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Bringing life back to Blackstone by adding housing to new commercial development

Blackstone Avenue, the primary north-south artery through Fresno, has long been cited as an example of haphazard planning, an unsightly visual blight of signs and billboards, and a deteriorating commercial corridor in the central part of the city.

Now, two new projects aim to make a dent in Blackstone’s blight. They are among the first “mixed-use” developments proposed along Blackstone Avenue since Fresno approved changes to its planning rules to encourage affordable apartments with commercial space along one of the city’s key public transportation routes.

One of the sites is currently home to a collection of various automotive-service businesses at Blackstone and Home avenues, just south of the BNSF Railway tracks near McKinley Avenue and Fresno City College. There, plans are for the existing businesses to be razed and replaced with an 88-unit apartment complex and ground-floor commercial space that may become a medical clinic, said Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria, whose district includes the site.

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About a mile to the north, at Blackstone and Simpson avenues near Shields Avenue and the Manchester Center shopping center, a vacant two-story building that was once home to Arthur’s Toys and AJ’s Tuxedo Junction is due to be acquired by the Fresno Housing Authority. If the agency qualifies for state affordable-housing grants next year, the plan is to renovate and add onto the existing building to create a 45-unit apartment complex with office space on the ground floor along Blackstone, said Christina Husbands, senior planning and community development manager.

“The city, when they updated their development code and rezoned this area to provide for mixed use, it really provided a great opportunity to bring life back to central Fresno all along the Blackstone corridor,” Husbands said. “I think the goal is really to bring people back to living and working and shopping in central Fresno and increasing the life and viability of this part of town.”

Next year’s launch of Fresno’s Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, service along Blackstone Avenue “is really going to improve connectivity and transit and pedestrian access,” Husbands added.

Together, the two projects will provide affordable housing that leaders say is sorely needed by Fresno’s low-income families. “These are opportunities to have affordable housing in the urban core of our city,” said Soria. “Our rents are not as high as other areas of the state, like San Francisco or the Silicon Valley, but if you look at rents compared to household income here, they’re still high.”

But the need is far greater than the 129 apartments planned between the two projects. “These are definitely baby steps,” Soria said. “Fresno still needs a lot more.  It’s going to take a lot more work with the state to get this to happen.”

Toys give way to food business

At Blackstone and Simpson, the ground floor of the old toy store is going to be converted into commercial space. Husbands said the Housing Authority is working with Fresno Metro Ministry to potentially house a food incubator business there. Apartments will be on the second floor as well as a new three-story addition at the rear.

Renderings provided by the housing authority for the 0.76-acre site depict a three-story addition and a landscaped courtyard behind the old toy store. A total of 44 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments are planned in addition to a manager’s unit. “The rents would be anywhere from about $300 a month for a one-bedroom unit on the low end of the affordability spectrum to about $900 a month rent for a three-bedroom on the high end,” said Husbands, adding that families have to provide verified income information to qualify.

If the project is approved for money for affordable housing and sustainable communities, construction could commence in late 2018, and the apartments and commercial space could be ready for occupancy in the spring of 2020.

Redeveloping whole city block

At Blackstone and Home, “there’s a number of automotive services and a lot of rubbish; it’s not very attractive,” said Soria. “We have an opportunity to redevelop a whole city block.”

In their place, Soria said developers are envisioning “a vibrant mixed-use project” of two four-story buildings on the 2.9-acre site along the future BRT line and in close proximity to Fresno City College. “It presents a unique opportunity to fulfill both our (city) general plan and state goals,” she said. “Both push for affordable housing close to transit and close to major employment centers.”

Soria said she and her staff have been working with the developers, a limited partnership named 1501 N. Blackstone Ave. LP. In January 2016, the City Council – acting as the city’s redevelopment successor agency – unanimously agreed to provide a $1.5 million loan and to defer about $471,000 in developer fees as an incentive for the project. In December, the council will consider an amended agreement with the developers that calls for Fresno to provide $500,000 from the city’s general fund toward the $38.3 million project, in addition to a $2.2 million loan from the redevelopment successor agency, a $329,000 exemption of impact fees, and $478,000 in landscaping, sidewalk, curb and gutter improvements on Blackstone and Home avenues.

“If you talk to developers who do infill development and have done affordable housing for many years, the only way these projects pencil out is if there’s a public investment,” Soria said of the city’s financial participation. “Over the course of the next few years, we’ll have to see investment in affordable housing from local government.  There are great benefits because the city has skin in the game.”

Soria said Clinic Sierra Vista is interested in the commercial space, and added that nearby Fresno City College anticipates providing interns from its nursing education program for the health clinic. Some of the ground-floor commercial space may also be made available to the city for possible use as a small center for senior citizens.

Soria and Husbands both described the projects as catalysts for future redevelopment and revitalization of Blackstone Avenue with mixed-use housing.

“Fresno is in need of a great deal of affordable housing,” Husbands said. “What we hope is that this will be a catalyst to show people that this type of development can be successful along Blackstone Avenue, in hopes that other developers will continue to improve along the corridor.”

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