Six years after planning-reform efforts began, significant changes to the way Fresno deals with planning and development in its downtown area could be approved Thursday by the Fresno City Council.
Through a series of resolutions and the introduction of two ordinances, the council is being asked to approve a new Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan and the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan, as well as a new Downtown Development Code to establish building standards, residential densities and permitted land uses within the 7,290-acre area in and around the city’s downtown core.
Dan Zack, assistant director of the city’s Development and Resource Management Department, said revisions to downtown development plans were launched in about 2010. But those efforts were put on hold as planners turned their attention to more immediate priorities, including securing a federal grant for converting the six-block Fulton Mall in downtown Fresno – a pedestrian-only outdoor mall since the 1960s – back to Fulton Street to accommodate vehicle traffic, and planning for a Bus Rapid Transit system to connect downtown to north Fresno along Blackstone Avenue and to southeast Fresno by way of Ventura Avenue and Kings Canyon Road.
We’re a little bit late to the revitalization game. A lot of cities really started doing good things in the 1990s.
Dan Zack, assistant director of Fresno’s Development and Resource Management department
By that time, citywide needs demanded that revisions to Fresno’s General Plan – the big-picture plan that sets the stage for citywide zoning and land-use issues – and a new development code that streamlines permitting processes “really ought to go first,” Zack told the council in a recent workshop session.
“The downtown plans and code represent the last piece of the puzzle to all of this work we’ve been doing in modernizing and cleaning up our planning procedures and processes here in the city of Fresno,” Zack said.
The Fulton Corridor Specific Plan focuses on the historic 655-acre heart of downtown Fresno to promote commercial and mixed-use development projects.
The larger Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan encompasses downtown as well as surrounding residential neighborhoods, including the Lowell and Jefferson neighborhoods to the north and nearby areas of southeast and southwest Fresno.
“Together, those two plans come up with a vision for what these areas are going to look like in the future,” Zack told the council in August.
The downtown neighborhoods plan anticipates the eventual development of as many as 10,000 housing units, either homes or apartments, and about 15,000 new residents. Most of that new housing would be expected within the area encompassed by the Fulton plan – about 6,300 units or 12,000 residents.
“We’re a little bit late to the revitalization game. A lot of cities really started doing good things in the 1990s,” Zack said. “One good thing about not being the first is that we can learn from other cities.”
Fresno developer Terance Frazier, who is partnering with Mehmet Noyan on a five-story, mixed-use project at Fulton and Inyo streets in downtown’s South Stadium neighborhood near Chukchansi Park, said he is pleased with the work the city has done with the downtown plans and development code.
“If you’re a developer and investor, you can look at the new code and the incentives that the city has put together and see that it’s a full package,” Frazier said Tuesday. “There are so many things that you can do by right … and that makes it easier.”
Frazier said he believes the plans are likely to make downtown Fresno more attractive to out-of-town developers and investors than to local interests. Some of his fellow Fresno developers, he said, have told him that “nothing will happen in downtown in our lifetime.”
But Frazier’s and Noyan’s South Stadium project recently received an award of $5.7 million in state cap-and-trade funds – something that Frazier said he believes vindicates his confidence in downtown development.
While the two plans set forth a vision, the nuts and bolts are included in the Downtown Development Code, which establishes new zoning districts to govern development within the downtown urban center:
▪ The Downtown Core zone including the Fulton Corridor and the future high-speed rail station planned at Mariposa and H streets – an area described by Zack as “the heart of the heart” of Fresno. “We want it to be the most intense part of the city,” he said, with a concentration of buildings up to 15 stories tall populated by merchants and restaurants on the ground floors and office and residential space above.
▪ The Downtown General zone includes areas now occupied by the Fresno Convention Center, Fresno City Hall, county, state and federal courts and other government and civic uses. This zone would incorporate a 10-story height limit for new buildings, with residential mixed-use buildings to “make this more of a neighborhood area,” Zack said.
▪ The Downtown Neighborhood zone would include the Mural District at the north end of downtown, as well as Chinatown and the blossoming South Stadium area. “That would be a little more residential in character,” Zack told the council. Buildings would be limited to six stories tall.
On certain streets, including Fulton Street and Kern Street, developers would be required to incorporate retail or restaurants into the ground floor of buildings.
If this plan works, it’s going to be a vibrant downtown, and if it’s a vibrant downtown, some people could get displaced (by higher apartment rents). Other than that, I think it’s phenomenal.
Developer Terance Frazier
The code will streamline the approval process for developers, removing many of the hoops to jump through for permits by incorporating different types of uses by right rather than by permit. “You find your street, you find your zone, and then you figure out if your use is allowed or not,” Zack said. “The big difference here is just about everything is permitted by right.”
Developer Darius Assemi, whose company Granville Homes has built a number of residential apartment projects in and around the Mural District, said Tuesday that he has not extensively studied the proposed development code. But he said one thing that jumped out at him as he glanced through it was the potential to stifle building creativity.
“Sometimes in the process of trying to require attractive buildings, you can tie architects’ hands in coming up with creative and entrepreneurial solutions,” Assemi said. He cited specifications for the trim, width and depth of windows as an example. “What’s attractive today is not necessarily going to be attractive 10 or 20 years from now,” he said. “The code needs to have flexibility so that architects can show their ingenuity.”
Last month, Assemi put nine of his Mural District properties – a total of 291 apartment units – up for sale and said he had no plans to build any more in the neighborhood.
At that time, he said the city needs to take steps to “make it easier for others to come in and have more certainty and less guesswork in the development process.” He also called for modernizing the city’s infrastructure to accommodate more development.
Frazier said his only criticism is that the plans and code should include more incentives for affordable housing.
“If this plan works, it’s going to be a vibrant downtown,” he said, “and if it’s a vibrant downtown, some people could get displaced” by higher property values and higher rents for apartments. “Other than that, I think it’s phenomenal.”
The Fresno City Council will hold a public hearing on adoption of new plans and codes governing planning and development approval in and around downtown Fresno.
When: 2:15 p.m. Thursday
Where: City Council Chambers, Fresno City Hall, second floor, 2600 Fresno St.
Details: Information about the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan, the Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan and the Downtown Development Code is available at bit.ly/DTplans✔