Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Westlake sprawl project, with artificial lake, is dead!

Yesterday's election news keeping you down? Maybe this surprising development will brighten your day.

This week, the Fresno Bee reported that the massive Westlake sprawl project has been put on hold - for at least a decade. The news came as a great surprise because last December the developer, Granville, began mobilizing bulldozers to flatten the land.

Developer Darius Assemi, president of Granville Homes, said the timing isn’t right for his Westlake development, which lies beyond Fresno’s city limits. The cost to build is too high and he’s waiting to see the city of Fresno’s growth plan for the area before moving ahead with the project.

The decision, made in recent weeks, is disappointing, said Assemi, who in 2004 began assembling more than 400 acres to create Westlake. “We’ve been working on this project for 10 years,” Assemi said. “We want to make sure it’s financially feasible and the right components are in place.”

Read more here:

The plan first made its way through City Hall in 2005. By the time it was approved, the housing market collapsed, and it was all put on hold. Last October, the project rose from the dead, with the plans going through the Council one more time to make some modifications. Nothing too grand, just swapping some of the proposed plots around.

So what was Westlake? It was a plan to build 2,600 new single-family homes on 430 acres in the far west side of Fresno.
Assemi pulled together land that forms a long rectangular property bounded by Gettysburg, Garfield, Shields and Grantland avenues. Plans are to build about 2,600 single-family homes and apartments. The development could become home to as many as 8,000 people.

There will be a 55-acre lake, nearly three miles of trails, an elementary school (in the Central Unified School District) and 300,000 square feet of commercial space.

Read more here:
The plan was for the giant area in the center of this map:

The cherry on top was that this new development was to be centered around a massive artificial lake, hence the name. Another name for it would be "massive evaporation pool."

In regular times, the idea is ludicrous enough. Taking enormous amounts of much needed water and building a hole for it so you can sell waterfront property in the middle of the Central Valley. The water has to be piped in, and then continuously replenished as it evaporates during the scorching summers.

But actually building that, during a drought?

A 55-acre lake, with an average depth of 4 feet, would require 71,687,220 gallons of water on day one (calculator). At 5 feet, the amount would be 90 million gallons, plus the amount needed every day to replace what evaporates.

8,000 new people would also add to water use. According to the city, the average resident uses 240 gallons a day, which would result in 700,800,000 a year.

 photo westlake_zpsdb802c9c.jpg
What the site looks like on an average day. Source: Fresno Bee

The developer isn't saying it, but it looks like that reality finally hit them in the head - or at least the PR problems the development would create.

The official excuse is this:

“We need to develop Westlake at the beginning of an economic recovery cycle,” Assemi said. “Once we break ground it takes two years to get it off the ground. We want to be at the beginning of the next cycle and have product ready to go. We believe we have missed the boat on this cycle by at least two years.”

Read more here:

That doesn't make sense. While the company obviously doesn't want to start selling homes during another recession, there's no indication that the housing market is headed for another collapse in two years.

That's why I think the lake was the real issue.

These days, there are very few political things that people can agree on - aside from the drought. The lack of water is one concern that spans all political orientations. While left and right may have different thoughts on how to address water storage, I doubt you'll get any disagreement on how ludicrous the idea of building a giant artificial lake is.

That potential outrage would not only put a damper on potential home sales, but could soil the entire company brand. In times of browning lawns, who wants to be the person who puts money down for a home next to a fake lake?

Ironically, the developer plans to use the land for almond crops for the next few years. Almonds use a whole lot of water (1 gallon per almond), but at least the water goes to something useful (and delicious). Supporting agriculture isn't exactly an odd position to take in Fresno, even if they're the biggest users of water. After all, without these water intensive crops, the region would have nothing.

90 million almonds or a private lake?


Of course I might be wrong. Maybe they don't care about the PR.

The company took a closer look at the project’s price tag and found that “Westlake costs substantially more to develop than anticipated — 30% more roughly,” Assemi said.

Read more here:
You know what's gone up in price these days? Water.

