Marek Warszawski

Here’s how Mayor Brand can improve Fresno’s parks – and win back potential voters

This was supposed to be a park. It’s still undeveloped after 14 years

Why does Fresno lack a trail system or other river amenities found in other Valley cities? The River West area on the city's northern border is the final piece to making it happen.
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Why does Fresno lack a trail system or other river amenities found in other Valley cities? The River West area on the city's northern border is the final piece to making it happen.

Despite recent evidence, Mayor Lee Brand insists he isn’t against parks. Brand also claims to be an advocate for San Joaquin River access.

Now’s his chance to prove it. At the same time, start to change the narrative that Brand’s vision for Fresno doesn’t include quality of life issues for the majority of its residents.

Maybe even win back some of the people (i.e. voters) who soured on Brand for the less-than-honest tactics he employed during the anti-Measure P campaign.

How? By lending some mayoral muscle to two projects that address glaring inadequacies in Fresno’s often-maligned parks system. One will require some deal-making and probably a little arm-twisting; the other simply needs to be made a priority.

● Fresno has long lacked a riverside park, accessible by car and bicycle, where anyone can walk along the San Joaquin, cast a fishing line or launch a canoe.

● Fresno has few off-street bike paths (paved trails where cyclists and pedestrians get the exclusive right of way), and those that do exist are located either along Herndon Avenue or north of it.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand Vida en el Valle file

As mayor, Brand has the power to make both happen. He says these issues matter to him. Time to lacquer those words with veracity.

“I am writing to state my absolute and unequivocal support for public access to the San Joaquin River,” is how Brand begins a Dec. 13, 2017, letter to Melinda Marks, the recently retired executive director of the San Joaquin River Conservancy.

“As a former member of the San Joaquin River Conservancy and the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust boards. I have been a longtime advocate for ensuring access for all of our residents to this jewel in our backyard.”

Stalemate at the river

If Brand is truly an advocate for San Joaquin access, I’m entreating him to break the impasse at the River West Open Space Area.

Since its public purchase in 2003 (for $10 million), the 508-acre property was intended to become part of the San Joaquin River Parkway, the long-envisioned 22-mile greenbelt from Friant Dam to Highway 99. Except nothing’s been done, largely because we’ve spent most of that time squabbling over how we’ll drive there from Fresno and where we’ll park.

Last week’s decision by the state-appointed San Joaquin River Conservancy Board will only lead to more delays and the same arguments being rehashed. Enough. What the community needs right now is a powerful person to forge a deal.

Is that you, Mr. Mayor?

For the last few years, Brand and other local politicians have carried the water for an influential neighborhood group that doesn’t want the riffraff driving past their spacious homes en route to River West. (Even though people park there and walk down all the time.)

River West map
In December 2017 the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board voted 8-6 to build a new road to the River West Open Space Area from Spano Park near Palm & Nees avenues. A subsequent vote in January 2019 essentially halts that decision. Tim Sheehan

That side sought to construct a new road, at great taxpayer expense, that would snake down the steep bluff to the river bottom from Spano Park near Palm and Nees avenues. They want to do this even though a road already exists (built decades ago to service gravel-mining operations) from behind the adjacent Park Place Shopping Center that would more or less accomplish the same thing.

But that road is owned by developer Cliff Tutelian, who had the foresight to secure an easement with City Hall when the shopping center was built. The easement essentially reads like this: If the public uses my road to access the river bottom, Riverview Drive has to be publicly accessible, too.

Riverview Drive happens to be the same road the neighborhood group has been fighting against all these years.

For a while, it looked like the new road from Spano Park was a fait accompli. That changed last week, when it was given a surprising halt-progress vote by the conservancy board.

If Brand wants to prove he’s truly in favor of river access and not in the pocket of a wealthy enclave, here’s what he can do: Step in and negotiate a deal to access River West from the existing road, which already gets plenty of use.

I’m not saying this will be easy. Brand and city staff must hammer out an agreement with Tutelian, Sam Spano (who owns adjacent bluff property) and the San Joaquin River Access Corporation, the nonprofit formed by the neighborhood group that injected itself in this process and became a river bottom property owner.

It’s also likely that permits will have to be secured with the state Department and Fish and Wildlife to do road construction along the river. In addition, waste material (left over from the old Pinedale dump) may have to be excavated and removed.

Still, this is the clearest, cleanest path forward. To be a park that best serves the people of Fresno, River West has to be accessible from Palm and Nees. I’ve long felt that way. In addition, having access from a busy intersection would lessen the strain on Riverview Drive, which should placate the neighborhood group.

Unfortunately, newspaper columnists can only do so much. To break this impasse, we need a strong mayor.

Any takers?

Former Fresno city councilman Tom Bohigian, acting upon an idea from his wife, Sheri, has placed four trash cans in the River West Open Space Area in an effort to keep the undeveloped and largely unmanaged property clean.

Make Midtown a priority

While he’s tackling river access, Brand should be tasking the Department of Public Works to push the Midtown Trail to the front burner.

Unveiled in June 2016 during Ashley Swearengin’s second term as mayor, the envisioned 7.1-mile bike and pedestrian pathway runs from Blackstone and Shields avenues following the Dry Creek Canal as it winds south to McKinley Avenue and then east toward Clovis Avenue.

When completed, it would create a 17-mile semicircle through Fresno and Clovis that lets central Fresno residents enjoy trail amenities their north-of-Herndon neighbors already have.

Yet not one inch of pavement has been poured since the Midtown Trail’s big announcement 32 months ago. Why? Because the city held a splashy news conference before negotiating a deal with the Fresno Irrigation District, which owns the canal banks.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin on Monday announced the start of the Midtown Trail project, which will run from Shields and Blackstone avenues to Millbrook, south to McKinley Avenue and east to Clovis Avenue, connecting with the Clovis Old Town Tra

It took a while, but an agreement is finally in place. And since the city already has the $9.5 million it needs to built the trail, as well as access to Measure C money to fund maintenance and operations, there’s no reason for any further delay.

Do both of these things, end the River West impasse and make the Midtown Trail a priority, and no one will be able to claim Brand is against parks. More important, Fresno would be a better place to live.

That is the goal, right?

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.