New plans that backers hope will spark a continuing renaissance for downtown Fresno won the unanimous approval of the Fresno City Council on Thursday.
The 7-0 vote encompassed a series of resolutions and the introduction of two ordinances to adopt a new Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan and the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan, as well as a new Downtown Development Code. The combination of actions establishes building standards, residential densities and permitted land uses within the 7,290-acre area in and around the city’s downtown core.
It also marks the pinnacle of more than seven years of effort by Mayor Ashley Swearengin on a series of moves to revitalize downtown Fresno.
“I’m thrilled that these years of work have culminated in this unanimous vote,” Swearengin said immediately afterward. “When we first started this process, we had a lot of arguments about whether or not we needed a downtown, whether or not we should be planning for the future of our city. To go from that to a 7-0 vote is really a remarkable thing for our community. It shows how much we’ve grown and how much we’ve moved forward over the last eight years.”
The 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. In addition to land-use and development planning, streets and infrastructure, the plan also provides guidance for historic resources, parks and community services. The plan anticipates the eventual development of as many as 10,000 housing units – either apartments or homes – to accommodate about 15,000 new residents.
Most of that new housing is expected to be developed within the area covered by the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan, which focuses on the historic 655-acre heart of downtown Fresno. The plan projects about 6,300 units or 12,000 residents. In addition to housing, the Fulton Corridor plan is aimed at promoting commercial and mixed-use development projects and includes policies covering land-use planning, transportation, community services and infrastructure.
Zachary Antoyan, 24, grew up here and moved back to the city a couple of years ago. He was among more than a dozen members from the public to address the council at the hearing to express support for the plans.
Antoyan said when he left Fresno to go to school, he was disillusioned about the city’s future. But since coming back, he and friends have regained enthusiasm for the downtown area. “The image of Fresno that this plan elicits is one I can get excited about,” Antoyan said. “I’m excited for Fresno to be one of the greatest comeback stories in California.”
The Downtown Development Code, which sets standards to govern development within the downtown urban center, represents the nuts and bolts of implementing the two plans.
“It presents a new set of development standards that allows a range of development types that fit within the vision of the plans,” said Dan Zack, the city’s assistant director of development and resource management. “The standards in the code are based on the best practices in downtown revitalization across the nation, but are tailored to the unique conditions that exist in Fresno.”
Key components of the Downtown Development Code are three new zoning districts “designed to create a vibrant, walkable, mixed-use metropolitan center,” according to a memo to the council:
▪ The Downtown Core zone including the Fulton Corridor and the future high-speed rail station planned at Mariposa and H streets. Buildings in that area would be limited to a height of 15 stories, a measure aimed at promoting mid-rise buildings to create vitality throughout the district rather than one or two taller, isolated skyscrapers with the potential of creating more office space than the market can bear. The city’s hope and expectation is that the ground floors of the buildings would be populated by merchants and restaurants, with 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 and promote residential mixed-use projects.
▪ 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. Those areas are anticipated to be more residential than commercial, with a six-story limit on buildings.
On certain key streets, including Fulton Street and Kern Street, developers would be required to incorporate retail or restaurants into the ground floor of buildings.
Zack explained that the 15-story height limit in the Downtown Core zone evolved from a market analysis as a mechanism for ensuring that only one or two skyscrapers would not outstrip the foreseeable market demand for office and retail space. “It’s real evident that if we take that capacity and just put it into a couple of big buildings, this downtown isn’t going to get filled in,” he said.
“What we want is to really enliven all the corners of this area, so if that means we have mostly mid-rise buildings here for the next 10 years or so, we fill in all those empty spaces, get those streets hopping, then the rents can be up where they can support steel construction,” Zack added. “We’re looking at it as an incremental thing. First, fill in everything with mid-rise buildings, then when we build up strong rents and we fill up that first round of demand, then we can reach for the sky.”
The only area with a minimum height requirement is around Fresno’s planned high-speed rail passenger station at Mariposa and H streets – that minimum is five stories. “That is our prime development potential,” Zack said. “Those are once in a generation sites for development opportunities. … It would be a real shame to get one- or two-story buildings taking up those sites and then we’re stuck with that for the next 50 years because we couldn’t take full advantage of that.
Throughout the downtown area, the code streamlines the city’s approval process for developers, removing many of the hoops to jump through for permits by allowing a wide range of different uses by right under the zoning rules.
“Some of the fun stuff you can now do by right, like outdoor dining and rooftop restaurants,” said Craig Scharton, who until recently owned Peeve’s Public House on the Fulton Mall and now heads Fulton Street Investors LLC. “Those are popping up in cities with horrible weather, and we’ve got this great weather, especially at night. We should be the capital of rooftop dining and outdoor dining.”
Scharton said that when he opened Peeve’s 2 1/2 years ago, “for me to have outdoor dining was a nine-month process and an $1,800 fee just to put 40 seats out in front of my restaurant” because of the city’s outdated plans and permit processes. “Now a restaurant can open its doors and the rules are there and they can do things that are normal in other cities.”
How quickly the visions laid out in the two plans come to fruition will depend on the future availability of money. The two plans suggest specific projects, but “the projects which ultimately get selected for funding will depend on a variety of factors, including how well they meet grant criteria, the level of community support for the project, and the readiness of the project to apply for funding,” Zack said in a staff report to the council.
“The city can talk about implementing plans, but the ultimate implementation will come from investment,” Scharton said. “It’s seeing buildings with good design come out of the ground and older buildings getting fixed up as mixed-use projects.” He added that he’d met with several potential investors just this week who are interested in developing projects in downtown. Thursday’s vote “is the kind of signal they’re looking for to see that this community is really on board with moving things forward.”
Ashley Werner, an attorney with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said her advocacy group was disappointed that the hearing was scheduled for the middle of the day. “We work with many low income residents who just cannot come to hearings during the day because they work. … The people who are most impacted and have the greatest interest in this plan really are the low-income residents that the plan is most supposed to be benefiting,” she told The Bee.
Werner said her organization’s constituents are concerned that the plan doesn’t do enough to ensure a supply of affordable housing in the downtown neighborhoods in anticipation of higher property values driving up market-rate rents beyond what low-income residents can afford.
“I think there’s this myth in Fresno that displacement due to rent increases could never happen here because we have such low rental prices compared to the Bay Area,” Werner said. “But that doesn’t acknowledge that we have the greatest poverty rates in the country.”
The Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan includes policies aimed at ensuring that existing residents and businesses can remain in their neighborhoods – a feature that LCJA lobbied Swearengin and Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria to add to the plan. Those policies include the creation of a displacement task force as well as collecting periodic data on vacancy rates and rent prices to keep tabs on forces that could price people out of the area.
But most of the people who addressed the council Thursday were supportive of the plans, and the council reflected that overall support.
Councilman Lee Brand acknowledged that he was a skeptic of Swearengin’s hopes when he joined the council eight years ago. “It took me three of four years, but I came around,” he said.
“For me, this has been a long journey,” Brand added, “but now we’re seeing the opportunity for first time in many years to resurrect downtown.”
Swearengin acknowledged that winning over skeptics like Brand and other community leaders has been a long process.
“People had a lot of legitimate questions, and I think it was really just a reflection of 50 years of Fresno moving out from its urban core,” Swearengin said. “A lot of people involved in this quite literally had never seen what success might look like in downtown Fresno. … Going against our traditional development on the periphery of town and just continuing to push outward – reversing that and requiring the city to have a debate over whether or not we need an urban core was a lot of hard work.”