Fulton between Calaveras and San Joaquin. The entire site is fenced and graded. Work almost certainly is set to begin.

All of the financial information I’ve presented is found in Redevelopment Agency staff reports from March 2011. The reports also note that other RDA projects in Uptown include Vagabond Lofts ($10 million), H Street Lofts ($3.5 million), Iron Bird Lofts ($15 million), Broadway Lofts ($4 million), Fulton Village ($7 million). The developer on each of these projects is the Assemi family.

Let’s take a closer look at the four projects approved by the City Council/RDA in early March 2011 — 1612 Fulton, Crichton Place, 1608 Fulton, 1636-1660 Fulton.

Total estimated cost: $22.2 million. Total Redevelopment Agency help: $7.32 million (33% of total estimated cost). Total low-interest, deferred RDA loans: $2.96 million (13.3% of total estimated cost) . Total RDA grants (including loans forgiven after 55 years): $4.36 million (19.6% of the total estimated cost).

Let’s say the same percentages applied to the RDA help on the five Assemi projects mentioned in the staff reports of March 2011 — Vagabond Lofts, H Street Lofts, Iron Bird Lofts, Broadway Lofts, Fulton Village.

Total cost of those five projects is $39.5 million. If 33% came from RDA help, that would be about $13 million. If 19.6% came in the form of RDA grants, that would be about $7.74 million.

If you add up the estimated costs of the nine Assemi projects described in RDA staff reports — 1612 Fulton, Crichton Place, 1608 Fulton, 1636-1660 Fulton, Vagabond Lofts, H Street Lofts, Iron Bird Lofts, Broadway Lofts, Fulton Village — you come up with a figure of $61.1 million. Just about one of every three dollars came from the public in loans on very favorable terms or grants. Just about one of every five dollars came from grants.

If the nine projects have retained their construction value, then I’m guessing Granville’s downtown holdings just from those nine make the company the richest private player in all of downtown. Just think of all the equity generated by those grants.

And just think of the jump in equity of Granville’s Uptown investments when high-speed rail gets built and that spiffy HSR station gets built just a short walk from Uptown.

And just of the jump in equity of Granville’s Uptown investments, and the eternal gratitude the company will earn at City Hall, when the big residential-commercial project next to The Met gets built.

Right now The Met is known as the money pit that cost taxpayers $17 million for a building rehab that killed the old metropolitan museum. Political reputations were ruined. City Hall politics were turned poisonous. City officials remain desperate to put the fiasco behind them.

Assemi Family to the rescue!

***

NUMBER TWO — Government As Idealist

I took a walk last month on a day off. I brought along my stopwatch.

I started at The Bee headquarters on E Street, turned right on Stanislaus Street, headed to B Street, turned left and walked to Fresno Street. Then I made a left on Fresno, then turned right on C Street.

I took C to San Benito Street, turned left on B and stayed there as it turned into Elm Avenue. I made a left on Church Avenue until I got to Railroad Avenue. I went right on Railroad and walked about a mile (I passed Floway Pumps, where I drove a forklift in the shipping/receiving department in 1975-1976).

Then I reversed course on Railroad and headed north toward downtown. I walked over to California Avenue (near the Rescue Mission) and stayed on that street until I got to B/Elm. I turned right and retraced my earlier route back to The Bee.

Seven miles or so. Took about two hours.

I was curious about the time because this route had come up a few days earlier during a Bee editorial meeting that included Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

The mayor arrived with some members of the city’s Infill Development Task Force. This task force was created by City Council action in the wake of the council’s historic decision of April 2012 on the 2035 general plan update.

The council had to choose among a handful of growth themes (or “alternatives,” as they were called) to guide city staff and consultants as they update the 2025 general plan. The finished product is expected to head to the council for a final vote in early to mid-2014.

The council in April 2012, after fiddling with some details, settled on what has come to be known as the “infill” theme. In essence, 45% of future residential growth is to be of the infill variety. Since retail always follows rooftops, it’s safe to assume 45% of future retail/commercial growth also could be infill.

No one at the time authoritatively defined infill. Nor has anyone done so since then. It’s safe to say most people with an interest in the 2035 general plan update view infill as anything in the city’s older, poorer neighborhoods.

Even without a clear definition of infill, Council Member Lee Brand has estimated that only 2% of residential development in recent years has been of the infill variety. Others have estimated 5%. No one is estimating a higher number.

It appears just about no one with the money to have alternatives wants to live in the older, poorer parts of Fresno.

You can see City Hall’s dilemma.

The Infill Development Task Force was created as part of a broad-based effort at City Hall to reverse these consumer patterns and fulfill the 45% mandate.

The task force has 28 members:

* Swearengin

* Ken Alex, director, office of planning and research in Gov. Jerry Brown’s office.

* Darius Assemi, President, Granville Homes

* Ignacio Barandiaran, principal, Arup

* Claudia Cappio, executive director, California Housing Finance Agency

* Roma Cristia-Plant, assistant executive director, California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank

* Vanessa Delgado, director of development, Primestar

* Bob Fisher, public member, California Strategic Growth Council

* Terance Frazier, founder, Frazier Realty

* Michael Girazian, senior vice president, Union Bank

* John Given, City Build Advisors

* Diana L. Gomez, central valley regional director, California High Speed Rail Authority

* Sal Gonzales, chief operating officer, Lance-Kashian Developers

* Tracewell Hanrahan, CAO/CFO, Fresno Housing Authority

* Calvin E. Hollis, executive officer, Countywide Planning Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

* Meea Kang, president and founder, Domus Development LLC

* Ed Kashian, CEO, Lance-Kashian & Co. Developers (one of travel mates on that long-ago visit to Old Pasadena)

* John S. Kauh, senior vice president/office manager, Wells Fargo Community Lending & Investments

* Tom Lockard, managing director, public finance, Stone & Youngberg

* Jerold B. Neuman, partner, Sheppard Mullin

* Katherine Aguilar Perez-Estolano, member Estolano LeSar Perez Advisors, LLC and member, board of directors, California High Speed Rail Authority.

* Brian Prater, senior vice president, strategic development & corporate affairs, Low Income Investment Fund.

* Preston Prince, executive director, Fresno Housing Authority.