There were many other things wrong with the plan, aside from water use. Pushing the city borders out way out west is obviously an issue. Also, the lake would destroy the grid, creating a 1.5 mile barrier between through routes. That means destroying ones ability to walk or bike anywhere. Naturally, Granville was advertising this as a walking and biking community thanks to internal trails (aka, where people walk their dog for 500 feet)

You can see a discussion of these problem that I posted one year and a week ago.

Fresno never pushed for solutions, such as a smaller lake, bridges, and improved connectivity. But now they don't have to. Thanks, drought?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

New Citibike owners stumble on day one with price hike lie

It's a new day for the Alta Bicycle Share company, under new ownership, and new management. Sadly, it seems like the new boss is a lot like the old boss when it comes to making promises and then not following through with them. Alta became quite well known for never delivering on their promises, and on day 1, the new Alt, now owned by Related Companies and Equinox, has kept up the tradition.

For months now, there have been rumors that Citibike, Alta's flagship system, would see a price hike for annual memberships under the new ownership. The official announcement yesterday confirmed the hike, but included a disclaimer.

On the official announcement and in the email they sent to all existing subscribers last night:

At this time, you may still sign up for a new membership or renew an existing subscription at the current $95 rate. We will let you know in the coming days when the rates will increase.

And yet mere hours later, the price was secretly hiked before people could take advantage of starting a new account or extending the existing membership under the previous (already high) rate. 

Today at 1pm, this was posted on their website:

Yesterday we announced that a new membership price would allow us to provide better service to all of our members, and instituted that new price last night. We truly appreciate your membership and look forward to improving and expanding the Citi Bike system.

So much for letting people know in the coming days!

What's especially troubling is that it shows a complete failure of understanding on how to conduct public relations.

Citibike found themselves in every major newspaper yesterday. That's great free press! They've been losing thousands of members over the past few months due to the broken docks and bikes, but the new owners marched in promising they would fix it all and save the day.

Mr. Walder said that the immediate priority was rebuilding the system, and riders’ trust, and that every bike and dock in service would get a complete overhaul this winter. The hope is to end to the glitch-filled and empty docks that have made Citi Bike a frustrating experience for its most loyal riders.

Seems like an excellent opportunity to build up the user base and lock in existing members! Citibike could combine the renewed press, build on the excitements of improved maintenance and future expansion, and then seal the deal with a limited time offer to lock in existing rates. Nothing gets the credit cards out faster than a clock counting down to a 60% price increase.

Instead, they've taken all the attention and generated angry subscribers who were told to expect one thing, and then had the rug pulled out from under them hours later. That sure is one way to thank the subscribers that have pushed through all the technical problems and broken promises.

From their Facebook:
You didn't even give us 24 hours to renew the membership at the current rate. As a result, I am going to take a long winter break... Bye!
I don't mind the new price but Citi Bike should be ashamed for telling us it was coming and they'd let us know when and that, in the mean time, we could still renew at the current price only to jack up the price without warning. SHAME ON YOU, CITI BIKE.
Strange way of communicating with your customers. You said you would give advance warning for price hike and then you didnt. Will you be as good to your word about improving services?!
Citibike Facebook

Combine that with the seasonal timing: Winter is about to get rolling...and well, what the hell were they thinking? Why would anyone sign up for a membership now before next spring? Higher price and uncomfortable weather? No thanks!

Incidentally, Citibike was already one of the most expensive systems in the world. Paris, the global gold standard charges just 29 euros for a year. Montreal, the North American standard, charges $82 (Canadian).

It will be interesting to see if the management tries the same price hike approach in their other US cities. Boston, for example, has an $85 rate, and DC is $75.

It will also be interesting to see if this time around, they can keep their expansion promises. After all, the lack of expansion wasn't a funding issue, or a problem with Alta, it was because the supplier went out of business and since has been sold off (to a furniture company). Can the new Alta get more Bixi bikes, or will they have to pull the system and start fresh with a new model? Time will tell. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

No Central Valley Colleges on Bicycle Friendly Awards List

Last week, the League of American Bicyclists released their updated list of "Bicycle Friendly Universities." The list ranks universities with a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum award for being bike friendly.

The Bicycle Friendly University (BFU) program recognizes institutions of higher education for promoting and providing a more bikeable campus for students, staff and visitors. The BFU program provides the roadmap and technical assistance to create great campuses for cycling.

