10 thoughts on Fresno City Hall issues

Posted by George Hostetter on February 6, 2014 

Ten quick thoughts on Fresno City Hall issues:

* Mayor Ashley Swearengin is in Washington, D.C. this week. I hear she’s chasing more money for Bus Rapid Transit and Fresno Area Express.

* I took a walk on Wednesday in the neighborhood near the old Mervyn’s store at Blackstone and Ashlan avenues. The building doesn’t look very big. I’m betting the new Walmart store going in there eventually expands to the south.

* Remember the last time Walmart wanted to expand in Fresno? It happened in mid-2011. The company had a 131,000-square-foot store on East Kings Canyon Road. At the time, the store devoted about 1,000 square feet to groceries. The company wanted to expand the store by 43,000 square feet (174,000 square feet total). The company wanted to devote 48,000 square feet of the expanded store to groceries.

The result was a bitter fight at the City Council. Opponents said Walmart’s expansion would hurt nearby supermarkets. After a four-hour hearing, the council said OK to the expansion.

* I mention this because the chatter this week is that Walmart faces no such worries in turning the Mervyn’s site into a supercenter (about 107,000 square feet). The site is zoned retail. Walmart can fix up the site in peace.

But I chewed the fat with a city official on Wednesday. He said Walmart would need a permit to change the outside of the building. He said he expects Walmart to want a different exterior than what’s there now. And he said Walmart would need to go through the usual permitting process to get a license to sell alcohol.

The city official said he thinks Planning Director Jennifer Clark could deal with City Hall’s responsibilities on these two issues simply on her own authority.

However, the city official said, anyone (such as a neighbor) could appeal Clark’s decisions to the City Council.

I’m not convinced the move of Walmart into the old Mervyn’s site will be as politically simple as conventional wisdom says.

* The council back in April 2012 had five choices when it came to picking a theme to guide planners in the writing of the 2035 general plan update — Alternatives A through E. The council finally went with a sixth theme, something called “modified Alternative A.” This alternative has a 45% infill mandate — this in a city where brand new infill development has always been rare.

Now I hear city leaders, burdened with buyer’s remorse, are pushing behind the scenes for Alternative D. Council Member Sal Quintero liked Alternative D from the get-go.

* Paul Rapp, spokesman for the Stockton-area Bus Rapid Transit system said that city’s BRT gets about two million riders a year. The BRT bus stops are 1 mile to 1.5 miles apart, compared to a half-mile for the proposed Fresno BRT. The Stockton bus stops aren’t huge, unmovable structures (as they would be in Fresno). If the Stockton BRT leaders decide a bus stop would work better elsewhere, they yank the small structure out of the ground and move it.

At first glance, that flexibility makes sense. I wonder why Fresno decided such flexibility is a bad fit here.

* “Experts” play a big role in City Hall politics.

When Council Member Lee Brand wanted to buttress his belief that the Hotel Fresno rehab project made no financial sense for taxpayers, he brought in real estate development experts.

City Hall officials say former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim’s arguments against higher water rates are worthless because so far he has failed to bring in water experts willing to put their professional reputations on the line by saying the city doesn’t need a major upgrade of its water system.

Former City Council Members Chris Mathys and Ken Steitz in 2000 had no shortage of research by national experts who said cities almost always get into big trouble with huge, expensive taxpayer-funded stadium projects. No one listened to Mathys and Steitz.

I wonder why the current City Council’s BRT opponents haven’t brought in their experts to say BRT as conceived in Fresno is a disaster waiting to happen. The council opponents may be right. If so, their case would be strengthened by an expert or two.

* My experience as a City Hall reporter tells me this: The usual rules of money don’t apply when it comes to the financing of municipal transportation systems. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. I’m simply saying the landscape is different because the politics are different.

* Don’t be surprised to see improved security at the Manchester Center FAX station.

* Finally, that was an interesting Fresno Planning Commission meeting on Wednesday. Topic A: The fate of Fulton Mall.

All six commissioners asked tough questions and made concise comments that packed a punch. It was a pleasure to observe.

Fulton Mall will soon head to the City Council. If Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting is any indication, there’s trouble ahead.

Swearengin wants cars returned to the Fulton Corridor. The audience on Wednesday was full of the Mayor’s opponents. Some couldn’t contain their emotions.

A security guard had to escort a man back to his seat.

A woman in the audience wouldn’t stop shouting as commissioners explained why they would support Swearengin. Commission Chairwoman Jaime Holt finally told the woman to leave.

The woman shouted on her way out of the chamber. The chamber door closed. Her shouts, increasingly faint, could be heard in the chamber as she left City Hall.

 

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