* Scott Rhodes, SVP and region manager, commercial banking, Wells Fargo

* Dan Richard, chairman, board of directors, California High Speed Rail Authority

* Tom Richards, CEO, The Penstar Group and vice-chairman, board of directors, California High Speed Rail Authority.

* Sean Spear, executive director, California Debt Limit Allocation Committee

* Pete Weber, executive committee chairman, California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley.

Near as I can tell, there are 28 heavy-hitters on that Infill Development Task Force. Their charge: Come up with infill ideas.

The mayor asked to meet with The Bee editorial board. Her pitch: The task force had completed its work (most of it done behind closed doors); the members’ ideas were on paper; she and some of the members would explain everything to top Bee officials.

This being a City Hall topic, I was invited to attend.

Permit me here to back-up a bit and report on some of the task force’s “paper trail” — newspaper lingo for official documents generated by (or for) the task force. This paper trail was the context for the hour-long editorial board meeting.

For example, task force members at the beginning of their work were provided by City Hall with a 50-page snapshot of Fresno and a review of their charge. The 50-page snapshot was titled “Fresno, California: Transforming A City.”

The current land-use philosophy, they were told, is “predominant single family, low-density, and auto-dependent existing suburban pattern of development.”

The new land-use philosophy of the 2035 general plan update “re-centers a revitalized downtown as region’s primary activity center.” It defines “areas of change” versus “areas of stability.” New growth is to be “focused around bikeable/walkable neighborhoods and transit corridors.” The updated general plan will foster “residential and commercial density that supports transit, conserves prime farmland, accomplishes energy and water efficiency and conservation, overcomes serious poverty and fiscal constraints, prioritizes key infrastructure investments to support population and job growth projections.”

Sounds simple enough.

Fresno’s population, task force members were informed, is 44.3% Hispanic/Latino, 33.7% white, 11.5% Asian and 7.8% African-American. The remaining 2.7% of the population is another race, two or more races, American Indian/Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander.

Nearly 40% of Fresno’s population is under 25 years of age. About one in two Fresnans didn’t go past high school. One in five Fresnans has at least a bachelor’s degree.

About one in nine Fresnans in unemployed. The 50-page snapshot didn’t give the city’s U-6 unemployment rate, which includes those who have stopped looking for work or are working part-time and want full-time employment. I’ll bet that unemployment rate is at least 25%.

It was clear from maps in the 50-page snapshot that the 2035 general plan update wants most of future infill to occur south of Shaw Avenue — Alan Autry’s “Tale of Two Cities” without the Dickens reference.

The task force on Oct. 9 delivered three pages of recommendations to Swearengin. The report was signed by 10 task force members. I could read only the signature of Ken Alex of Jerry Brown’s office.

“As you know,” the report states, “national trends indicate a growing market for desirable, walkable urban environments among both older and younger populations. Today, Fresno does not have the supply of infill development available to meet this market demand. This creates an opportunity, recognized by the General Plan Update, for the City to develop housing in Downtown and in Fresno’s historic neighborhoods.”

Among the task force’s recommendations:

* Anchor institutions — major civic, cultural, medical, economic and academic institutions — should be in downtown.

* Growth on city edges should be curtailed. “Investment on the edges of town is directly correlated with disinvestment in the inner core. The City and the County should work together to find a workable balance that allows every opportunity for the revitalization of downtown.”

* Downtown revitalization efforts should focus on downtown. The general plan update’s first 10 years are “the most fragile period of time and the period during which tremendous local leadership will continue to be required.”

* Don’t forget subsidies. “Infill property owners and developers need focused incentives to make investments, including programs to reward homeowners in older neighborhoods for investment in the upkeep of their properties.”

* Hire someone at City Hall who knows how to get subsidy money. “Working with subsidy programs for development projects is complex. Many local developers and municipal staff are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of creating public/private transactions using various Federal, state and local programs. Likewise, local lenders are often unfamiliar with changing products and programs. The City of Fresno should develop that capacity in house and then serve as a resource to develop financing strategies for infill housing and commercial projects.” (Isn’t the “Strong Cities, Strong Communities” team embedded in Washington, San Francisco and Fresno City Hall already performing this chore?)

This is the context to Bee editorial meeting.

Swearengin showed up with perhaps a half-dozen task force members. I remember Cal Hollis, Ken Alex and Terance Frazier being there.

The talk — and there was a lot of it — was more general than the background I just presented. The talk revolved around Fresno’s high concentrations of poverty in the older neighborhoods, the departure over the past 60 years of most of Fresno’s middle and upper-income residents to city’s edges, and the need to get the highly-educated and well-to-do to move (in large numbers) into these high-poverty neighborhoods if the people of inner-city Fresno were ever reach their human potential and enjoy the fruits of an egalitarian society.

The inner city’s “brain drain” must be stopped at all costs, the task force said.

I got to ask a question.

I told the task force that, a few days earlier, I had gone on a walk following the exact same route I described at the top of this section: The Bee, over to Elm, then to Church, a trip along Railroad, a jaunt on California, then back to The Bee.

I told the task force: “I saw lots of brains on that walk. Why can’t those brains transform their own neighborhoods and their own lives? Why do they need outsiders to come in and show them how to live?”

Well, I got beat up (verbally) something fierce. Two of my Bee colleagues joined in. One of the task force members said I obviously wanted people in inner city Fresno to remain forever in the depths of economic, social and ethical hell.

I thought I was raising the fundamental point of the American experiment. Each of us is capable of excellence. We don’t need government to force north Fresnans into south Fresno to show south Fresnans how to act. The arrogance of that concept boggles my mind.

Yet, near as I can tell after listening to 18 months of land-use talk, that is the essential conceit hidden in the 2035 general plan update’s theme.

The update isn’t about generating fewer car trips.

To hear City Hall planners tell it, north Fresnans on one hand wouldn’t be caught dead driving to inner-city Fresno and, on the other hand, are polluting the air with all their lengthy commutes to inner-city Fresno.

I think most of the long-distance trips to downtown are made by government employees and government-sponsored employees driving to jobs whose purpose is to make people overcome their inclination to avoid downtown.

The update isn’t about the high-cost of providing city services to distant parts of Fresno.