The Bicycle Friendly University program evaluates applicants’ efforts to promote bicycling in five primary areas: engineering, encouragement, education, enforcement and evaluation/planning, known as the Five E's. Applications must be submitted online.

Here are the list of California colleges that made the cut:

University of California, Davis
Stanford University 

University of California, Santa Barbara 

University of La Verne
University of California, Irvine
University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Santa Cruz
California State University, Long Beach 

University of San Diego
University of California, Los Angeles
California Institute of Technology
Pomona College
Santa Monica College

 How about the local favorites?

Fresno State?
Fresno Pacific?
Fresno City?
UC Merced?

Nope. Not one Central Valley college made the list!

Maybe a map makes it more obvious (the green stars mean platinum)

 photo bikefriendly_zps5e0a86ab.png

I understand that there are MANY (many!) flaws with this kind of ranking system, especially one that requires the college to submit a form.

However, it does show a serious cultural issue, when the colleges are clustered in the way they are. Being bicycle friendly isn't on the radar of Central Valley colleges, and it shows.

I've posted a lot about the problems at Fresno State in the past, including at their new developments

Fresno City is also disappointing, because it is located in one the best parts of town for biking, and attracts many low income students. And yet their front door is an enormous surface parking lot for cars. 

However, to me the saddest is UC Merced. The university was built from scratch in the middle of nowhere in 2005. Thanks to every building being brand new, they talked a lot about energy efficiency and LEED. Problem is, they ignored the whole transportation side of energy use.

The University of California, Merced, will get 75 percent of its power from renewable sources by the end of 2016, and is on its way to being 100 percent renewably powered by then.
That's all very well, except I doubt any of the students drive electric cars.It's also noteable that almost every other UC is on the list, aside from Riverside.

How long will it take for the Central Valley Colleges to catch up with the rest of California and start being bike friendly?

You can see the full list here:

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Work underway at GV Urban's Met Block development

Way back in February of 2013, GV Urban went before the city with their newest apartment proposal. The plan involved building up the Met Block, named after the old Met Museum. The block is between Van Ness and Fulton, and between Calaveras and Stanislaus.

The plan involved keeping the Met (top corner) and restoring the only other building left standing, on the left.

Problem was, the plan sucked. GV Urban proposed sticking in the exact same template they've built five other times downtown, but this time with a hideous façade.

For quite possibly the first time ever, the city pushed back against GV Urban. Aside from the ugly façade, the city was concerned that such a prominent block should break GV's 3-story barrier, as to match the height of the Met.

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So the project went quiet for over a year, at least in the public eye.

Two weeks ago, the Downtown Fresno Blog posted that work had begun, and included this picture:

 photo met1_zps5fcd6cdb.jpg

That caught me off guard. I had expected to see a new proposal go through the planning board...

And indeed one had, back in May (massive PDF). Looks like I missed that meeting.

So what changed?

Almost nothing. Looks like GV Urban gets their way, again. The site plan is almost identical to what was presented in 2013. That plan included destroying a public park to replace it with private parking and an indoor courtyard. Classic Fresno. The public alley will also be privatized.

The diagram above is from last year, but is easier to see than the updated version, which to my eyes, is identical. It includes:

12 two-story triplex buildings
4 three-story fiveplex buildings
3 three-story mixed use

Total = 85 units 

As for the concern about heights? Not addressed. The buildings still top out at 3 stories, except now it looks just a wee bit taller, thanks to slightly more pitch on the roofs. And the hideous façade? Well, it sort of appears slightly less terrible.

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I'm assuming Granville pulled the "you let us do what we want or you get nothing at all" card and the city caved.

While it's great to see another 100+ people moving downtown, it's a shame they're doing so in such a mediocre project, especially on such a significant block.

On the plus side, the construction is so cheap that no developer will hesitate to knock it down in 20 years to build something better.

 On a completely different subject...

In May I also missed Brandau killing yet another road diet project, while voting yes on every road widening and traffic signal project possible. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Would High Speed Rail have kept the SF Giants affiliation in Fresno?

Last week the news in Fresno was all about baseball. After a 17-year partnership with the AAA Grizzlies, the San Francisco Giants decided to end their affiliation agreement and instead back the Sacramento River Cats.

