Marek Warszawski

Is Fresno unfriendly to parks? Here’s one example of how city bureaucrats work

Want to know why Fresno suffers from a dearth of park space?

Or why California’s fifth-largest city has little to no public access to the San Joaquin River?

The answer is simple: It’s because city leaders don’t value parks or river access. It’s not a priority for them. Not in the past, nor in the present.

They might say otherwise — Mayor Lee Brand comes to mind — but their actions betray their true motives, time and again.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, let me tell you a story. It involves 17.58 acres of undeveloped land in northwest Fresno bordering the San Joaquin and neighboring the Fresno County Horse Park and PG&E’s Herndon Substation.

In the city’s 2035 general plan, the 17.58 acres are zoned as a public park. At least for now. But if city officials get their way, houses will be built there instead.

And — get this — the city officials want to enact the zoning change and give thumb’s up to an 89-unit single-family residential development without undertaking a full environmental review.

Just more business as usual in Fresno. Developers with City Hall ties make money, while parks, river access and quality of life get shuffled to the bottom.

Consideration of the rezone application for the 17.58 acres property at 7308 N. Thiele Ave. was tabled at Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting.

Perhaps someone caught wind I was poking around.

“Why is a city ranked 94th out of 100 in park space among major cities in the U.S. taking away a zoned riverside park?” asked Sharon Weaver, executive director of the nonprofit San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust.

That’s an excellent question.

“I don’t believe we have a shortage of housing developments in this community,” added Weaver, a Fresno native. “We have a shortage of park space, and this land is designated as park space in the 2035 General Plan.”

Who knows for how long.

In a letter to a developer dated July 6, 2017, Fresno’s Development and Resource Management Director Jennifer Clark outlines the “city administration’s position” regarding three separate parcels in northwest Fresno.

One parcel, 10.76 acres at Herndon and Riverside avenues, was already zoned for housing. In fact, houses are going up right now.

The second and third parcels, of 14.32 and 3.26 acres, comprise the park site.

In the letter, Clark outlines “the city administration’s position” regarding development of the three properties to Dennis Gaab, a vice president at Century Builders. Regarding the proposed park site, Clark tells Gaab that city staff “is prepared to recommend” the Planning Commission and City Council give the nod to the zoning change and necessary General Plan amendment.

The following month, on Aug. 25, 2017, Century Builders purchased all three parcels for $2.5 million, according to Fresno County tax and property records.

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John Marshall, who owns the Fresno County Horse Park, walks along the edge of the neighboring 17.5 acre plot of land that may be rezoned for houses near the San Joaquin River and Highway 99. Photogrpahed Wednesday, March 6, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Because it was a multi-property transaction, I cannot say with certainty how much Century Builders paid for each. But there can be little doubt a parcel zoned for housing is worth more, probably three times more, than a parcel zoned for a park.

Did Century Builders move ahead on the purchase, and get a good deal on those 17.58 acres, because they were given assurances by city staff that the land could be rezoned?

I have no way of proving that, but it makes you wonder.

“In my opinion that letter is what made (Century Builders) comfortable about buying that property,” said John Marshall, who owns the Fresno County Horse Park and opposes the proposed housing development. “That letter is a pretty good indication.”

Here are more aspects to consider: Gaab, in the 1980s and early 90s, served as Fresno’s economic resources director. Meaning he knows his way around city bureaucracies. In addition, Gaab was a member of Brand’s mayoral transition team and a member of Brand’s Business Friendly Fresno 2.0! Committee.

Sure helps to have friends in high places.

I’ve reached out to Brand and three of his key staff members, via email, to find out who authorized Clark to send that letter.

I’ve also asked Brand if Clark speaks for him when she uses the term “City administration” and to clarify his position on the proposed rezone.

So far, no answers have been forthcoming. Gaab declined comment when I reached him by phone Friday afternoon.

If Brand’s recent statements mean anything, his views on this matter should be clear. During a Feb. 20 meeting with The Bee’s editorial board, as well as the Feb. 27 meeting of the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board, I heard the mayor say how much he valued parks as well as river access.

In addition, Brand voiced his opposition to accessing the River West Open Space Area via Riverview Drive because such vehicular access through the upscale Woodward Bluffs neighborhood “is not consistent with the city’s General Plan.”

So if preserving the integrity of the 2035 General Plan matters so much to Brand, not to mention parks and river access, it stands to reason he would oppose an amendment that turns a proposed riverside park into residential housing.

Right?

Guess we’ll find out.

“It’s a very strange world we live in,” Weaver said. “There’s no consistency among the city planning codes. They just pick and choose between the projects they like and the projects they don’t.

“The city doesn’t care about what’s written in code. All they care about is who they’re appealing to.”

I’m going to slightly disagree with Weaver on this one. There is consistency in how the city goes about its business. The constant is the city of Fresno doesn’t care about parks.

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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.
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