Warszawski: Solution to River West puzzle within reach

By By Marek Warszawski


A Bee staff map from 2013 shows the details of the River West parkway project.
A Bee staff map from 2013 shows the details of the River West parkway project. Fresno Bee file

Fourteen years ago I lived in an apartment near Palm and Nees avenues, not far from the Park Place shopping center.

Of course, the shopping center didn't exist then. No restaurants, gyms or gleaming office buildings. No traffic lights or bus stops. Just freshly laid pavement and a stop sign.

One day, while riding my bike, I spotted a gravel road that led away from Palm and Nees. It went downhill, made a sweeping turn and ran smack into the San Joaquin River.

Besides slow-moving water and brush, there wasn't much to look at. (Since then, I've learned the road was built to support gravel mining operations.) But the potential for much-needed public access to the San Joaquin was immense.

Nowhere else in Fresno does California's second-longest river run closer to more residents of Fresno.

I moved across town before the shopping center went up, not to mention the Palm Bluffs office park. In a few years, Palm and Nees went from a dusty corner to a bustling intersection.

The more people that passed through, the more they noticed the gravel road leading down to the river. Some of them came with monster trucks and brains the size of lug nuts. They busted down gates, drove over fences, tore up the river bottom, guzzled beers, set bonfires and left piles of trash.

The river bottom below Palm and Nees, an area with so much recreation potential, instead became a public nuisance.

Still, I had high hopes this area would some day become part of the San Joaquin River Parkway, the long-envisioned 22-mile greenbelt from Friant to Highway 99.

So in 2008, when plans for the River West Open Space Area were unveiled, I was disappointed and a little confused. The proposed extension of the Lewis S. Eaton Trail under Highway 41 and onto the former Spano Ranch did not connect to that river road at Palm and Nees.

Instead, the project ended just below Spano Park, which is technically at Palm and Nees but sits on top of the bluff. From there, the only way to reach the river bottom is via a steep staircase. So much for easy bicycle and handicapped access.

Why was the river bottom below Palm and Nees excluded? For several reasons, I was told.

First, the property remained in private hands. The San Joaquin River Conservancy, the state agency charged with implementing the parkway, had an option to buy the land but opted not to because it contained a former dump site. No hazardous materials were left there, supposedly, but the area needs to be cleared and paved before it's suitable for public use.

There were other complications as well -- too many for a project that seemed on the fast track to completion.

Well, here we are six years later, and River West remains in limbo. Blame the recession for the first two years of delays, but not the past four.

Since 2011, progress has been at a virtual standstill primarily due to disagreements between a neighborhood group and the nonprofit San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust.

Parking is the main bone of contention. The neighborhood group is 100% against a parking lot that would be reached via Audubon Drive, citing traffic and fire concerns, while the Parkway Trust and other stakeholders insist the lot is essential for public access.

This debate shows no signs of dissipating. In fact, the two sides are as entrenched as ever.

During a recent open house that displayed the current proposal for River West and four alternatives to be studied by the Environmental Impact Report, I witnessed a heated discussion between a Bluff resident and Parkway Trust official.

Here's the sad part: Their arguments hadn't changed in six years.

If River West remains on its current course, I fear we're headed for one of two outcomes: One, the parking lot goes away, making access to 400 acres of open space unnecessarily difficult for most residents. Two, the lot gets approved, and the entire project is held up for years by litigation.

Thankfully, there's another option: Make the river bottom below Palm and Nees part of River West.

With parking on both ends of the project, there would be less need for that contentious lot in the middle. Plus, there's no easier, more convenient place for the people of Fresno to access the river.

I'm happy to tell you this option has been gaining momentum.

A couple of weeks ago, I toured the river bottom with Stan Spano, one of the property owners, and Steve Brandau, the Fresno city councilman who is also chairman of the board of the San Joaquin Conservancy.

Spano has indicated, to me and others, that he's a willing seller. I've also spoken to Cliff Tutelian, who also owns the upper road section, and am confident he could be persuaded if the land is developed in such a way that it adds value to his neighboring properties.

Ownership isn't the only hurdle. Existing roads aren't large enough to accommodate two-way car travel along with the Eaton Trail, which requires a 22-foot-wide buffer. So it'll take inventive planning and engineering.

In addition, there's a road easement that the City of Fresno entered into with Spano and Tutelian in 2006. It would have to be amended before vehicular traffic is allowed.

Despite these hurdles, I believe the challenges of adding the river bottom below Palm and Nees to River West, and creating access there, are less formidable than reaching an agreement over the contentious parking lot.

Plus, we'd end up with a project that better serves the people of Fresno.

That's still the ultimate goal, right?

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.