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Monday, January 9, 2017

Fresno Fulton Mall January 2017 Deconstruction Photo Tour

It's been eight months since I last looked at the Fulton Mall. Back then, major construction had started in most parts, with fences everywhere. Concrete had already been poured on the parking areas at the southern end. I assumed it would be mostly done by now, but not even close. Let's take a look at the current status (current as of last week).

Note: Pictures taken on New Years Day, so most businesses closed for the holiday, but if you look closely you'll note many have been run out of business thanks to the abysmal construction staging. Also, please let me know if you have trouble viewing the image. As google has killed Picassa, which was integrated with Blogger, I have moved to Flickr. 

We start at the north end, by Warner's Theater. Nothing had happened in May, so the changes are pretty major.

IMG_0236_24706

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The sidewalks have been built as planned, with the odd, but acceptable use of different crosswalk ramp treatments

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As I mentioned way back when I went over the construction diagrams, this is the best part of the project. 3 wide lanes become 2 narrow lanes.

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Having the sidewalk extension be the entire length of the box office would have been nice though

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Nothing has happened to the orphan road

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It is hard to get pictures in an order that makes sense because the fences are serious barriers

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A relocated fountain is being built

Back in May

Now
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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Can Manchester Center Mall be saved?

Built in 1955, Manchester Center Mall was Fresno's first foray into the suburban enclosed mall template*. Three and a half miles north of downtown, the Mall promised ample parking and an escape from the weather. The concept was indeed successful, and the mall expanded as the decades went by.

Well, for awhile anyway. Fresno kept expanding north (Fashion Fair opened in 1970), and Manchester Center was left behind. What was once the edge of the city became the inner city. As popularity waned, so did the investment. By the mid-90s, the mall was in serious trouble. And in 2009, when Gottschalks (139,500 square feet) closed, it was left with only Sears (186,000 square feet) as an anchor and a handful of stores catering to lower incomes.

*See the comment section for clarification

(You can learn the full history of the Center in this excellent post).

While Sears is no longer a choice retailer, their Manchester location is successful and not in danger of closing.

Since then, the question has been: What's next? Even though many urbanists are not fans of enclosed malls, having 640,000 sqft of leasable space rotting in the geographic center of Fresno would be tragic. Demolishing and replacing with dense housing and modern retail makes for a great dream, but is not feasible in Fresno's current economic climate.

Fortunately, over the past two or three years, we have heard that big changes are coming.
A new company is preparing to renovate Fresno’s nearly dead Manchester Mall. Omninet is asking the city for a small section of land to increase the appeal of the struggling shopping center.
KVPR - May 12, 2015

A year later, nothing had changed.

Retail on the first floor, mostly empty office space on the 2nd.


In fact, there had been some regression.

As the website proudly proclaimed:

The International Food Court is located at the South end of the Center on the Second Level and includes:
     Dairy Queen/Orange Julius

Yup. That's the food court. A single Dairy Queen / Orange Julius store. The two other food locations that were open last year had closed (the pretzel stand in the middle of the mall remains).

The sad state of the food court



NPR investigated:


About a year ago, Valley Public Radio uncovered a website from the property management company Omninet Capital selling a vision of a newly remolded and revitalized Manchester Center Mall including this slick video.
...
Nazarian says the company is ready to invest a handsome sum in Manchester but when pressed he declined to say how much the company is willing to spend or how long they are committed to the project.
KVPR - April 26, 2016

 Until about a couple of month ago, when real renovation plans were announced

Life for Fresno’s aging Manchester Center is about to get a lot better.
The mall owners, Omninet Capital based in Beverly Hills, and Mayor Ashley Swearengin announced on Monday long-awaited plans to transform what was once Fresno’s premier shopping destination into a new unique multi-use property in the heart of the city.

The plans include a new mall entrance, a redesigned facade with signage, a marketplace or “artisan food community” for chefs, food trucks and restaurants, an exterior shopping area and an outdoor events plaza. There will soon be new tenants too. Among them: Chipotle and The Habit in a new building on Blackstone Avenue, and nearly a handful of local restaurants (so far) in the marketplace – Green’s Family Grill, Med Wraps Cafe, Rocket Dog Gourmet Brats & Brew, and Yummyz Street Treats.

