A land-use plan described as “historic” for west Fresno received an initial approval by the Fresno City Council on Thursday.
The proposed Southwest Fresno Specific Plan eventually will steer how more than 3,200 acres west of Highway 99 and south of Highway 180 – one of the most impoverished areas of the city – will be developed in coming decades.
Thursday’s 6-0 vote authorizes city staff and consultants to begin work on a draft environmental impact report to be issued next spring, followed by possible approval by the Fresno Planning Commission and City Council next fall.
“This is a very important day for southwest Fresno,” said Councilman Oliver Baines, whose District 3 includes west Fresno. “A planning process of this sort has never taken place in southwest Fresno. It will be historic.”
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The plan gained the approval earlier this fall of a supermajority of members of a steering committee set up by Baines in 2015. The proposal also was approved unanimously by the Fresno Planning Commission last month. Baines said it’s been his mission since being elected to the City Council six years ago to bring vitality to development in the area.
“The big question when I came on the council was, how come southwest Fresno doesn’t get quality development, really on any level?” Baines said. “Retail, housing, commercial, what have you – there is completely disparate treatment in my community.”
Baines said two constant answers that emerged in his conversations with developers were that it costs too much to develop in southwest Fresno and that part of the city didn’t have good land-use planning. “It was so out of line with what’s needed to encourage quality development,” he added.
The proposal approved by the steering committee included the elimination of industrial zoning for new development throughout west Fresno, replacing it with less-intensive office zoning. Office zoning would bar further development of manufacturing or processing plants, but would allow many other commercial uses.
We got to a point where the steering committee probably went a little far in the minds of some residents in cutting out all of the light industrial zoning.
Fresno City Councilman Oliver Baines
Before the vote, Baines offered several amendments that were approved by council members, including restoring some degree of industrial zoning to an area along Elm Avenue – a main north-south street through the area – but only after an existing industrial area known as a “reverse triangle” south of Jensen Avenue between Highways 41 and 99 is largely filled to capacity.
“We got to a point where the steering committee probably went a little far in the minds of some residents in cutting out all of the light industrial zoning,” Baines said after the meeting. “Many residents who were not on the committee felt that we still want the opportunity for quality light industrial (development).”
Baines said he believes it was appropriate to “put some of that light industrial back in its appropriate place, away from residents” to “strike a balance” for the neighborhood.
More broadly, the plan calls for two “magnet cores” for development: one along Highway 180 and Marks Avenue geared toward retail, a major grocer, high-density housing and a medical facility; and a second near Jensen Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for a possible community college, retail stores and a park. Sprinkled elsewhere throughout the area are several smaller “satellite” cores of complete neighborhoods, each with single-family housing, neighborhood-oriented retail and parks.
Another change Baines proposed was to revise the zoning designation of about 13 acres at the southeast corner of Church and Walnut avenues from commercial to neighborhood mixed-use, at the request of the property owner. “There’s really nothing unique about that,” Baines said. “In all the plans that we do, if a property owner asks us for a designation, we honor that.”
But developer Sylvester Hall described it as a “backroom deal” and complained when Baines and Council President Paul Caprioglio declined to provide an opportunity for public comment on the change.
Outside the council chamber, Hall said the change is incompatible with a project he hopes to develop for 350,000 square feet of retail and commercial construction on an adjacent property. “It cannibalizes part of the plan, and the plan is to have major retail along these corridors,” Hall said.
“When you start putting residential mixed use off those corridors into the pre-zoned commercial property, all of a sudden you’re jeopardizing some of the investment that’s going to come in for retail on those corridors.”
Baines discounted Hall’s fears. “The property owner wants the designation to be neighborhood mixed use, and we honor that desire,” Baines said. “And unfortunately, Mr. Hall isn’t the property owner.”