One of the major reasons cited for the switch was how Sacramento is closer to SF than Fresno, which allows for faster and more convenient moves between the teams when needed. Now, we all know the public reasons for any major decision aren't the only ones. There are always layers of strategy and money under the surface. However, the public reason certainly did come into play.

For the Giants, having their Triple-A affiliate in their geographical backyard was important. Many team’s transactions involve calling a player up from or sending him down to Triple-A, the highest minor-league level. The Giants, who for the last 17 years have partnered with the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, now will have many of their top minor-league players just 90 miles away.

“When you have so many player moves that take place between your Triple-A club and major-league team, it was just very difficult to pass up an opportunity to get that close to our Triple-A club,” Giants assistant general manager Bobby Evans said.
Sacramento Bee

Read more here:

Let's take a look...

AT&T Park in SF to Raley Field in Sacramento is a distance of 85 miles, or 1 hour and 25 minutes, according to Google Maps (no traffic). Transit is slower, but available. The Capital Corridor Route takes a little over 2 hours from Oakland, across the bay (plus time to get to Oakland).

AT&T Park to Chukchansi Park is 184 miles, or around 3 hours, according to Google Maps (no traffic). The San Joaquin train, also from Oakland, takes 4 hours and 15 minutes.

So clearly, there's some advantage. If a player is needed for a 7pm game, it takes half the time to go between SF and Sacramento than it would to Fresno.

That's today.

But what if High Speed Rail was available?

The projected schedules are for 86 minutes between Fresno and San Francisco. It also just so happens that the Fresno Rail Station will be 2 blocks from the stadium, and the future San Francisco terminal is also just 2 blocks away from their stadium.

Suddenly, the time/distance factor is completely nullified. Add to that how trains are safer and more reliable (no traffic), and if the tie-breaker is ease of access, Fresno gets the affiliation.

The mayor and the city talked about how they tried everything to keep the Giants in town. It's a shame getting HSR up and running yesterday wasn't in their power.

For a Giants fan in Fresno, it's certainly an interesting what-if. 

As an aside, the Grizzlies are now buddied up to Houston, who apparently didn't care about distance. This article popped up in the paper today:

The city does have a range of incentives available to entice new airlines to FYI, or for existing airlines to add new routes to and from Fresno, but the Federal Aviation Administration closely limits such financial inducements, Meikle said.

"We talk to airlines all the time about our incentives," he said. The packages include waiving landing fees and providing marketing funds "for airlines that are new to our market or who add a new destination," he said.

"If, say, United decided to start service between Fresno and Houston, it could qualify for the incentive." At that medium-haul range, an airline would have to provide at least four weekly flights; in exchange, the airline would get relief from airport landing fees and $2,000 a month in marketing money for 18 months.

The incentives are only available for year-round service, ruling out any suggestion that they might be used to try to boost any airline's service only during the baseball travel season.

Read more here:

United serves Bakersfield with flights to Houston, which is a product of how Continental operated (Houston was their hub). Continental always served Bakersfield, while their competitors, United and American, served Fresno. I assumed that when Continental merged with United, they would add a Houston flight to Fresno, but that hasn't happened. Maybe this time it will.

United recently dropped the Fresno-Vegas service, via their regional partner, and serving Houston would be a mainline operation. It would compete with Fresno-Dallas on American. In both cases, the flights are more about hub connections, than direct market-to-market demand.

Sacramento does have more flights than Fresno (including Houston), but High Speed Rail would also render the moot. Even with the current service patterns, players could take a quick 30 minute HSR ride to Bakersfield and transfer to a flight from there.
ead more here:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Central Valley misses out on TIGER grants, again

On Friday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the 2014 winners of the TIGER grant program. That program is handing out $600 million to 72 transportation projects.

California won some awards, but nothing for the Central Valley.

 photo tiger_zpse97398ae.png
-Off topic - The placement of Puerto Rico on that map is very poor...

Anyway, as reported by Streetsblog, the program is quite competitive, with 797 applications and only 72 winners. In that context losing isn't that much of a surprise...

Except that this is year 6. That's six chances to win grants. How has the Central Valley fared?

