Fresno calls dibs on $70 million in state funds for a 'clean' transformation of the city

A 115-acre development project planned for this property south of Church Avenue and west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in southwest Fresno includes a proposal for a new satellite campus for Fresno City College.
A 115-acre development project planned for this property south of Church Avenue and west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in southwest Fresno includes a proposal for a new satellite campus for Fresno City College. tsheehan@fresnobee.com

A new southwest Fresno satellite campus for Fresno City College, a 68-unit complex of affordable housing with retail in Chinatown, and a “clean shared mobility network” of electric cars, vans and bicycles are among the key components to be considered for at least $70 million in state climate-change funds.

Transform Fresno, a collective of residents, businesses and property owners in downtown and southwest Fresno, presented its recommendations to the Fresno City Council on Thursday for projects hoping to win a piece of a windfall from the state’s Transformative Climate Communities program.

Fresno is in line for at least half of $140 million in TCC grants, which were established in legislation approved in Sacramento last year and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in a ceremony in Fresno. The money, earmarked by the state to be spent in and on communities with high levels of economic hardship, comes from cap-and-trade funds paid into the state’s greenhouse gas reduction program by companies to buy air-pollution credits. The grants will be doled out by the state’s Strategic Growth Council.

Transform Fresno held a series of meetings over the summer and fall to sift through more than three dozen proposals. Of five alternative packages of projects to choose from, the set of 22 projects included in Thursday’s recommendation were approved by the Transform Fresno steering committee on an overwhelming 125-to-1 vote on Oct. 4, said Laura Gloria, a business manager for the city.

We did something in this process that’s really never been done before.

Fresno City Councilman Oliver Baines

Fresno has until Dec. 6 to submit its formal application to the Strategic Growth Council, which is expected to announce the grants in January.

City Councilman Oliver Baines, who represents downtown and southwest Fresno, served as chairman of the steering committee, but admitted he was initially skeptical of the process.

“We did something in this process that’s really never been done before,” he said. “I didn’t know where it would go, allowing a couple hundred community folks to come in and make decisions like this.  It exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds, and it renewed my faith in the community spirit of Fresno.”

“There were factions in the community that were really angling to cut other communities out,” Baines said of the earliest meetings of the steering committee during the summer. “But somewhere in the process  the community decided they were going to work together in everyone’s interest.”

Mayor Lee Brand said the projects in the package will represent a total investment of about $183 million in downtown Fresno, Chinatown and southwest Fresno, including the anticipated TCC grant. “In the end, $183 million goes a long way,” Brand said. “The hard work will be the implementation.”

The largest single project on the Transform Fresno list is for the State Center Community College District to establish a satellite campus of Fresno City College in southwest Fresno. The recommendation seeks $16.9 million to advance the project, which has a total estimated price tag of almost $93 million. The college district has already committed $40 million from a $485 million bond measure approved by voters in 2016.

The college, currently proposed as part of a development project at the southwest corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Church Avenue, would provide technical training and associate degree programs and inspire entrepreneurs who would boost economic prospects in the region, according to the report.

At almost $10.8 million, the Fresno Housing Authority’s proposed Chinatown mixed-use housing project near downtown Fresno’s future high-speed rail station calls for building a four-story, 56-unit apartment complex of affordable housing units with about 4,700 feet of retail space on the ground floor. The $22.8 million project would be at the corner of Mariposa and F streets, about a block from the rail station. “This project provides much-needed affordable housing, encourages use of mass transit and pedestrian walkways, and provides new retail space to stimulate economic development,” according to the housing authority’s proposal.

The recommendation also includes seeking $7.4 million to help underwrite a network of all-electric vehicles for ride-sharing or to provide transportation for low-income residents in downtown and southwest Fresno. A total of 42 electric vehicles would be owned by a collection of local nonprofits, including electric cars that can be shared and checked out for hourly use, electric vanpools to provide rides for residents to major employers in the area, and electric bicycles that can be checked out on a shared basis.

Fresno exemplifies the challenges of long-term environmental and socioeconomic disparity.

November 2016 Strategic Growth Council report on why half of the available grant funds statewide are earmarked for Fresno

Among other projects in Fresno’s application will be new parks, a community garden, trails, sidewalks and bicycle lanes, additional affordable housing, and plans to improve energy efficiency for several hundred homes, including putting rooftop solar on almost three dozen homes and weatherization projects for others.

The allocation of half of the state’s available TCC funds to Fresno reflects the Strategic Growth Council’s recognition that portions of the city are among the most economically challenged communities in California.

“Fresno exemplifies the challenges of long-term environmental and socioeconomic disparity,” according to a council report issued a year ago. “Since the mid-twentieth century, suburban sprawl has consumed more than 100 square miles in the city, including some of the state’s most valuable and productive agricultural land. This has led to an economically distressed urban core and historic neighborhoods that contain some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the nation.”

The city’s concentrated pockets of poverty and other factors requires “a higher level of state investment” to overcome, the report added.