The mall renovation, at Blackstone and Shields avenues, will happen over the course of a few years with the first phase to be finished by spring 2017.

Nazarian said Monday that the goal is to have retail stores occupy the mall’s first floor and offices on the second floor. The marketplace will be located in the old Gottschalks space. A new outdoor event plaza will be built on the existing parking lot between the marketplace and Regal Manchester Stadium 16 cinemas.
Fresno Bee

Some fantastic news, but also some tidbits that make me worry.


Monday, November 7, 2016

Fresno Mayoral Election - What will it mean for sprawl?

If you support investment in a strong downtown, curtailing sprawl, focusing on infill, fighting slumlords, and supporting high speed rail, which candidate should you support in the upcoming Fresno mayoral election?

Downtown Fresno, before the removal of the Fulton Mall
The good news is that fortunately for Fresno, neither candidate is a disaster. Neither candidate has declared that downtown should be abandoned, or that bike lanes are part of a secret international agenda, for example. Unfortunately, that means that voting tomorrow becomes a little harder, because one has to conduct a little research.

The candidates are Democrat Henry Perea and Republican Lee Brand. If you only follow national politics, the choice seems simple. For whatever reason, over the last decades, the Republican Party has taken stances against sustainable transportation, High Speed Rail, and investment in infill. But we're talking about Fresno, and it's not so clear cut.

For the past eight years, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin has shown a strong interest in everything I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Although she is a Republican - born in Texas and raised in Arkansas - Mayor Swearengin strayed from the typical Republican platform in her efforts to fix Fresno's core. She was one of the strongest supporters of High Speed Rail, she oversaw the first residential development in downtown Fresno in decades, brought in $40 million in federal funding for BRT, pushed a master plan that focused on infill, and even stood her ground against the first developer attempt to ignore the master plan in building a new suburban supermarket.

This of course, has been in strong contrast to California Republicans on the national stage, such as Nunes, Denham, Valadao, and Issa. Indeed, the prime reason Mayor Swearengin hasn't had a stronger list of successes has been to the right wing reps on the Fresno City Council. Those council members have shared the following gems:

On Planning

"I always side with the free market. Who knows more about retail, Smart & Final or the city of Fresno?” says Council Member Clint Olivier, whose district includes the project site. “In a case like this, I always side with the business owner. I always side with the free market.”
Smart and Final

On Bicycle Lanes
Public support for the bike lanes on Fruit was overwhelming, but one voice prevailed. City Council Member Steve Brandau argued there was not enough bicycle traffic to justify a bike lane on Fruit Avenue between Shaw and Herndon. Brandau cited his own informal traffic study as evidence.

"I went out and parked under a shade tree, it was on a Saturday, a beautiful day and I counted in one hour 374 cars and zero bikes." 
Council Kills Road Diet 
On Public Transit
The feds and the state will pay for this bus with your tax dollars, but is that a good use of your money if we don't need the bus?
Fresno Kills BRT 
 On Infill Development 
Our citizens have always preferred bigger homes on lots with a backyard for barbecuing. They like driving cars while listening to music.

This general plan would be more at home in Sacramento or San Francisco. It is now popular in California for public policy to be made on the whimsical notions of the “intellectual elite.” They live off high six-figure salaries and have less common sense than the average Walmart clerk.
...
That said, this general plan is still focused on high-density infill development that is diametrically opposed to the free market. Until that fact changes, I cannot support this 2035 General Plan Update.
Infill Plan 

These kinds of statements extend beyond Fresno's borders into Madera:

On a plan to provide public transit between Fresno and Yosemite:
“Busing will herd visitors between set locations like cattle, and will take away from leisurely travel time that helps the local economy, giving tourists more flexibility to shop and dine,” Bigelow said
YARTS 

Fresno's "spine," Blackstone Avenue
But even against this kind of obstruction, the Mayor got her way more often than not. Of course, that included projects I personally did not support, such as removing the Fulton Mall. However, even in that case, the project was done as an attempt to bring investment to downtown. Rather than, you know, letting the free market sprawl to the sierras and back. Incidentally, the people in Fresno like what she has done. She was originally elected with 54% of the vote. She was reelected with 75%.

