Political Notebook

Swearengin, Assemi walk back potential political battle

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin announces that a property management company will take over the Summerset Village Apartments during a December 2015 news conference at the complex. The Swearengin administration is pushing a revised city development code that includes a multi-family housing component intended to avoid a repeat of what happened at Summerset Village.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin announces that a property management company will take over the Summerset Village Apartments during a December 2015 news conference at the complex. The Swearengin administration is pushing a revised city development code that includes a multi-family housing component intended to avoid a repeat of what happened at Summerset Village. Fresno Bee file

It hasn’t always been a cozy relationship between Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s administration and arguably the city’s most prolific and visible developer, Granville Homes. In fact, at times the political winds between Swearengin and Granville President Darius Assemi have felt downright icy.

So when Granville raised 11th-hour issues over the city’s new development code, it looked like another clash of Fresno’s political titans was brewing.

This time, however, it appears cooler heads have prevailed.

The tussle was over the multi-family housing component of the code. City officials had held discussions with the city’s multi-family developers and thought they had hammered out a workable compromise on a series of design standards, particularly those in older urban parts of Fresno.

Granville, primarily known as a single-family home builder, but which over the past decade has built a series of high-end apartment complexes in downtown Fresno, was part of those meetings.

Still, the company was unhappy with the finished product put forth by Swearengin’s administration, and it appeared to city officials that the company was doing an end run on the process at the Dec. 17 City Council meeting – and quite possibly had the council votes to succeed in putting forth its own alternative vision for multi-family development design standards.

“We just happen to have 11 years of experience developing infill, especially in downtown Fresno, and we’ve learned a lot of things the hard way,” Assemi said this week in an interview.

The item was hastily pulled by city officials even as debate was progressing that evening. Discussions then commenced between Granville and the city.

It now appears that detente has been achieved. Both sides are saying a compromise is within easy reach.

“At the end of the day, we have agreement on both sides,” Swearengin said. “Both the city and Granville were trying to establish that good quality projects get built in Fresno.”

The turning point came Tuesday, when a scheduled hourlong meeting featuring Swearengin and Assemi stretched to three hours, and by the end it appeared most of the differences had been bridged. Some loose ends remain to be tied up, and the city then has to give other multi-family and mixed-use developers a look at the updated final product.

The item originally was scheduled to be heard this past Thursday, but was pushed back, likely to the Jan. 28 council meeting.

What city officials learned between the Dec. 17 council meeting and this week’s meeting with Granville, Swearengin said, “was that there were some pretty big misunderstandings.”

Much is at stake for Swearengin, who is pushing infill development and a reimagined Blackstone Avenue corridor. She also wants to avoid a repeat of the Summerset Village apartments, where residents living in substandard apartments went without heat and hot water for two weeks.

Overall, the multi-family plan is a key part of the city’s development code – a nuts-and-bolts plan of how Fresno will grow, look and feel. It’s a document that hasn’t seen a wholesale update in 51 years, and Swearengin wants to get it completed, as well as an updated zoning map, so builders and developers with pending projects waiting for development code approval can move ahead with their projects.

“Fresno has never had design standards when it comes to multi-family development,” Swearengin said. “We now know after all of these years of missing this that the way you design a building helps determine its value over time.”

Singling out Summerset Village, Swearengin said the way it was designed, and the materials used in its building, contributed to its rapid decline. That not only drags down property values, but creates more work for the city’s code enforcement team. The city, she said, was determined to develop standards on materials used, whether or not a development faces the street, how people get in and out of a building, all with an eye toward maintaining its value over time and enhancing the neighborhood where it is located.

Assemi, at the same time, wants to protect his downtown Fresno investment. The Lede, centered on a block near the old Fresno Metropolitan Museum, is the last of 10 downtown Granville projects. But Assemi says there could be more, built by others, quite possibly adjacent to one of his existing complexes. He doesn’t want any subsequent downtown multi-family developments to drag down the value of the Granville complexes.

Granville’s downtown developments, he said, are “a little ahead of their time for Fresno. We want that architecture to be built by others down the road.”

Swearengin said Granville wanted exceptions for similar types of multi-family projects the company has done in the past. She agreed with Assemi that Granville has done great things, but said somebody else might not approach a project with the same care.

She said she understood that Assemi might be defensive about what Granville has done downtown. Why should the city dictate to the company after so many successful projects?

“We say, ‘because not everybody does good quality stuff.’ ” she said.

On top of certainty in design standards, Granville wanted flexibility in other areas. Assemi said his company has plans for a development at Blackstone and Clinton avenues, and will likely do infill Fresno projects for the foreseeable future. Those type of projects, he said, need flexibility, to “let the creative engine of architects and developers manifest itself into beautiful projects.”

Swearengin said the city’s ultimate goal with the development code is to set up a system with clear guidelines up front so that every investor coming in the door knows the rules, and every property owner in the surrounding area knows that a project is going to be held to a certain standard.

Given all these realities, combined with two strong-willed people in Swearengin and Assemi, the stage certainly was set for a political dogfight that could have turned ugly. Instead, it is apparently a crisis averted.

Swearengin now says the city understands that both sides wanted the same outcome.

Assemi agreed.

“I think we’re on the same page,” he said. “I think the mayor wants to make sure beautiful projects and attractive value projects get built. Those are also our goals. I think our goals were always aligned. It’s just how do we get there.”

  Comments