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Transformative moment: City vote gives hope of new development to neglected area

A 115-acre development project that includes residential and retail components is planned for this property south of Church Avenue and west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
A 115-acre development project that includes residential and retail components is planned for this property south of Church Avenue and west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Fresno Bee file

For generations, southwest Fresno has been an area neglected by commercial development, seemingly left behind as the city and much of its retail shops migrated northward from downtown.

To reverse that trend and encourage new commercial and residential development in the area over the next 25 years, the Fresno City Council adopted a sweeping set of land-use and zoning rules last week.The Southwest Fresno Specific Plan, championed by Councilman Oliver Baines, was approved on a 7-0 vote after more than two years of wrangling by a steering committee of community residents, educational and business leaders and developers appointed by Baines.

“What this does is lay the foundation for investment in west Fresno,” Baines said. “It is the single biggest economic development tool that west Fresno has seen in 40 years.  And it was driven by the community.”

Baines and other council members described the plan as historic. “There’s nothing that’s ever been adopted by the City Council on behalf of west Fresno like this in our history,” Baines said. “What you all as members of the community did is change the community forever.”

What this does is lay the foundation for investment in west Fresno. It is the single biggest economic development tool that west Fresno has seen in 40 years.

Fresno City Councilman Oliver Baines

The area encompasses 3,200 acres, and the plan replaces a mish-mash of different planning and zoning areas with a comprehensive guide for the development of neighborhoods, commercial cores, an educational center, and business sections along major streets.

The confusing array of inconsistent zoning and lack of environmental analysis “was really a disincentive to invest in west Fresno,” Baines said. “West Fresno was not ready to receive any meaningful investment other than one-off projects.”

The new plan includes provisions for more offices and single-family homes, fewer multifamily projects such as apartments, and a blend of mixed-use and commercial businesses along major roads, said Sophia Pagoulatos, a planning manager for the city.

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 neighborhoods, each with single-family housing, neighborhood-oriented retail and parks.

It also redesignates about 146 acres of land now zoned for industrial purposes within the planning area to office uses – a major point for area residents.

“The biggest issue was to rid our community of zoning that allowed for the consistent dumping of industrial sites into west Fresno,” said Venise Curry, who attended many of the steering committee meetings. “I do not understand the idea that with over 2,000 acres available for industry, why there was still such a push to locate this in only one place, west Fresno.”

The biggest issue was to rid our community of zoning that allowed for the consistent dumping of industrial sites into west Fresno.

Southwest Fresno resident Venise Curry

Residents urged the council to approve the plan and expressed hope that it will help revitalize a part of the city that lacks many of the retail and commercial amenities that abound in northern areas of the city.

“I know a lot of you come to City Hall here and that’s probably as far as you come, and then you go back north where you have a whole lot of things to relate to and enjoy,” said Hester Hensley, one longtime resident. “Take a field trip around southwest Fresno and see what we have: nothing.”

“A community is not really a community if you don’t have supermarkets and places to shop at,” Hensley added.

Mary Curry, who moved to west Fresno more than 60 years ago, described her observations about the spread of blight in the neighborhoods as commerce flowed from downtown and central Fresno to the city’s more affluent northern areas. “I’ve seen the deterioration,” she said, “and now I see the hope and the possibilities that this plan will bring to our community.”

Mary Curry was among nearly two dozen people who served on the steering committee that developed the plan. “I never went to so many meetings in my life,” she said. “But if you’re committed, you make the meetings. If you’ve got a problem, you offer a solution.  I’m pleased with the plan. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what we have.”

Earlier Thursday, another council vote marked another significant step for west Fresno: approval of a development agreement with Darling Ingredients to relocate the company’s meat-rendering plant from a neighborhood near Church and Fruit avenues to a site adjacent to the city’s wastewater treatment plant. The plant has long been the target of complaints by residents about foul odors as well as a lawsuit filed five years ago.

Together, the southwest plan and Darling relocation represent major progress for the community, Baines said. “It really shows that transformation is happening in west Fresno,” he said. “We are seeing the evidence of success, the evidence of people never giving up.”

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