The point here, is that one can still be the Republican mayor of Fresno and not subscribe to the national party line.

Which brings us to the two candidates, and why strong consideration should be given to both.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Discussion begins in Fresno about prioritizing frequency over coverage on the bus network

Last month, the Fresno City Council heard a workshop on a proposed restructuring of the Fresno bus system (FAX), one that would allow for improved service on trunk routes, creating 15-minute headways in the corridors with the most transit demand. 

This type of restructuring is the bread and butter of Jarrett Walker over at Human Transit. You can read about a project he worked on in Houston here. Mr. Walker has been involved with FAX on and off for a few years now. He first gave a presentation at Fresno State in October of 2010, and was then brought in by the city to create the "Metropolitan Area Public Transportation Strategic Service Evaluation (PDF)" in early 2014. You can find more on that process here. The evaluation is in fact the foundation for this new restructuring project. Mr. Walker's team was also involved in the current proposals, which offer specific and concrete recommendations, rather than an overview of possibilities.

The problem:

Bus service in Fresno is infrequent (20, 30, or 60-minute headways), ends early (10pm), and does not reflect current service needs.

The goal:
  • Providing 15-minute bus service in areas that demand it, which in turn creates ridership by providing an attractive and dependable service. 
  • Increase service on weekends 
  • Expand into evenings

The cost:
  • Coverage to the outer reaches of the system, direct service patterns 

Why the trade-off? Because the City Council has not shown any inclination to increase funding for the bus system. That means any additional dollar spent on Route A has to be taken from Route B.

The presentation points out that one issue FAX has faced is servicing sprawl.

The example given is that FAX could service Downtown to Blackstone and Shaw with 6 buses for service every 15 minutes.

BUT, with service running to Nees, it takes 10 buses to run the same frequency.

So the idea is that by reducing coverage in the sprawl area, you can spruce up service in the core.

However, there's a major problem: The FAX system of today was designed in the early 1970's, which was the last major restructuring. Since then, the system expanded only slightly to the north, to River Park.  That is, the "outer reaches of the system" may have been the edge of town in 1980. But today, the edges are much further north, west, and east. That means the cuts will come from areas that should probably get more service today, not less.

It's hard to trim the fat when there's very little fat! Especially because compared to peer cities, FAX actually has a higher productivity - more riders on every bus.

The 2014 report, which hypothetically eliminates many of the ends of service, directly mentions this:
For example, Route 45 was deleted, serving portions of West Herndon, Fruit, and East Ashlan. This route carries over 30 boardings per hour, which would be above average in San Jose or Sacramento, for instance. In the context of FAX’s system average of 47 boardings/hour, however, it is relatively low and it contains long segments with very little ridership. For that reason, a scenario attempting to push Fresno’s productivity higher must delete Route 45.

This map shows the 1977 FAX bus network (blue) along with the 2016 bus network (red). The two yellow lines in the north are the only lines creates since 1977. Everything else has only involved slight modifications.

(Well there were a few lines created - but they were all eliminated - Routes 4, 12, 18, 56) 

Note: If you are unfamiliar with Fresno, the unreserved area to the East is Clovis, a separate municipality. Only Route 9 serves Clovis. Clovis has shown no interest in receiving more FAX service.




You can see the areas that have seen the most growth in the past 20 years have no bus service at all.




In the 2014 presentation, the creators highlighted that a "ridership scenario" could involve sever cuts to lines in order to provide much improved service on the core routes:



Fortunately, the 2016 presentation is not as drastic. Rather than taking a hatchet to the outer lines, it instead proposes some more modest route changes and optimizations. The changes do eliminate some service, but also straighten routes to improve reliability.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

FAX to hold workshop on proposed restructuring

Tomorrow, Thursday September 1st, there will be a workshop on major changes proposed for the FAX bus system, which serves Fresno into adjacent communities. Thanks to James Sponsler who left a comment on my last post with this important tip.

This appears to be a major change by FAX standards, which runs a system that has effectively remained stagnant for 40 (yes forty) years.

