The city of Fresno appears poised to build a couple of basketball courts in downtown Fresno’s Eaton Plaza, shoehorned between a pair of asphalt parking lots near an amphitheater and the city’s historic water tower.
Green-space fans in the city are concerned that if the $200,000 proposal is ultimately approved, it would mark a turn away from a long-dormant – and expensive – plan to develop Eaton Plaza into a visual centerpiece of grass, trees, fountains, trellises and benches.
“Eaton Plaza is significant for what it is in that place” as a prospective gathering place of relaxation for downtown workers, said Lee Ayers, CEO and executive director of Tree Fresno. “We see it as having strategic importance, and it is a significant departure from the current plan.”
The Eaton Plaza Master Plan was adopted by the Fresno City Council in 2004, but since then, only one of five development phases has become a reality – a concrete amphitheater near N and Mariposa streets. About half of the would-be plaza has for decades been paved with asphalt – one metered parking lot off of O Street that is used by patrons of the B.F. Sisk Courthouse across the street, and a smaller, permit-only lot for employees of the Fresno police headquarters across N Street.
Eaton Plaza occupies about 3 acres bounded by Fresno, Mariposa, N and O streets. That acreage includes the amphitheater and the 1894 Fresno Water Tower, which houses a visitors center, gift shop and gallery operated by the Fresno Arts Council.
Do we press for the implementation of the original (2004) plan with trees and pathways and places to sit … or do we support rethinking the plan for more active recreation?
Lee Ayers, CEO of Tree Fresno
In addition to proposing four distinct landscaped quadrants around a large central water fountain, the 2004 master plan also called for closing Mariposa Street to expand the plaza to the adjacent Fresno County Library headquarters.
City Manager Bruce Rudd said installing basketball courts would provide a greater opportunity for the plaza to be used by residents – including recreational potential for the Fresno Police Department’s Police Athletic League.
“This is trying to repurpose some green space that is woefully underused right now,” Rudd said.
Ayers said he expects to meet with Rudd to learn more about the basketball plans before jumping to any conclusions.
“Do we press for the implementation of the original plan with trees and pathways and places to sit for people who work or visit the area?” Ayers asked this week. “Or do we support rethinking the plan for more active recreation and less-formal uses?”
“Given the small size of the site, though, we’d like to see every opportunity for trees and green space wall-to-wall” in the plaza, he added.
Part of the problem with the 2004 plan, Rudd said this week, is the cost.
“This was something like a $6.5 million plan back then,” he said. “Today that’s going to be more like $8.5 million.”
He added that the Eaton plan is inconsistent with downtown development plans adopted by the City Council last fall. Those plans call for Mariposa Street to remain open to traffic between N and O streets.
Because the Eaton Plaza master plan was formally adopted by the city, however, it would also have to be rescinded or repealed to create consistency with the newer downtown plans before the city could move ahead with the basketball courts, Rudd acknowledged.
“We’re going to have to clean that up,” Rudd said Wednesday. That’s a process that could include public hearings by the City Council.
“But the idea that sometime in the future we’re ever going to do this (2004 plan) – no, it’s not going to happen,” he added.
The idea that sometime in the future we’re ever going to do this (2004 plan) – no, it’s not going to happen.
Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd
Still to be determined, and dependent upon cost, is whether one or two courts would be built.
“Certainly one basketball court would take up less green space than that big fountain” in the 2004 plan, Rudd said.
In addition to basketball courts, one row of parking stalls from the O Street lot would be torn out and replaced with grass, and trees would be planted to separate the parking from the grass area. The courts would also likely include lights to allow night games, but that, too, would depend on whether bids fall within the $200,000 project budget.
The existing lawn area at the plaza is used by the Fresno Arts Council during the spring, summer and fall for occasional food truck events, and the city’s parks department offers free movie nights during the summer. Beyond that, Rudd said in response to public comments at the City Council’s Feb. 16 meeting, “for a lot of us who go by this park on a daily basis, it’s not utilized very much other than a significant number of vagrants who like to hang around the amphitheater.”
Ayers said he understands that tight budget times during the recession halted any progress on the plaza plan. But he countered Rudd’s argument about the homeless being the only people using the plaza.
“If (Rudd) had implemented the original plan, it would be altogether different,” Ayers said. “Until a few years ago, though, it probably wasn’t viable.”