The fire department’s heaviest concentration of calls is in older Fresno. Same with the police (there’s a reason why the northwest district police station on Hughes near Dakota is closer to The Bee newsroom on the edge of west Fresno than to Lake Van Ness in northwest Fresno). Moving sewage to the sewer farm west of town, water from the rivers to kitchen faucets and asphalt from vendors to roadbeds — they’re all engineering tasks whose costs and maintenance are capably and routinely handled by our modern, scientifically-managed, high-tax society.

The update isn’t about sprawl.

Fresno is portrayed by many at City Hall and many among the general plan update’s closest friends as the poster-child for unrestrained, land-chewing, utterly-mindless, heartlessly-discriminating sprawl.

Fresno has 4,504 people per square mile. Clovis has 4,237 per square mile. Visalia has 3,504 per square mile. Bakersfield 2,497 per square mile. Redding (beautiful home of my older daughter and son-in-law) has 1,484 per square mile. Omaha, Neb. has 3,228 per square mile. Tucson, Ariz. has 2,310 per square mile. Salt Lake City, Utah has 1,715 per square mile. Portland, Ore. (yes — Portland!) has 4,157 per square mile.

No, the conceit of the 2035 general plan update’s theme is that, after a half-century of the Great Society and the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer funds to create a top-down society of widespread virtue, stability and hard work, Fresno has failed and the only untried remedy is state-enforced higher-density living in which a supposedly better sort of people, through the example of their productive day-to-day actions performed in close proximity to the underclass, save the day by changing the neighborhood’s culture.

I think such an attitude is poppycock. But such an attitude has to be at the heart of the 2035 general plan update. Because if it’s not, if Fresno’s leaders truly believe all Fresnans are capable of improving their lot without the government-mandated importation of neighborhood role models, then the general plan update’s 45% mandate is irrelevant and unnecessary. The natural gifts of people combined with liberty, voluntary association, hard work, family values and self-rule will be enough for every Fresno neighborhood to thrive in its own way.

“What’s wrong with all the brains I saw?” I asked task force members at that Bee editorial meeting. In all their yelling at me, no one touched my question. They ran from my question.

I sense many, if not most, Fresnans living in the inner-city are confident of their ability to handle their own lives without the need of imported role models.

Yes, good schools where learning is cherished by all and teachers are the unquestioned boss are vital. Good housing filled with occupants of disciplined habits and admirable ambitions are, too. So, too, are good jobs (mostly outside the public sector) that demand high performance and respect for the customer.

Government has a worthy role here.

In the end, though, it all comes down to how the individual handles liberty.

Proof that independence is highly valued in inner-city Fresno came Oct. 30 when local leaders gathered in West Fresno for the official (and long-overdue) opening of the city-owned California Avenue gym. The mayor was there, as was Council Member Oliver Baines.

It was the Rev. David Griner of West Fresno’s Saint Rest Baptist Church who delivered the morning’s money quote, an eight-word phrase that should be Fresno’s motto from north to south.

Young men coming to the gym, Griner said, will be taught to “pull up your pants and mow the lawn.”

The audience cheered.

***

NUMBER THREE — Government As Opponent

Then there was the walk I took on Tuesday, Nov. 5. I went to the Fresno County Hall of Records in downtown’s Courthouse Park.

The Board of Supervisors was meeting..

I wanted to talk to Granville Homes Vice President Jeff Roberts, who was waiting for an agenda item. The supervisors had a lot on their plate. Roberts told me by cell phone that he might be tied up for awhile. I said I’d walk over and wait with him.

The supervisors got around to Roberts’ item of interest during the noon hour. The agenda listed it as: “Senate Bill 375 and its impact on the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), the Housing Element of the General Plan and the Regional Growth.”

Trust me — the ensuing discussion was far more interesting than such a sentence suggests.

First, a little background courtesy of the county’s staff report.

The Regional Transportation Plan must be prepared every four years by a Metropolitan Planning Organization. The Fresno Council of Governments serves that purpose in Fresno County.

An estimated 40% of greenhouse gas emissions is produced by people getting from one place to another — for the most part, cars and trucks.

The state of California government hates greenhouse gas. Legislators are waging a three-front war on such emissions. The first is cleaner vehicles. The second is cleaner fuels. The third is dramatically reducing the number of miles you drive in your car or truck.

Now, I think nothing of a 14-mile round-trip walk on the weekends from my home in north Fresno to The Bee newsroom. I’m pretty much alone in that regard. That’s why Sacramento wants to do two seemingly incompatible things in a country that supposedly values liberty and differences.

The state wants everything — stores, schools, entertainment, jobs — located real close to where you live.

And the state wants everyone living real close to each other so we don’t end up with a society of human islands (Fresno as a tale not of two cities, but of a hundred cities).

The melding of these two ideas is called a “Sustainable Community Strategy.” Senate Bill 375 mandates that the Fresno Council of Governments (COG) come up with a Sustainable Community Strategy, then get the supervisors to approve it as the law of the county.

The strategy, among other things, must reduce greenhouse gas, nurture regional transportation and (in the words of the staff report) align “transportation planning and housing element cycles.” I take this last point to mean Big Brother knows best where you must live and how you’re to get there and leave there.

The kicker to all this is that the strategy must meet greenhouse-gas reduction targets (and deadlines) set by the state Air Resources Board.

Fresno Council of Government officials on this particular Tuesday came to the supervisors with their 2014 Regional Transportation Plan. Remember how the city’s 2035 general plan update needed a theme to guide city planners? That’s how the City Council chose the 45% infill theme. Well, the supervisors were presented with four scenarios for the Sustainable Community Strategy. They had to choose one.

* Scenario A was based on public comments at a November 2012 workshop. More growth is allocated to some small rural communities than the historical trend would justify.

* Scenario B was based on existing general plans, general plan updates and recent planning assumptions. Growth allocation among various cities takes into account historical trends. It is assumed the planned developments of Millerton New Town, Friant Ranch and a string of healthcare-related private schools (a pharmacy school is first in line) near Millerton Lake will occur.

* Scenario C came from a Regional Transportation Plan roundtable discussion. Fresno gets 4% more growth than it would get in Scenario B. Growth in unincorporated areas would be limited to 10 communities: Biola, Caruthers, Del Rey, Easton, Friant, Lanare, Laton, Riverdale, Shaver Lake and Tranquillity. Millerton New Town

* Scenario D came from a coalition of community organizations. This scenario wants growth to be of the redevelopment and high-density kind. Any development eyed for the foothills would be re-directed to communities on the Valley floor. Millerton New Town, Friant Ranch and the pharmacy-healthcare schools would die.

