An African-American developer is poised to begin work on a project that he believes can economically transform the lower-income southwest Fresno neighborhood where he grew up.
Sylvesta Hall and development partner Jim Shehady won Fresno City Council approval this week for their proposed 115-acre development on farmland bounded by Jensen, Church and Knight avenues and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Their plans call for using almost 55 acres for residential development, about 22 acres for major retail/commercial development along Jensen Avenue, a 9.6-acre park along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and 2.4 acres for community-oriented retail and offices at the southwest corner of Church and MLK.
Their plan also sets aside almost 27 acres along Church Avenue that could serve as a site for a future satellite campus for the State Center Community College District.
“I’m happy that this is the first shot across the bow for what is going to be a long 10-to-15-year process of reinvestment in southwest Fresno,” Councilman Oliver Baines said Thursday. “This is the first evidence of some really substantial changes.”
On a 7-0 vote, the council approved development plans, an annexation application for the property to be brought into the Fresno city limits, and new zoning for the land in anticipation of annexation.
City Councilman Luis Chavez, who today represents southeast Fresno but grew up in west Fresno, described the plans as “the fulfillment of a promise made a long time ago where this city has systematically left that part of the community behind.”
I stand before you today humbled as a 60-year-old man who grew up in west Fresno.
Developer Sylvesta Hall, Blue Ocean Development America LLC
Southwest Fresno has some of the highest poverty rates in the city, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In census tracts at and around the Hall/Shehady project, between 40 and 60 percent of residents are estimated to be living in poverty.
An emotional Hall addressed the council prior to the vote. “I stand before you today humbled as a 60-year-old man who grew up in west Fresno. As a 15-year-old sophomore (at nearby Edison High School), I made a promise to God: ‘If you give me the resources, the education, the experience to come back to my community that I knew was being abandoned in the 1970s, that I will come back and make a difference.’ ”
“Every dime I have in the world is in southwest Fresno,” said Hall said, adding that he is ready to begin attracting businesses to “provide the products and services for my community that I know are available throughout the rest of the city.”
The site is a short distance south of Edison High and Computech Middle School, and is across the street from Rutherford B. Gaston Middle School, which opened in 2014 at the southeast corner of Church and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Hall is reluctant to provide specific details about his plans for the property until additional meetings can be held within the neighborhood about the best way to move forward. “We’re trying to proceed as cautiously as possible in how we communicate,” he told The Bee on Friday.
Baines said Hall’s and Shehady’s plans are the first in a string of development proposals that are in the planning process after years of southwest Fresno being neglected. “You can tell from the passion of the development team and me that this represents a significant opportunity,” Baines said Friday. Projects like the Hall/Shehady effort and others for market-rate housing and retail development “haven’t happened in 50 years in southwest Fresno.”
What we’re seeing is the start of a resurgence of southwest Fresno.
Fresno City Councilman Oliver Baines
Baines said he hopes Hall and Shehady will be able to break ground sometime next year. “The development timeline is always long,” Baines told The Bee. “They’re looking at six stages, and full development may take a 10-year buildout; this is more than 100 acres, you know. But they’re aggressive; they’d like to have all six stages done in five years.”
The project and the city’s ongoing process of establishing new land-use plans for southwest Fresno, “creates a development that will welcome some of our local entrepreneurs to have storefronts and things to attract some larger big-box retailers,” Baines said. “What we’re seeing is the start of a resurgence of southwest Fresno.”
The State Center Community College District has made no commitment to creating a satellite campus in southwest Fresno, Baines acknowledged. Setting aside more than 26 acres for a community college site, however, represents setting the stage for the college district.
“From my perspective, we’re going to do everything we can to attract a college there,” Baines said. “The community has stated loud and clear they would like to see a satellite campus. Our job, my job, is to prepare the ground for them, to do everything we can to say, ‘We welcome you to make that investment in this community.’ ”
“We can’t force (the college district board) to do anything, but my priority is to attract that investment here.”