Transportation For America has put together a cool map showing the winners for all 6 years. The Central Valley gets one dot.

 photo tiger2_zps71ea16bb.png
The marker, in Fresno, is funding to remove the Fulton Mall, money which the city won last year. That's right, six years of grants, and the only Central Valley proposal to win money is the project that actually destroys a transportation asset.

That's quite the track record.

I wasn't able to find the list of 2014 grants submitted by Central Valley cities, but the numbers from 2013 are quite telling as to what planners in the Central Valley strive for.

In 2013, Bakersfield submitted two applications...for highway construction. Yeah, that highway.

Reedley submitted an application for a "Central Valley Transportation Center". Sounds exciting right? It's a planned fueling station and car-wash for school buses.

Merced County applied for funding to build a bypass around Los Banos. You know, the city that has an economy based around drivers stopping to eat and get gas, the county wants to route driver away from that. 

Tulare applied for a highway interchange.

You get the point, and the other (losing) Central Valley applications weren't much better.

What kind of projects DO win?

From LA:

The Eastside Access Improvements project will upgrade the streetscape, including street furniture, lighting, planting, and storm parkways, pedestrian facilities, including crosswalks and sidewalks, and bicycle facilities, including walk-bike esplanade, Class I and II bicycle lanes, cycle tracks, within a one-mile radius of the 1st/Central Station of the Regional Connector rail line, set to open for service in 2020 in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles.

 The Central Phoenix Multi-Modal Transportation Improvements project will conduct an environmental assessment and conceptual engineering for the South Central Transit Corridor, a 5-mile light rail line operating on Central Avenue between downtown Phoenix and Baseline Road that the Phoenix City Council identified as the locally preferred alternative for high-capacity transit service in fall 2013.


The BRT Project will construct the 3.6 mile 4th Street/Prater Way RAPID Transit BRT Project, running east-west between Reno and Sparks, NV. The project may also include upgraded electric buses and additional electric charging infrastructure, as well as construct accessible sidewalks and bike lanes.

It's no surprise that the Central Valley keeps missing out on funds - you can't apply for grants on projects that don't exist. With no planning to improve transit, there can be no applications. Without applications, there can't be free money.

Now, you might be reminded of the Fresno BRT project. That one did get federal funds, under a different program (Small Starts). $38 million in free federal monies actually. And then the city council said "lol, no thanks."

The same city council that just last month turned down $1 million in free money to make plans for the High Speed Rail station.

With this attitude of governance, and a planning system that continues to focus on only highways, I wouldn't expect any wins next year, or the one after - except for maybe a freight rail project.

Meanwhile, more forward-thinking cities will continue to reap the rewards, and continue leaving the Central Valley in the dust. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Barstow near Fresno State to get bike lanes

A critical east-west connection in Fresno will be getting bike lanes in the near future, as Fresno State received a grant that will help fund construction.

The following map shows Fresno State and existing the bike infrastructure. Barstow is the only east-west route, as Shaw has been designed to be very dangerous for bicycles. The A-B line is the rough extent of phase 1.

 photo bikeways2_zps3ce300bb.png

Back in August, the state released the list of projects to be funded under the Active Transportation Program for 2014.

Here's what Streetsblog wrote:

Under the ATP, the CTC is preparing to distribute $221 million for projects and programs in two categories: a statewide competition and a separate competition for small rural and urban projects. A third category of funds will be distributed later this year through the state’s largest Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) (more on that below).

The $221 million for the first two categories will be matched by another $207 million in local matching funds, yielding a total of $426 million in bike and pedestrian projects that will get the green light in the first two-year funding round. The 145 successful applications include 124 statewide projects [PDF] and 21 small rural and urban projects [PDF].
Here are the types of projects that would be funded:
  • $57 million in bike projects and plans
  • $119 million for 91 Safe Routes to Schools grants, 81 in the statewide category and 13 in small urban/rural category. Of the 91, 53 include non-infrastructure programs
  • 110 of the projects ($189 million worth) directly benefit disadvantaged communities at least partially
Streetsblog LA

The program was created in 2013.