The county’s staff report recommended Scenario B. Granville’s Roberts was at the meeting to express his employer’s preference for Scenario B.

The pharmacy/healthcare schools by Millerton Lake are the idea of the Assemi family. Granville will build lots of homes and commercial space by the lake as the schools take off.

It’s beautiful in the foothills by the lake. I would drive very little if I lived there in a well-ordered, self-contained community built by experts.

I’m far from alone, and that’s the problem for Mayor Swearengin and her 2035 general plan update with its 45% infill mandate. The mayor hates all of this proposed development — Millerton New Town, Friant Ranch, Assemi University (my name) — some 20 miles northeast of inner-city Fresno and some of the highest concentrations of urban poverty in all of America. The people who would live in these new foothill communities are the people she needs to live in the Fresno’s new infill housing. After all, it’s not progress (as envisioned by advocates of the 2035 General Plan update) if Fresno and environs remain segregated by income, education and culture. Swearengin needs a critical mass of people with substantial disposable income who, when given a choice between living near Millerton Lake or near the corner of Belmont Avenue and First Street, voluntarily chooses the latter.

The inner-city nonprofits who are the strongest supporters of the 45% infill mandate and SB 375’s mandates think like the mayor.

Oh, one other point. Swearengin desperately wants the supervisors to stop approving foothill development. The supervisors delight in ignoring her.

Kristine Cai, a senior regional planner with the Fresno Council of Governments, on this Tuesday did an excellent job of leading the supervisors through a review of the four scenarios. Each of the four was better than the status quo when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases and delivering high-density living.

This is where things got interesting.

All five supervisors — Chairman Henry R. Perea, Judy Case, Phil Larson, Debbie Poochigian, Andreas Borgeas — had the same question: Where did Scenario D come from?

It turned out that the first three scenarios had gone through a public vetting process. Scenario D, on the other hand, was drafted privately by no-growth advocates who felt the first three scenarios didn’t go far enough in mandating infill development. These advocates then convinced COG officials to add it to list presented to the supervisors.

Such a tactic, Case said, is like saying “Oops — I have another one for you.”

Borgeas, who voted for the 45% infill mandate nearly two years when on the City Council, said there was “always heartburn” at City Hall over the feasibility of such an ambitious goal.

Chairman Perea, who isn’t Swearengin’s biggest fan, asked: “Why is the success of Fresno always at the expense of everyone else?”

Larson delivered the most memorable line. Who, he asked COG officials, was involved in writing Scenario D? COG officials stammered. Well, they said, a group from Oakland helped.

“You say somebody from Oakland?” Larson said. With a dismissive way of the hand, he added, “That’s all I need to know.”

Larson leaned back in his chair and took no further part in the debate.

Just to give you a sense of what the future looks like in California, Scenario B calls for 21.1 people to live on every acre of developed land. That works out to 13,504 people per square mile — more than three times the density of Portland, Ore. Yet, Scenario B is deemed a blueprint for sprawl by its critics.

Scenario D called for 31.1 people to the acre. That works out to 19,904 people per square mile. That’s a higher density than New York City.

The supervisors voted 5-0 for Scenario B. 

Granville’s Roberts was pleased.

***

NUMBER FOUR — Government As Outsider

After that exercise in democracy, I took the long way on my walk back to the newsroom. I took Van Ness to Divisadero, then turned left and took Divisadero toward the Union Pacific railroad tracks near the City Yard.

There was a tall man standing with a packed shopping cart by the tracks. His small dog was sitting in a box on the cart’s bottom rack.

“Nice dog,” I said. “What his name?”

“Her name is Little Darling”

“Do you need some help?”

“I could use some.”

I gave him $5. I introduced myself. His name was Albert. He looked to be in his 50s. We shook hands, then I continued on my way. It seemed Albert was headed the opposite way, toward downtown.

I walked on Divisadero to G Street, then headed south. The City Yard was on my right. I’d gone a short distance when I saw another man approaching me. He looked like he was in his early 30s.

The man stopped me. He said he wanted to get to Clinton and Marks avenues.

I thought he intended to walk there. I carry a map of Fresno in my shoulder bag, so I got it out. I spread the map on the sidewalk, then got on my knees and elbows to get a close look at where we were and where he wanted to go. 

The man bent over me, also looking at the map.

That’s when I heard Albert’s voice.

“George,” he said in a stern tone I hadn’t heard in our earlier chat, “what are you doing?”

I looked up.

“Oh — hi, Albert.”

Albert and Little Darling and their shopping cart approached at a fast clip.

“George — what’s going on?”

By this time, the man trying to find Clinton and Marks had straightened up. He backed up a couple of steps.

Well, it turned out Bus 39 was what the man needed. Albert told him how to find Bus 39. The man went on his way.

I think Albert initially thought the man was hassling me. If so, it was nice of Albert to be concerned for my safety.

Albert and I walked together for another block, then went our separate ways. We shook hands again as we parted.

I have a lot of interesting encounters on my walks around downtown Fresno.

I was walking to City Hall this summer. I turned left from G Street onto Tulare Street. Two women were standing together about 30 feet from the railroad tracks. Each looked about 35 years old. Next to one of the women was a girl, maybe 10 or 11 years old. The women were of different races. It looked like the girl was the daughter of one of the women.

The girl was silent. The two women were talking with considerable animation. The two women also were passing a joint between them.

The girl just stared.

Then there was the day in September when I walked through Community Regional Medical Center on my way back to the newsroom. I was on the street that used to be Divisadero — I think it’s now called Ken Maddy Way. I was headed toward the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe tracks when the crossing arms with flashing lights automatically lowered. The warning bells were going. I looked up and saw a boy on a bicycle riding toward the tracks. He raced across to safety, looking to the north as he did so. The train in question was southbound. I didn’t think much of his foolishness. He crossed soon after the arms went down. I knew the arms went down 10 or 15 seconds before the train gets to the crossing.

Then I saw a second boy, also on a bicycle, pedaling furiously in the same direction as the first boy. The second boy was trying to beat the train, too.

