West Fresno's Triangle: Why did big development plans fall through?

The Fresno BeeJanuary 19, 2014 

A billboard sign stands in part of a section of vacant lots known as the Triangle, at California Avenue and Inyo in west Fresno Saturday, January 18, 2014. The area will soon be developed into a retail center anchored by a Family Dollar store. Some active residents are crying foul, saying low-end retail will set a future tone for the area and brush aside past promises of bigger value.

CRAIG KOHLRUSS — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

A former cop is turning up the heat on Big Government to fulfill its decades-old promise of reviving west Fresno.

The catalyst is a stretch of bare dirt and a shaky development dream.

Robert Mitchell, a retired Fresno police officer turned community activist, says he is going to the Fresno Housing Authority board on Wednesday with a simple question: What did you do to us at the Triangle?

The "Triangle" is neighborhood shorthand for four acres on California Avenue near Edison High School. Located on what many view as west Fresno's main street, the site (not always vacant) has long been a prime development opportunity.

Mitchell says the Fresno Housing Authority and the former Fresno Redevelopment Agency turned west Fresnans' heads with sweet talk.

He says the two agencies all but promised to join forces to deliver a transformative project on the Triangle and nearby property.

He says there was to be townhouses, owner-occupied single family homes, a teen center and, perhaps most important of all, major retailers of the kind found in north Fresno.

Instead, Mitchell says, just about everything turned to ashes.

The lofty plans were scrapped and replaced with a small vision of low-end retailers. There is to be no housing and no teen center. West Fresnans didn't see the change coming, he says.

"They blindsided us," says Mitchell, co-chairman of the Golden Westside Planning Committee. "Why? We need answers."

Things aren't nearly that bad, say Housing Authority and city officials. The big plans died, they acknowledge, but the villains are Sacramento politics and market forces. The stores destined for the Triangle are worthy additions to any neighborhood, they say.

The Housing Authority did nothing wrong, Authority Executive Director Preston Prince says.

"The RDA rejected my proposal," Prince says. "What am I supposed to do? The rejection hurts us. It hurts the residents of west Fresno."

Council Member Oliver Baines, who represents west Fresno and sits as board chairman of the old RDA (now called the Successor Agency) says he understands Mitchell's frustration.

"There clearly was miscommunication with the community," Baines says.

But something bigger than one uncertain project angers Mitchell.

West Fresno, the traditional center of the city's African-American community, is as old as Fresno itself. But it fell on hard times as city growth exploded to the north.

Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty in his Jan. 8, 1964 State of the Union address, west Fresno remains home to some of the highest concentrations of urban poverty in the nation.

Government agencies have vowed for years to rejuvenate west Fresno. Some progress is evident. Many promises, though, remain only words.

Mitchell says he fears the Triangle will go down in west Fresno lore as another betrayal.

"Here we are, the residents of west Fresno, victimized again."

A misunderstanding

Hopes at first were sky high.

They were born in 2007 when the first in a series of public meetings was held in west Fresno. Residents were encouraged to voice their development desires.

The meetings included the public sector's most powerful drivers of development — the Housing Authority, the RDA, City Hall. With such prominent agencies sitting at the table, Mitchell says, residents figured their thoughts were more than idle chatter.

The residents wanted newer and better housing, in particular the market-rate, single-family homes that add stability to neighborhoods. They wanted convenient shopping and services. They wanted infrastructure.

The meetings went on for three years. Things got done. For instance, a corner near Edison is now home to a public library.

Mitchell says west Fresno attention soon focused on the Triangle's fate. He says it was no secret that the Housing Authority, acting as the RDA's agent, was slowly buying a dozen or so parcels to combine into a developable piece.

The Triangle by spring 2011 was ready to go. The RDA sent letters to private developers, seeking ideas and financing plans. Housing and retail were to be in the mix.

Two proposals came in. ROEM Corp. of Santa Clara pitched a residential-commercial plan that, according to RDA officials, sought about $3 million in public help.

The Housing Authority dreamed big. Its two-phase project would begin with stores and housing on the Triangle. Phase two would turn a large block of aging public housing on the west side of the Triangle into a similar mix of housing and retail.

The Authority would tackle the housing while private sector developers would do the commercial.

But a key difference in the two proposals wasn't merely their size, Mitchell says. The Housing Authority, unlike ROEM, courted west Fresno residents before submitting its plan to the RDA, he says.

Something like the Housing Authority plan, Mitchell says, "was what we've always wanted."

Expectations dashed

RDA officials in mid-2011 told ROEM and the Housing Authority that the proposals were dead.

Gov. Jerry Brown was in the midst of his successful effort to kill redevelopment agencies as part of his budget-fixing plan. The money future was too uncertain to entertain either proposal, the RDA said.

Other factors were involved.

The Housing Authority plan also needed a sizable public subsidy — $3 million (says the Housing Authority) or about $7 million (says the RDA). Either way, a hefty subsidy probably was too rich for a City Council that had become penny-conscious during the Great Recession.

RDA officials also worried the proposals were too light on market-rate housing to survive a public vetting.

The RDA in late 2011 asked developers for new plans for the Triangle. This time, the site was to be just commercial.

Only Florida-based Boos Development Group responded. It proposed up to 23,000 square feet of retail, according to a City Hall report. Boos would pay $371,136 for the property and receive no public subsidy.

The City Council approved the deal in 2012. It hasn't closed because the Triangle and many other unfinished deals of the old RDA remain in legal limbo.

The City Hall report doesn't identify an anchor tenant. Mitchell and city officials say Family Dollar Store is the most likely candidate.

Baines says many of the events occurred before he took office in January 2011. He says the City Council has authorized a west Fresno-specific plan that should be a game-changer. For example, he says, the plan's environmental report will lower developer costs and help make west Fresno competitive with other parts of the city.

Terry Cox, a former RDA official who spent years working on developing the Triangle, says completing the project will soothe a lot of feelings.

"You'll have some people unhappy with what's going in there," Cox said. "And you'll have some people at the groundbreaking who will say, 'We've been waiting for this for 30 years.' "

Mitchell says he will tell the Housing Authority board that it's not too late to do something special with the Triangle.

"We want them to re-think the entire process."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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