The Fresno area projects that received money were:

  • Barstow Avenue Bikeways, requested by CSU Fresno, for a $875,000 grant out of $2,075,000 project cost.
  • Active Transportation Plan, requested by Fresno COG, for a $150,000 grant 
Project list (large PDF)

The project had received funding in the past. Now, if you're wondering why bike lanes cost over $2 million, this January 2013 (PDF) document explains it. The funding in this document is about an earlier grant.

 photo bikeways1_zps51665c0c.png

Sadly, this means another road widening project. It seems like even with a bike project, the administrators are eager to throw in auto-oriented costs, such as adding a right turn lane.

Today, Barstow looks like this. Cyclists use the very narrow shoulder, shared with pedestrians.

 photo bikeways3_zps4a8f70e6.png

Some sections, where the roadway is wider, have bike lanes, which are narrow and very faded

 photo bikeways4_zps431f8fa2.png

This would be a fantastic opportunity to design real bicycle infrastructure, that will get more students biking, like a two-way cycle track. However, that seems unlikely. Instead, it seems like the project will just widen the road to add standard painted bike lanes - and with the widening, encourage drivers to drive faster.

Fresno State does a poor job of encouraging transportation outside of driving. Last month, I posted about the Campus Pointe development, which has very poor pedestrian and bicycle connectivity.

The university attitude towards cycling is made obvious on their website, which is really sad.

Behold the "Campus Bike Program"

 photo bikeways5_zps7d814668.png
Absolutely no useful information. Really, that's it.

The link on the left to community routes? If you expected maps showing the best ways to and on campus...well that was hopeful thinking. Instead, they link to county maps from 2007, which gives a good idea of the last time that page was looked at.

Bike lanes coming to Barstow is great news, and it's nice to see the university push for them. However, it's a shame that the project seems to be doing the bare minimum, and the transportation focus for the university continues to be on parking. One of the justifications for the project is to minimize traffic impacts from a new parking garage (???).

Monday, August 25, 2014

A picture review of the latest from GV Urban

So I took these pictures back in May. And this is how long it's taken me to finally get around to this post... Better late than never right? I hope you enjoy.

I'll start with the Crichton Place project, built on L and San Joaquin. I last posted about these in January, when they were still wooden frames.These pictures were taken shortly before they opened at the end of June. Obviously, they have landscaping now.

We start off here, not too much to say, aside from the standard too-narrow sidewalk.

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Not my favorite color scheme, but Fresno seems to love it.

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Moving back a second, this is the property off frame in the first photo

I believe GV owns this?

 photo DSC09857_zpscbc2fe19.jpg

Across the road, the colors look a little better

 photo DSC09862_zps3c9b99c8.jpg

It makes a streetwall, but where are the trees?

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Across the street, unsure what's going on here

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Spacing between buildings

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I was curious if this beauty would remain...

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A look at their Facebook page reveals that the lighting was indeed replaced with the historic crap.  Why crap? This design shines light into the sky, and into bedrooms, rather than onto the sidewalk and street where it's needed.

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Installed directly in the way of course

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Ending the block...

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We go around the corner and find the entrance to cars land

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These guys came to see what all the point and shooting was about. I'm thankful that they didn't actually say anything. They're well within their right to come and look at me, and I'm glad they were apparently trained to not harass people not on the property. Good job guys.

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Anyway, looking towards the end

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And looking back. Note the change in sidewalk again.

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And across the street.

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Now we head over to 1612 Fulton, which has been done for quite some time, but I last took pictures in June of 2013, also right before it opened. Here's what a year of activity looks like.

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Somehow the city managed to never stripe a crosswalk here, and actually make the stop line placement worse.

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Good job city.

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Surprised they actually managed to lease retail space

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And the biggest absolute failure in the entire GV Urban catalog

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It was obvious this was going to happen. And the city allowed this crap.

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And this is the alley GV Urban couldn't be bothered to use for access

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Anyway, moving back to the front, the Fulton frontage is quite nice. Balconies add a cool effect, and look, trees

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Anyway, GV has another project, on Broadway. Back in May it looked like this.

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According to their Facebook page, it now looks like this, and will be called "Brio on Broadway"

 photo 10353638_674550292623789_4905035879300787960_n_zpsb198c19c.jpg

....So that shouldn't have taken so long to post. But now it's been posted! Yay.