From my vantage point (and the second boy’s), it was impossible because of trees and a fence to see how close the southbound train was at this point. I sensed it would be close. It was.

The second boy got across the tracks safely. I started say to myself “one-thousand one.” I got only to “one-thousand ...” when the freight train roared into view. It had to be doing 40 miles an hour.

The second boy had made it by less than one second.

Finally, there was the morning this summer when I headed by foot to City Hall via Merced Street. I was about to cross M Street when a young woman — actually, she looked like she was 15 or 16 years old — went by me.

She was headed west on Merced, toward Fulton Mall. She had a big bottle of soda in her right hand. She had a cigarette in her left hand. She was eight months pregnant if she was a day.

And she was on a skateboard.

I couldn’t believe it. I stopped and stared. It would have been one thing if the girl had loved skateboarding since fifth grade, had skateboarded in every spare moment for years, and just happened one day to find herself pregnant.

But she clearly was unsure of herself on a skateboard. You could tell it wasn’t merely because of the soda, cigarette and child. She was a rookie skateboarder.

Of course, there was a reason why she persisted in trying to glide along the downtown Fresno sidewalk on a skateboard. She was trying to keep up with the skinny boy on a skateboard in front of her. I figured he was the baby’s father.

I also figured the baby doesn’t have a chance.

***

NUMBER FIVE — Government As Savior

Then there was my walk last month from the newsroom to a suite of offices belonging to the county Department of Social Services. The suite is in a former bank building on Fresno Street, across from Courthouse Park.

I had an interview with Deputy Director Sanja Kovacevic. She’s in charge of, among other things, the local food stamps program.

I wanted to know: What is Fresno? What is Fresno County?

My thinking was twofold.

First, Fresno and Fresno County are at the top (or very near the top) of the list of every social pathology in America. I thought someone like Kovacevic had created a comprehensive statistical and geographic report on what constitutes Fresno and Fresno County (with a focus on geography since that is the focus of the 2035 general plan update with its social engineering mandates).

I figured City of Fresno and Fresno County elected leaders couldn’t do their job without such a comprehensive report.

Second, the populations of Fresno and Fresno County aren’t that big. In other words, my ambition was doable. Let’s say there are 500,000 people in Fresno and 950,000 people in Fresno County (fairly accurate estimates). In this era of “Big Data” and powerful statistics-crunching computers, those numbers are more than manageable. Sometimes it seems that the number of federal, state, county, municipal, school and special-district agencies just in Fresno totals nearly 500,000. It ought to be possible and relatively easy to mine their public data and map (perhaps by zip code) hundreds of measurements of social stability or disintegration.

But, as Deputy Director Kovacevic informed me, a far-reaching inter-agency cache of maps of Fresno County social data by zip code doesn’t exist for elected leaders’ review.

This isn’t to suggest the county lacks data by zip code. To get the ball rolling, I had requested a list of Fresno County food-stamp recipients by zip code. Kovacevic had it for me.

Nearly one in four Fresno County residents in January 2013 was on food stamps – 23.1% of the population according to state statistics. Only Tulare County (25%) ranked higher among California’s 58 counties.

As of September 2013, according to the county, 214,415 Fresno County residents were receiving food stamps. The 93702 zip code was second highest among zip codes with 19,004 residents on food stamps. That’s 40.3% of 93702’s 48,607 residents.

The 93702 zip code is almost a perfect square – First Street on the west, Olive Avenue on the north, Chestnut Avenue on the east, Roosevelt Avenue (a half-mile south of Butler) on the south. This zip code includes the Huntington Boulevard made popular every Christmas season and Roosevelt High School (alma mater of my wife — she lived at 249 S. Recreation Ave., part of the 93702 zip code, as a teenager).

The 93702 zip code is one of many at ground zero for the 2035 general plan update’s 45% infill mandate. We need more people in there, City Hall says. We need higher density, City Hall says. We need people to move in whose productive lifestyles will change the lifestyles of people already living there, lifting them out of poverty and alleviating 93702’s concentrated despair, City Hall says.

Yet, the 93702 zip code, a mere five square miles in size, has more people than the combined populations of Kingsburg, Selma and Fowler. The 93702’s population of 48,607 is far bigger than the population of Sanger or Reedley. The 93702’s population of 48,607 is nearing the population of Porterville or Tulare or Madera.

The 93702 zip code’s population of 48,607 works out to nearly 10,000 people per square mile. That’s more than twice the density of Portland, Oregon (yes, Portland!). The 93702 zip code has a higher population density per square mile than the population of Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee or Seattle.

Why would the city of Fresno and its planning staff want densities of, say, 12,000 per square mile or 14,000 per square mile or 20,000 per square mile in neighborhoods such as the 93702 zip code? That’s got to be what city officials view as the end game of the 2035 general plan update’s 45% mandate. Otherwise, the notion of an infill mandate makes no sense.

This idea of taking the 93702 zip code, with its population density already at the level of big Eastern Seaboard cities, and crafting city (and state) policy to put even more people in the area was never discussed at the two April 2012 City Council meetings where the update’s theme was discussed and approved.

Look at it this way.

Much of the talk at City Hall over the past 20 months has centered on defining the geographic boundary for what constitutes “infill.” There’s good reason for this. Developers must produce sufficient infill action if they want to produce any “greenfield” action – homes in non-infill areas.

For example, let’s say developer John Doe wants to build 900 homes/apartments on 480 acres of what’s now a fig orchard in Fresno’s sphere of influence (as defined in 1983) in the northwest part of town. If those 480 acres aren’t defined as infill, then they’re defined as greenfield (greenfield is to get 55% of future residential development). For City Hall to give the OK to developer Doe, it’s got to make sure there are 1,100 homes/apartments in the pipeline for neighborhoods defined as infill. Otherwise, the 45% infill mandate isn’t met and the general plan update’s social-engineering goals are betrayed.

That’s a recipe for trouble on many levels.

Granville Homes President Darius Assemi is among those who wants “infill” defined as everything within Fresno’s city limits and sphere of influence as defined in 1983.

So, you can see that if “infill” is defined narrowly (say, Fresno’s urban footprint as of 1960), then it’ll be much harder for developers to take advantage of the 55% greenfield opportunity.

But City Hall and developers face challenges far more serious and vexing than just agreeing on the placement of lines on a Fresno map, with “infill” on one side and “greenfill” on the other.