The core components are:
  • Frequency
  • Grids
  • More weekend and evening service 
Effectively, the new plan reduces coverage in order to increase service. Fresno has not spent a dime in actually improving service in decades. In the past 15 years, 4 lines have been eliminated, and one was added - paid for by the Childrens Hospital. The last increase in service (to 15 minutes on core lines) was funded by a federal grant, and those improves were reveresed when the federal money dried up. While higher frequencies are fantastic, it is a shame it comes at the expense of certain neighborhoods.

I'll look into the details in a later post, but you can check out the presentation from this page.


Note: Fresno was recently awarded $8 million in cap and trade funds to improve transit.

"In combination with the opening of the initial BRT service, which has received significant federal and state funding, these investments are expected to support additional improvements to the BRT corridor, as well as supporting near-BRT improvements to the Shaw and Cedar corridors. Overall ridership improvements are expected to exceed 50% 12 months after implementation, and 90% by the final year of the project." 

It is not clear if this workshop uses any of that funding, or was an independent effort which the funding will complement.




There's some more exciting news at this meeting. The council is being asked to approve an agreement that will allow the city to receive $4,600,000 in Measure C money to build the new Midtown Bicycle and Pedestrian Trail. The good news is that this will allow construction to start quickly. The bad news is that it eats up all trail funding until 2021.

That's right, we can spend hundreds of millions on highway expansions but less than $1m a year on trails. Sigh.

Anyway, here is the project. I am unsure if this funding covers all the sections shown.



More details here.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A quick update on downtown Fresno cconstruction projects

It's been a few months since I've been able to post photos of what has been changing in downtown Fresno. Unfortunately, I haven't had the chance to explore the area and take photos, so I present to you a different type of update. Here are some photos I took in May, along with a look at what those projects look like this week, with photos sourced from friendly people around the web. It's amazing how much (and how little!) can change in 3 months.


Tuolumne Bridge - High Speed Rail Project 

When I last visited this project, it looked like this:
















And now it looks like this:

01 CAHSR
Source: High Speed Rail Authority

The bridge is slated to be completed this year.

Fulton Mall

It is very difficult to provide a summary of the Fulton Mall, because it is such a massive project. That is, every block is in a different stage of development, as you can see in my full post here. However, the most obvious changes are at the southern end, where construction began.

My photos from May:

















Steve Skibbie provides a look at progress this week from overhead.

02 Steve Skibbie

And the Fresno Bee from the ground. 

03 Fresno Bee



Bus Rapid Transit

Bus Rapid Transit is sort of under construction. I say sort of because Fresno is no longer getting anything that resembles BRT. But those sweet, sweet transit funds are being put to use. The project involves realigning some bus stops - which happens to be a perfect opportunity to rebuilt the Van Ness underpass. Indeed, it's why BRT is so expensive, most of the funding is being used to upgrade old car infrastructure, like traffic lights, and do so while spending transit funds. Sad.

I don't have a before photo, so here is a rendering of the new intersection (above the underpass)

05 BRT

And another great photo by Steve Skibbie.

04 Steve Skibbie

And one from the Downtown Fresno Partnership

06 downtown fresno part

It's not all transportation related!


Friday, August 19, 2016

Amtrak California gets new funding, trainsets (thanks Wisconsin!)

Early this week, the California State Transportation Agency sprinkled $390 million in grants around the state, courtesy of the successful Cap and Trade program. Streetsblog California highlighted the projects, but I would like to give special attention to the Amtrak funding. 

California has shown the strongest support for intercity rail in the country. Aside from developing High Speed Rail, three of Amtrak's busiest routes exist entirely within California, and are funded by the state. Earlier this year, the San Joaquin saw a new 7th daily train, and now the other lines will get some love.

Particularly poetic is the lease of Talgo train-sets to run between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. What makes these trains special is that they were purchased by Wisconsin for their High Speed Rail Project. That project was cancelled by Scott Walker, but not before the trains were built, and the state was put on the hook for not following through.
Wisconsin taxpayers will end up paying $9.7 million more for two state of the art train sets — for a total of roughly $50 million — but leave the trains with their Spanish manufacturer, under the settlement of a nearly 3-year-old lawsuit.

