City Beat

March 31, 2014

Thoughts on Assemi, Crichton Place, City Hall, sprawl, Uptown

City Beat

George Hostetter has his feet on the ground and his eyes on City Hall

I took a walk Thursday afternoon and came upon some roadkill at the corner of L and San Joaquin streets in Uptown.

There it was, dead as a doornail: The possibility of a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony for Crichton Place.

The mayhem wouldn’t have occurred in any other town. But in Fresno, it was inevitable.

I was headed from City Hall to the newsroom. My route took me north on M Street. I passed First Presbyterian Church, crossed Calaveras Street and walked past Healthcare Centre of Fresno. I came to the corner of M and San Joaquin, then made a left and headed toward L.

What a sight on my right! Crichton Place is almost built. Even with work still to be done, it’s stunning.

Why would something beautiful lead to a roadkill metaphor? Here’s why.

Crichton Place is a project from Assemi-owned Granville Homes. There are 28 townhomes on 1.3 acres. Each two-story, 1,400-square-foot townhome in the gated project has three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms and an attached two-car garage. The estimated lease payment, according to Granville’s Web site, is about $1,400 per month.

For how many decades have Bee readers been subjected to an unending lecture from federal, state, city, religious, preservationist, journalistic and community-organizing elites about the earth-shaking importance of downtown revitalization? We’re getting close to ten such decades — close to a full century of hectoring and grandstanding and preening about the democratic and egalitarian sins of anybody who decides to buy a house or open a business anywhere north of Belmont.

I don’t know — maybe all those folks on the downtown-revitalization soapbox are right. I do know that, other than a parade of congressmen and assemblymen mandating that yet another government agency relocate to downtown or build another multi-million building downtown, no one since the birth of Tom Seaver (Nov. 17, 1944) has actually produced more growth for downtown than the Assemis.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em. I don’t care. One thing is certain — they aren’t life-sucking chatter. They act.

If you don’t believe me, take a walk through Uptown. The place is full of Assemi projects, finished and open for business. That’s why 24/7 life is slowly but surely returning to Uptown.

Now, there are lots of people who want life to return to Uptown. But many of them insist that life return only on their terms. If their terms aren’t met, then life must stay away. They are the Double U’s — Utopian Uptowners.

In 2011-2012, the Utopian Uptowners tried to kill Crichton Place. Here’s the context.

San Joaquin and L was site of two century-old houses — the Crichton house and the Sayre house. The Crichton house was abandoned and a complete mess. The Sayre house (I went inside on business several times about seven years ago) was in better shape, but not much better.

Granville wanted to build on a site cleared of the houses. Preservationists wanted the houses saved.

Granville proposed the obvious solution. It would sell each house for $1 to anyone who had the money to move them to another spot. No one stepped forward. The preservationists insisted that Granville spend all the money and do all the work to preserve the houses, either at L/San Joaquin or somewhere else.

Granville said no.

At this point, things moved into the murky world of bureaucratic process. All sorts of community meetings and public hearings and lengthy documents and governmental findings were held, conducted, written and pronounced. Everything was designed to either 1.) move the Crichton Place project forward, or 2.) stops the project dead in its tracks.

City Hall finally gave Granville the OK to demolish the two old houses. Granville did so. 

A group called Citizens for the Restoration of L Street sued. The group was angry for two reasons. First, it said City Hall acted with undue haste in giving Granville the green light to raze the houses. Second (and more importantly), the group said City Hall should require Granville to do the kind of full-blown environmental impact report (EIR) required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

You can’t spend two minutes anywhere near downtown’s maze of government and nonprofit offices without hearing someone use EIR and CEQA in the same sentence: “CEQA says the EIR must do this.” “The EIR doesn’t meet CEQA.” “Where can we find a lawyer who actually reads all the EIRs generated by CEQA?”

Citizens for the Restoration of L Street sued. The CEQA-mandated EIR, in theory, would have looked at every possible environmental consequence of Crichton Place in any spot anywhere near the project. “Environmental” in this context means anything to do with any form of life. As was made clear in the court hearings that followed, CEQA as now written and exercised in real life comes real close to giving rationalism a bad name. Darius Assemi once held a news conference in front of the unimproved project site saying as much.

Near as I could tell, Citizens for the Restoration of L Street were pursuing above all else the idea of perfected goodness. If Crichton Place and the Assemis couldn’t deliver that, then they had to go.

The uncompromising quest for perfected goodness drives just about all public debate in Fresno on growth, especially in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. The considerable power behind this quest puts immense fear in the bellies of all politicians. Anyone who depends on the ballot box will avoid doing anything that suggests or hints that those in pursuit of perfected goodness might, on rare occasions, be misguided.

That’s why there will be no grand ribbon-cutting ceremony for Crichton Place with Mayor Ashley Swearengin and District 3 Council Member Oliver Baines and Granville President Darius Assemi and Chamber CEO Al Smith and dozens of other power-brokers jockeying for the microphone and TV cameras. The ceremony, by itself, would be a very public rebuke to the Utopian Uptowners, and therefore politically-damaging for the speakers.

Will Crichton Place be perfect? Of course not.

What will it be?

When leased out, it’ll probably be home, on average, to about 2.5 people per unit. That’s 70 people total. The project is 1.3 acres in size. That means the density at Crichton Place would be 54 per acre. That would be a density of 34,560 per square mile.

In other words, Crichton Place would fulfill the density goals of just about all who view Fresno as the very essence of sprawl.

At a monthly rent of $1,400, Crichton Place townhomes will deliver market-rate housing to the southern part of Fresno that for decades has had little more than Section 8 housing and government-built housing.

Community activists talk just about every Thursday at City Council meetings about the need for more market-rate housing in older parts of town. Well, Crichton Place is part of the answer.

Crichton Place is just across the street (Divisadero) from the Lowell Neighborhood. Everyone talks about the power of development momentum in raising the quality of life in disadvantaged neighborhoods. If this concept has merit, then Crichton Place is a key part of that budding momentum.

And here’s the final thing that the far-from-perfect Crichton Place project is doing for Fresno.

Last Thursday, when I made that left onto San Joaquin Street during my walk to the newsroom, I stopped for a moment on the sidewalk. I looked toward Crichton Place.

One of the workers had a radio turned on. It was a talk show. The host and the person calling in were speaking Spanish. The worker had tuned-in to a Spanish talk show.

There were eight or nine men working on the units across the street from me. I watched for five minutes. They would occasionally speak to each other. They all spoke Spanish.

The construction of Crichton Place is putting people to work. Do CEQA and the courts and Utopian Uptowners care?

I don’t know. But I do know a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony when Crichton Place is ready to open would draw unsettling attention to that question.

The ceremony will never happen. It’s dead.

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About George Hostetter


George Hostetter, a Fresno Bee reporter since 1987, knows Fresno and the trappings of its government from the top of his hat to the tip of his shoes, which he wears out with round trips between the office and City Hall. Twitter: @georgehostetter. Email George at or call him at 559-441-6272.

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