Keep in mind the main idea behind the 45% infill mandate. It’s social justice.

The idea is that big parts of Fresno have been systematically victimized – looted and abused. This has occurred because people voluntarily and legally moved elsewhere in the city. The people living in the victimized neighborhoods over the decades have, despite the presence of schools and public agencies and their own free will, been unable to build the stable, thriving neighborhoods that we want for all Americans.

Therefore, City Hall must get people with life-building and community-building skills to move into these victimized neighborhoods. These skillful newcomers will change the behavior of people already living in the victimized neighborhoods. A rebirth, for people and inner-city Fresno, will occur.

How is the 45% infill, this critical mass of life-saving excellence, to be distributed over the part of Fresno deemed to be in need of infill?

This area most certainly will be immense – I’m guessing well over half of the city’s 112 square miles.

What happens if the neighborhood-saving infill development over the next decade goes largely to the McLane High School area, leaving behind the Fresno High, Roosevelt High, Sunnyside High and Edison areas? Where’s the justice in that?

What happens if the neighborhood-saving infill development over the next decade is spread evenly over each square-mile of infill-defined geography, thereby never achieving the critical mass of the socially-constructive excellence necessary to transform the lives of long-term residents? Where’s the justice in that?

What happens if one side of a neighborhood block, due to the free play of market forces, is blessed with life-enhancing infill development but the street around the corner of the same block doesn’t get the same life-enhancing infill development? My wife and I for 11 years lived on Poplar Avenue between McKinley and Olive Avenues (south of Fresno City College). What happens if that stretch of Poplar gets infill development and the homeowners on College Avenue, one street to the west, see no infill on their street? Where’s the justice of that in an egalitarian society?

Is it supposed to be 45% infill every month? Every year? Every decade?

What happens if the Roosevelt High area and the McLane High area each an equal share infill over a five-year period, but socially-constructive influences of infill lead to a 45% drop in crime around Roosevelt but McLane’s crime rate drops only 5%?

What happens if infill causes property values around Edison High to rise 5% annually for a decade, but infill around Fresno High causes property values to remain steady for the same period? Where’s the justice in that?

All of these questions and many more became the future of Fresno once we decided to mandate that a certain percentage of all future residential development must occur within a certain geographic area and that infill development must produce specific feats of social engineering that can’t be accomplished by the people already living in the designated areas.

All of this was going through my mind as I waited on this late Wednesday morning to speak with Deputy Director Kovacevic.

One other topic was going through my mind: Who will shoulder the responsibility for moving into all these infill neighborhoods and leading inner-city Fresno out of its darkness?

The answer may be found in census figures.

There’s something at the heart of the general plan update’s 45% infill theme other than City Hall’s conviction that the people living in the infill neighborhoods need a massive influx of outside role models if they are to succeed. I’m talking about a phenomenon that is widely deemed to be most responsible over the past 60 years for all of Fresno’s ills — white flight.

The thinking behind the concept of white flight appears to go like this:

* America is an egalitarian society.

* Whites have acquired many financial assets.

* Whites used to live in the heart of Fresno.

* More and more non-whites, many of whom didn’t have a lot of financial assets, began to move into inner-city Fresno after World War Two.

* Whites don’t like living among non-whites.

* White developers created the suburbs.

* Whites moved to the suburbs.

* Non-whites remaining in inner-city Fresno struggle unsuccessfully to achieve the American dream, producing a city with the highest concentration of urban poverty anywhere in the nation.

* White flight is to reason.

The Bee has reported on this theory and occasionally given it weight. Here are examples from reporters, columnists and editorial-writers:

1.) January 1, 1989 in a report on the previous year’s events: “There were 41 murders in the city of Fresno in 1988 — 42 if you count downtown. The usual suspects in the downtown’s demise were rounded up — lousy parking, inadequate maintenance, poor planning and white flight.”

2.) April 2, 1989, in a report on the demographic transformation of the student body at Winchell Elementary School in southeast Fresno: “Some people in the area who ‘made it’ joined white flight and Fresno’s inexorable spread north, seeking security and stature in places like the San Joaquin River bluffs.”

3.) Sept. 7, 1989, in a column on how Fulton Mall, 25 years after it’s birth, is doing just fine: “So why is it ... that everyone thinks Fulton Mall isn’t working? Is (it) racism when you get down to it or another one of those half-baked myths at the heart of Fresno’s white flight to the north and east?”

4.) May 5, 1991 in a column on people buying new homes in the Woodward Park area: “Who were all these trendsetters of white flight, I wondered, all these wealthy socialites in a city with a 7-Eleven economy?”

5.) June 30, 1991 in a column on Valley Children’s Hospital’s move to Madera County: “Call it a watershed event. Fresno has become large enough now to spin off major competitive and ever-more distant suburban rings to accommodate its white flight.”

6.) May 10, 1992, a quote from the executive director of Centro La Familia in a report on the three-mile move of a state employment office from East Olive Avenue to East Shaw Avenue: “I consider this white flight. We are seeing a pattern of the state leaving economically depressed communities and moving to the north end of town.”

7.) Jan. 30, 1992 in a report on the decision of the Fresno County Committee on School District Organization to allow residents of the Tarpey area to vote on whether to be part of the Fresno or Clovis school districts: “Fresno Unified has said the transfer would result in a ‘white flight’ of students from predominantly minority-populated district.”

8.) Oct. 19, 2003 in a report on what life in the San Joaquin Valley will be like in 2025: “Will it be a Valley split in two, it’s residents increasingly divided by economics and culture, a depressing world of high unemployment, gang activity, racism and white flight?”

9.) Nov. 19, 2010 in a report on Hoover High School’s struggles on the football field: “The demographic shift in Fresno, with white flight north of Herndon Avenue, has greatly affected Hoover’s ability to produce at a high level.”

10.) The following example implies the term “white flight” in none-too-subtle fashion. This example comes from the main story in our April 28, 2002 special section touting the opening of downtown’s $46 million baseball stadium. “Cities — dense, urban, congested environments — are where the arts and sciences thrive, where culture gestates and emerges, where experiences wildly divergent and diverse are found. Suburbs produce little beyond smugness.”

That second sentence — “Suburbs produce little beyond smugness” — speaks volumes about a certain mindset.