The bizarre and expensive outcome for Wisconsin — paying for a product but not keeping it or ever using it — reflects the depth of the political disagreement in which Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed, and then GOP presidential candidate and Gov. Scott Walker nixed, a no-bid contract with Talgo Inc. for trains from Madison to Milwaukee and then on to Chicago
Journal Sentinel

Of course back in 2010, Scott Walker placed a return to sender stamp on $810 million which the feds were gifting the state to build rail. California ended collecting a lot of that cash, with the rest going to the Northeast Corridor.

Where's what the Pacific Surfliner corridor will be getting:
 Provides $15 million to the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency over 5 years, coupled with existing resources available through the LOSSAN annual operating budget, to deploy 31 Talgo rail cars on the Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo services. This equipment enables faster acceleration, lower fuel consumption, faster journey times (about 25 minutes faster) and easier customer loading and unloading than the current Amfleet and Horizon fleet that it will replace (single-level, high boarding height equipment). The equipment will lead to at least one additional train consist in addition to the nine consists used today in daily operation, and ensure that all equipment in the corridor has low-level boarding. It also will improve the customer experience with fully automated doors, improved passenger communications, and easier to maneuver configurations, particularly for passengers with disabilities. The additional equipment will also provide equipment deployment flexibility that will allow for increased capacity on crowded Los Angeles-San Diego trains, and more schedule flexibility to enable better peak hour service to LOSSAN North stations, including Santa Barbara.

This new capacity is especially important because there have been severe delays in acquiring brand new trains. A few years ago, the state purchased old New Jersey Transit trains to supplement the fleet. They've been working well. These trains will be even better - they're brand new and designed to be fast. Thanks Scott.

Additional funding will improve service reliability:

Provides $66 million to partner with SANDAG and NCTD to construct double track, new bridges and numerous related infrastructure improvements between Elvira and Morena and over the San Diego River, creating a 15-mile, higher speed double track section between Miramar and Santa Fe Depot. Also invests in removing the one-train-at-a-time bottleneck at Carlsbad Poinsettia station through installing inter-track fencing, a new grade-separated pedestrian undercrossing, new station platforms and other related improvements that significantly improve railroad capacity and customer safety.

Northern California and the Capitol Corridor also gets some love.

Partners with Union Pacific Rail Road (UPRR) to extend two morning and two evening trains to Roseville, allowing travelers three morning trains from Placer County to Sacramento and the Bay Area and three evening trains back to Placer County. Project builds nearly 8 miles of third track and a new Dry Creek bridge near Roseville, improves track and signals in the corridor, and constructs a second platform and station improvements at the Roseville station. Also constructs a layover facility with capacity for three trains to be stored overnight near the Roseville station. Project is implemented in a manner consistent with achieving higher levels of service in the future.

Partners with Caltrans, Amtrak, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission and UPRR in conducting a service optimization plan designed to achieve increased ridership through improved reliability, better schedules and service integration, and more efficient service delivery. Benefits of this effort will be corridor-wide in nature and will aim to improve reliability at all stations. This effort will also improve reliability of the Altamont Corridor Express and Amtrak San Joaquin passenger rail services, and reduce delays to freight trains operated by UPRR and BNSF Railway, upon implementation.

Unfortunately, the San Joaquin line gets no dedicated grant, although both projects have some benefits. The Talgos allow more statewide flexibility with rail-cars (which are shared among the three lines), and the schedule integration should provide improved trips for all users. 

You can get the full information here:  
http://calsta.ca.gov/Newsroom/CalSTA-News/CalSTA-News-Items/2016-08-16-Agency-Awards-390Mil-in-Cap-and-Trade-Grants.aspx 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Google Maps Launches Areas of Interest - How Accurate is it in Fresno?

A week or so ago, Google refreshed their maps service. Most of the changes were minor - new road outlines, a different typography, and a few other minor tweaks designed to make the maps easier to understand. However, as part of that update, they introduced what could be a major new feature: areas of interest.
These areas of interest are determined algorithmically, using an automated process to pick out areas with the most stores, restaurants, or bars, but Google says it's also using a "human touch" in high-density areas — like New York City — to point people to the coolest locations.
The Verge
How great are these results? Well, it depends.

