When – or perhaps “if” – high-speed trains begin running on a route now being built in the central San Joaquin Valley, Fresno has plans ready for how to make the most of development opportunities around a future downtown station.
At an open-house presentation last week, the city released a final version of its Fresno Station District Master Plan – a design not for the station itself, but for the 14-block area bounded by Van Ness Avenue, Highway 99, Inyo and Tuolumne streets. That’s the area that’s roughly within a five-minute walk from the station site at Mariposa and H streets.
City leaders believe the station, which is roughly at the midpoint of a planned statewide bullet-train line from San Francisco to Los Angeles, will serve as a catalyst for the continuing revitalization of downtown.
“However, having a high-speed rail station in Fresno does not alone create economic transformation,” Mayor Lee Brand says in a letter included in the 82-page plan. “The Fresno Station District is a blueprint to create a regional hub for economic and environmental innovation within the San Joaquin Valley.”
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In the near term, in anticipation of an opening date in 2027, major changes in the area include reopening some downtown streets that are now closed to traffic, including reconnecting Mariposa Street between H Street and Federal Alley just west of Van Ness Avenue; Broadway Street between Tuolumne and Mariposa streets; and Merced Street between Van Ness Avenue and H Street. By that time, new underpasses for Fresno and Tulare streets to carry traffic under the high-speed train tracks are expected to be in place.
Over the long term, the ambitious plan foresees a new Fulton Street plaza and gateway into the station district at Tuolumne Street across from the Warnors Theatre; converting several lots now used for surface parking into mixed-use retail/commercial buildings along H Street; and punching Broadway through from Mariposa Street to Tulare Street, through what is now a building currently occupied by the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission at Mariposa Street. A new mixed-use project would replace the EOC building west of the reopened Broadway.
Building owner wonders
The open house held particular interest for nearby property owner Jimmy Williams because of plans for the west side of G Street between Fresno and Tuolumne streets. Williams owns the former Ridge Electric building at 1235 G Street, a 3,500-square-foot building known for dramatic blue ceramic decorations on its front facade.
“It’s a funky old building,” said Williams. “I look at it like buying a piece of art that happens to have some use” for Williams Excavation, the company he and his father own. Since buying it about a year ago, Williams has spruced up the landscaping with new trees, lighting and river rock, cleared out the debris left by homeless people who had been camping on the front steps, and removed graffiti from the ceramic decorations.
Williams was dismayed, however to see picture boards at the open house that depict potential parking garages in place of his building and neighboring buildings, and expressed his concern to Ralph Kachadourian, a supervising planner with the city’s Development and Resource Management Department.
Kachadourian, who oversees the city’s program to assist businesses that are affected by high-speed rail development, sought to allay Williams’ fears. “This isn’t what it will be, but it’s an idea for what it could be,” Kachadourian said. “It’s what a developer could do if he came in and bought your property.”
Williams was skeptical. “I’ve been working hard to clean this place up. I’ve got things in the works,” Williams told The Bee after his conversation with Kachadourian. “But it doesn’t work to get halfway into it for a developer to come along and knock it down for a parking garage for a train that’s never going to come.”
The station itself, which has yet to be designed, is anticipated to include a main facility at Mariposa and H streets, east of the existing Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks. The high-speed rail tracks would be just west of and adjacent to the UPRR tracks, and boarding platforms for bullet train passengers would be reached from a smaller station building along G Street. An elevated concourse over the UPRR tracks and the historic Southern Pacific train depot buildings would connect the two portions of the high-speed rail station.
The G Street side of the station would face west toward the historic Chinatown district that sits between G Street and Highway 99. The plan anticipates that the station would spur increased development interest in Chinatown, with new buildings potentially filling in now-vacant lots in the district.