We at The Bee never published a definition of “white flight” to go with our periodic use of the term, so my blog’s nine-part explanation of its meaning is guesswork.

But if I’m in the ballpark, then I don’t buy the“white flight” theory for inner-city Fresno’s woes.

I believe people move where they want to move. If they do so legally, then the reasons are their business. I believe the 48,607 people of the 93702 zip code are fully capable of building good lives for themselves.

Here are some census numbers gathered from The Bee archives and the Internet. Some numbers are different than those found in the Infill Task Force’s “Fresno, California: Transforming A City” report mentioned above. I don’t know why.

* Fresno’s population in 1990 was 354,202; 49.4% was white, 29.9% Hispanic.

* Fresno’s population in 2000 was 427,652; 39.8% was Hispanic, 37% was white.

* Fresno’s population in 2010 was 494,665; 46.9% was Hispanic, 32.7% was white.

* Fresno’s Asian population has stayed at about 11% and its African-American population at about 8% during these years.

* There was a time 40 or 50 years ago when the growth of Fresno’s white population was measured in hundreds per month and the Hispanic population was measured in dozens per month.

* The growth of Fresno’s white population is now measured in dozens per month and the Hispanic population in hundreds per month.

These census numbers are rough at best, but do spotlight an unmistakable and interesting trend. That trend isn’t the fact that Hispanics, as a percentage of the population, are the largest ethnic group in the Valley and destined to soon be the majority in Fresno. That trend has reported in the media for a long time.

The interesting trend is that Fresno on its inevitable journey to a population of 750,000 might see not only the percentage of whites continue to drop but also see the overall number of whites begin decline in real numbers.

I don’t care one way or the other. All brains — be they on Elm Avenue in west Fresno or in a Bee editorial conference or in the suburbs — are created equal. That’s America.

But such a trend is doing two things to local politics.

One, the era of “white flight” (a repugnant term) as a catalyst for contemporary policy debate is over for good. You’ve got to have whites “fleeing” from a municipal center representing social justice to a municipal outskirts representing social injustice to have the “white flight” that has long intrigued social pundits. But it appears whites are abandoning the entire municipality that is Fresno. Waving the bloody flag of “white flight” to drive city policy is irrelevant.

Two, it would appear at first glance that the success or failure of the 2035 general plan update’s 45% repopulation edict will depend largely on Hispanics. They are the dominant ethnic group of 21st century Fresno just as whites were in the 20th century. To be specific, the social, economic and ethical transformation of the tens of thousands of struggling Fresnans in infill neighborhoods would appear to rest on the movement of families of middle- and upper-class Hispanics (whose habits and mores are to be emulated) into infill neighborhoods.

This seems to be what the Mayor’s Infill Task Force is telling us.

The universe of middle- and upper-class Hispanics is immense and growing bigger every day. Many of these families have children of school age. The parents want their children to follow in their successful footsteps. The parents know the world’s economy is globalized and extremely competitive. The parents know their children will compete against the best not merely of Dallas and Minneapolis and Boston and Miami but the best of Germany and China and Brazil and South Africa.

Will middle- and upper-class Hispanic families, knowing the world dynamic and looking for a place to live in the Fresno metropolitan area, choose to be the social-engineering missionaries required by the 2035 general plan update’s 45% infill mandate and live in a neighborhood like the 93702 zip code area of southeast and central Fresno?

Maybe, maybe not. But that’s the key political question facing 21st century Fresno. Near as I can tell only Council Member Sal Quintero sees the handwriting on the wall. Quintero represents southeast Fresno and has been at City Hall, as council member or chief of staff to a council member, for more than 25 years. He has seen the changes and he’s not afraid to discuss them in frank terms.

Quintero is unyielding in his opposition to Mayor Swearengin’s plan to open the six-block Fulton Corridor to cars. Quintero wants something done to the corridor that, as least in part, reflects Fresno’s Spanish heritage and its fast-growing Hispanic influence.

In other words, Sal understands the movement of power.

***

NUMBER SIX — Government As Supplicant

I had an interesting six-hour stretch on a Wednesday in November.

It began in mid-afternoon. Greg Barfield, chief of staff to District 3 Council Member Oliver Baines, called me. Barfield asked if I could meet with Baines and retired Fresno cop Bob Mitchell at the West Fresno home of Harlan Kelly.

I knew what we’d discuss — Running Horse and the Assemi Family. I said I’d be there.

We all know about the failed Running Horse project in West Fresno. A developer from Carmel in 2002 said he’d turn about 450 acres bounded by Hughes, Whites Bridge, Marks and Church avenues into a world-class golf course and hundreds of mansions.

West Fresno, the traditional heart of Fresno’s African-American community, had never had such high hopes.

Then it all collapsed. But not before millions of investor dollars had been squandered and a one-and-a-half-mile trench (for the golf course) had been dug.

City Hall had invested relatively little money in Running Horse. But the failed project was a huge policy headache and even bigger political liability. The trench became an immense illegal dumping ground. Dirt-bike riders viewed it as the perfect playground. State officials second-guessed their decision to build the Central Valley’s first veterans home on the edge of the site.

West Fresno residents felt victimized. They steamed.

But City Hall had no money. What to do?

The Assemi Family (with a partner from Los Banos) stepped in. The family bought 360 acres of the site and spent big sums cleaning the place. The trench was filled and leveled.

The Assemis said they wanted to grow almonds on the site, renamed Mission Ranch. When the housing market rebounded in general, and the West Fresno housing market blossomed, they’d pull the trees and begin building the master-planned community that West Fresnans had wanted all along.

First, though, the Assemis needed the City Council to approve a change to code that would permit industrial-scale farming within the city. This request would go to the council the next day.

The Assemis’ long effort to get the council’s blessing had been met for months with major opposition.

Some of the opposition came from social-service nonprofits. They had a number of worries. Water and pollution were among them.

Some of the opposition came from West Fresno activists. They worried about pollution and water. They also wanted houses, not almond trees, at Mission Ranch.

All sorts of political imperatives swirled around the issue.

City Hall didn’t want to anger Fresno’s only African-American community. City Hall didn’t want to anger an Assemi Family that was on the verge of fixing a problem that City Hall found impossible to fix.

The Assemis wanted City Hall’s blessing, but weren’t willing to build a bunch of houses they couldn’t sell.