Let's start with a small town: Montpelier, the capital of Vermont. With only 7,855 people, it is the smallest capital in the country. At a glance, the areas of interest seem to work quite well. The new shading does draw you in quickly.




Zooming in, we see that the highlighted area is indeed full of activity.



If it's your first time in town, the new feature certainly did its job.

How does it work in a dense urban area, like San Francisco?

Again, pretty damn well. The orange areas pop out, and are also accompanied with their neighborhood names. Union Square, the Castro, the Pier 39 Area. Yup, it seems to be working. Those are the areas full of shops, cafes, and things to do.



But Fresno is a little different. It isn't a small town with a well defined commercial main street. And unlike San Francisco, it is lacking in distinct neighborhood clusters (aside from the Tower District).

So how does the feature work in a suburban context

Let's start with the southern half of Fresno. Here a couple of distinct neighborhoods do pop out quickly: the downtown Fulton Mall area, Chinatown (not labeled) and the Tower District. Small, but visible.



However, the other points of interest are more well known for their strip mall anchor. Over by Brawley and Shaw (top left) our attention is drawn to a couple of retail centers anchored by Target, Walmart, Dick's Sporting Goods, Ross, and a movie theater. Certainly a retail destination, but not quite an area worth a stroll. A little to the east, upscale Fig Garden is correct highlighted, as are Manchester Center, Fashion Fair, and Sierra Vista Mall.

However, even though Blackstone is pretty much commercial from end to end, most if it is dark - including the new Walmart at Ashlan.

East Shaw is similar. In this image, Shaw is lined with commercial on both sides. And yet only Sierra Vista and the Walmart Center made the cut. Movie theater, pet store, bowling alley, Olive Garden and Applebees - sorry guys.  You have to zoom in to even see most of the activity here.



And while the algorithm does seem to favor anchors like Target in suburban areas, some businesses are apparently more noteworthy than others. The River Park Costco is always packed from open to close, but apparently it doesn't make the cut, nor does the Home Depot. But Best Buy and office Depot do.


And for some reason, "buybuy BABY" is more interesting than Babies'R'Us. Check out how the area of interest cuts off!



That's not to say that Google is fully biased to mega retailers. Neither the Walmart on Herndon west of River Park nor the Kings Canyon one made the cut, and two Targets are also left out (Barstow and Shields)

Of course these arbitrary decisions make the product less useful. Without a clear explanation for what the criteria is, there is too much room for error and abuse. Google could easily use this as a revenue opportunity - pay us, and every Babies'R'Us will automatically be marked as an area of interest for example, and their competitors de-listed. While Google is well in their rights to do so, not disclosing that kind of arrangement could seriously hurt the value of the software for the user.

Additionally, when Citylab explored the new feature, they found that it might be unfortunately tilted towards wealthier areas.

“non-interest” neighborhoods and corridors seem to have in common is that they are poorer than the cities that surround them. In two of them, English isn’t always the language you’re most likely to hear on the street (Westlake is heavily Spanish-speaking, while in Dorchester you’ll hear Spanish, Vietnamese, and Jamaican and Haitian creoles, among other languages). Large swathes of Northeast D.C. have some of the lowest broadband adoption rates in the District. Businesses without an online presence appear to have a distinct disadvantage

I didn't notice this problem too much in Fresno. While lower Blackstone is notably dark, so are many upscale businesses in northern Fresno, such as Sprouts, Trader Joes, and the fancy shopping center at Friant and Fort Washington. Meanwhile, Chinatown popped up, which surprised me.

Overall, I think the feature is a good idea, but for most of Fresno, it is useless. If it's your first day in town, the feature might point you to a genuinely interesting neighborhood - the Tower - or Manchester Center, which might not quite meet your standards for "interesting."

I wouldn't be surprised if other cities with similar development patterns have the same problem.

On the other hand, the new distinction can make more sense when looked at on the more local context. That is, biking distance versus driving distance. In that case, the Walmart/Panda Express/Applebees complex may indeed may be the most interesting destination in your side of town. Of course, that's a Fresno problem, not a Google one. 


"Downtown" West Shaw Avenue