The West Fresno activists wanted guarantees that their continued patience wouldn’t go for naught.

The activists from the social-service nonprofits, long a thorn in the Assemis side, desperately needed to keep the West Fresno activists on their side if they were to present a united front to the City Council. If the West Fresno activists switched sides and joined the Assemis, then the council could ignore with nonprofit activists without worry.

As I would learn at Kelly’s house, the Assemis had routed the nonprofit activists.

In a 30-minute talk with Mitchell, Kelly and Baines, I learned that West Fresno leaders and Granville Homes’ Roberts had been in negotiations for weeks.

The West Fresno leaders felt they had a powerful position. But they weren’t confident it was a strong enough to derail the almond orchard if the Assemis played rough.

So, the West Fresno leaders and Roberts did some horsetrading.

Granville signed a deal that, among other things, called for the company to begin filing development applications for Mission Ranch within 12 years. The deal isn’t 100% foolproof in a court of law. But that’s one of the reasons I was summoned to Kelly’s house. My story on the deal (posted late that afternoon on fresnobee.com) would ensure that the Assemi Family’s promise would reside forever in the court of public opinion.

In other words, the family’s failure to keep its word to West Fresno would ensure that history would view “Assemi” as a dirty word.

That’s what West Fresno got.

The Assemi Family got four things.

The opposition of several key West Fresno leaders disappeared. The next day’s council approval of the farming operation was assured. I’m told you can make good money growing almonds.

The family got a golden opportunity to go down in Fresno history as the developer who turned around West Fresno. That would be a feat that would live forever.

The Assemis got to reverse things with the nonprofit activists. This time the family would be a pain in their side.

And the Assemis got the good will that comes from bailing City Hall out of another big mess — and being the only developer in town willing to do so.

So, I returned to the newsroom after the chat at Kelly’s house, wrote my story, then headed to City Hall. The city’s planning commission was meeting that night. Once again, the Assemi Family and City Hall desperation were Topic A.

The commission was to consider a handful of administrative requests involving Granville Homes’ proposed Westlake project.

Westlake is what West Fresno activists want Granville to someday do with the old Running Horse site.

Westlake is to be a 430-acre master-planned community with a man-made lake, high-end houses, middle-income houses, affordable housing, apartments and commercial space. The site in bounded by Grantland, Shields, Garfield and Gettysburg avenues. It’s located west of Highway 99.

If the planning commission gave its thumbs up to Westlake, then the City Council almost certainly would do the same. The planning commission would be a key gauge of public support, opposition or indifference to the project.

The nonprofit activists and some neighborhood residents spoke in opposition. As is often the case at City Hall, the arguments switched sides. The activists opposed the almond orchard on the old Running Horse site because they worried about pesticides in an area with schools and homes. The activists at the planning commission meeting said the Westlake site, despite being close to schools and homes, should be a farm.

But the interesting part wasn’t the comments of anti-Assemi activists and nearby homeowners who didn’t want change.

The interesting part was listening to city staff explain the genesis of Westlake.

We go back to this notion, first explored in Part Number One of this blog, of the incredible pressures on a democratic government committed to egalitarian perfection. How are government officials to do it? In a tyranny, the officials could take control of everything and dictate the results of everything. That doesn’t work in America. The government here needs allies who will help further the government’s goals. Those allies earn governmental Brownie points for success.

It turns out that City Hall in the 1990s, when the Assemi Empire was far smaller, had two big development dreams.

City officials wanted a substantial growth of housing stock in downtown. As Part Number One shows, that occurred in Uptown thanks to the Assemi family.

And City officials wanted a major master-planned community in the area west of Highway 99. This area at the time was seeing more development. But it was development of a piece-meal nature — a housing tract here, a strip mall there. There was nothing, and there would be nothing over the next 15 years, of a kind that would brand “West-of-99” as a happening place.

Granville’s Roberts again took center stage. After years of preparation, Roberts told the planning commission, Granville was ready to give City Hall and Fresno exactly what they want.

The planning commission vote was close, 3-2 in Granville’s favor. When the issue came before the City Council a few weeks later, no council member raised a peep of protest.

***

NUMBER SEVEN — Government As Deceiver

I conclude with a portion of an email I sent to a City Hall official several weeks ago.

The email was in response to a brief conversation I’d had with City Manager Bruce Rudd. Our topic was the General Plan Update’s 45% infill mandate.

I had mentioned to Rudd a few of the statistics and analyses mentioned throughout this blog. The email was an elaboration of those comments.

The email talks about how Fresno already has a high population density.

The email talks about how the 45% infill mandate is almost impossible to define in a way that will satisfy those seeking perfect social justice.

The email talks about demographic trends that almost certainly are here to stay.

The email talks about the fundamental American belief that all brains are created equal.

I give you the last item in my email to the city official. It’s explains what I think is behind the historic 45% infill mandate.

“My last random thought. Fresno’s population has grown by what since 2000 — perhaps 70,000 from 435,000 to 505,000? As I said to you and Bruce yesterday, I suspect most of that growth has occurred not in places like Copper River but in places like the 93702 zip code of my first bullet point. Fresno simply doesn’t get enough middle-class and upper-class newcomers to account for all (or even a sizable portion) of the 70,000. Again, as I said to Bruce, if I’m right then that means the 45% infill mandate (defined in part as referring to population growth) is already a done deal. All that remains is to build new and better housing for the people who will move anyway into inner-city Fresno over the next 20 or 40 years. If so, then the 45% infill mandate from the council’s April 2012 meeting is largely an illusion, a sop to certain special interest groups. After all, federal, state, county and city housing policy is already moving pell-mell toward improving inner-city housing stock for current and future residents. The 55% greenfield limit ends up giving developers all the fringe-building authority they could have handled even if the general plan were never updated with social justice in mind.”

***

SUMMATION

I said at the start of this blog that it would have two themes: How Fresno works and the Assemi Family Empire.

Fresno works like America works. Justice for everyone is the name of the game. But justice for everyone is hard to do.

Fresno government rewards anyone able to advance government’s never-ending quest of justice for everyone.

Things get messy at times, but that’s what the Assemi Family Empire does better than anyone or anything in the 128-year history of this city.

It’s an epic — and unfinished — story.

 

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