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Sunday, March 12, 2017

What should happen with Fresno's Eaton Plaza?

Alternative Title: Do master plans mean anything?

Fresno does not have enough park space. In 2015, the city's proud accomplishment was going from dead last in the nation in parks....to tied with dead last, in a ranking developed by the Trust for Public Land. In 2016, the city "rose" to 3rd from the bottom.

But only because the ranking system expanded.

2012 - 40th out of 40
2013 - 50th out of 50
2014 - 60th out of 60
2015 - 74th out of 75
2016 - 97th out of 100

Oh, and the last two cities were last because they failed to respond to the survey.

The 2016 ParkScore Index, published Thursday by the Trust for Public Land in Washington, D.C., shows that Fort Wayne, Ind., crept into the bottom spot below Fresno at 98th. This was the first year that Fort Wayne has been included in the ParkScore survey. Gilbert, Ariz., and Laredo, Texas, were unranked this year because they didn’t provide data on their municipal park systems to the Trust for Public Land.
Fresno Bee
With that context, it's important to pay attention was the city is looking to spend money on a new park, especially in a part of the city that is severely lacking.

Enter Eaton Plaza.

Located in downtown Fresno, Eaton Plaza is known for the historic water tower, a local landmark that shows up on t-shirts, magnets, and other tourism merchandise. No longer used as a water tower, the building is now home to a visitor center, welcoming tourists from around the world.

Water tower
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/casabelle/5359436157 

And in typical Fresno fashion, the welcome is mostly in the form of a parking lot.


aerial2

Embarrassing.

However in 2004, an effort was funded to plan for a new Eaton Plaza.

MPA Design worked through an extensive public participation process to develop a Master Plan that would transform the park, which had previously been used for surface parking, into a dynamic urban plaza. After conducting a series of meetings and public questionnaires, MPA prepared several Master Plan schemes and cost estimates that were then considered by community and government stakeholders. In summer 2004, a plan was selected by the community and approved by the City Council and in spring 2006, the phase one amphitheater opened to the public. The central plaza serves as a community focal point and meeting place as well as a venue for festivals. Other design elements include a participatory fountain, tree groves, and a view of the existing historic water tower. 
MPA Design

The idea would be to transform the barren parking area into the kind of urban oasis expected in civic centers. The process involved the community and was approved unanimously for the council. Money was kicked in for phase 1, a small amphitheater.

plan
In planned phases:
plan2
Source: Downtown Fresno Coalition

Then the great recession hit, Fresno ran out of money, funding for parks was slashed to the bare minimum, and 10 years passed.

Enter 2017

The city of Fresno appears poised to build a couple of basketball courts in downtown Fresno’s Eaton Plaza, shoehorned between a pair of asphalt parking lots near an amphitheater and the city’s historic water tower.
Fresno Bee

Wait, what? The plan doesn't show basketball courts. it shows fountains, green space, and trees, lots and lots of trees. And it certainly doesn't show acres of parking "shoehorning" park amenities.

The Master Plan certainly doesn't show this

a1_0302_eaton_for_web


City Manager Bruce Rudd said installing basketball courts would provide a greater opportunity for the plaza to be used by residents – including recreational potential for the Fresno Police Department’s Police Athletic League. “This is trying to repurpose some green space that is woefully underused right now,” Rudd said.

Oddly enough Bruce, it appears that the original plan has a lot more green space than two basketball courts and a landscape strip. Even odder is that this new proposal looks to pave over existing green space, rather than the parking area. And while that green space is not well maintained, it does get used:

The existing lawn area at the plaza is used by the Fresno Arts Council during the spring, summer and fall for occasional food truck events, and the city’s parks department offers free movie nights during the summer.
I've stopped by free movie night, and it always looks well attended.

Now, there's plenty of fair discussion to be had comparing the benefits of a passive park space to an active park space, but isn't that the kind of discussion that happened during the master plan process? That stands quite in contrast to the current methodology, which has involved zero public input. It almost seems like the folks at the police department mentioned they'd like some basketball courts nearby (they're across the street), and the city manager said "sure."

What's the point of going through an extensive and expensive public planning process if the city manager can one day decide he wants to do something completely different, without any valid justification?

It certainly reflects something you'd expect to see in a small town, not a city of half a million.

And going back to the debates of passive vs active recreation, the following questions are raised: 

What's the expected usage of basketball courts vs a plaza?

In an area surrounded by civic uses - library, courthouse, city hall, police department etc. - isn't a plaza more likely to be used than a basketball court? 

If courts are in high demand, why weren't they incorporated into the just-opened Cultural Arts District Park, which is adjacent to several apartment buildings?

What will the effects be of paving over green space in regards to water runoff and heat island effects?

What will happen to the events which currently use the green space for the public? 

 Whose idea was this?

Why has the public been excluded from the planning process?


Personally, I love parks. I think active recreation opportunities are incredibly important, for their health benefits, and also the ability to build communities.

But passive recreation space is important as well, especially in a downtown flooded with surface parking lots and limited green space. Not to mention that Fresno's premiere linear park - The Fulton Mall - was recently paved over to create parking. Paving over more green space to benefit a small special interest group, while throwing away the wishes of the general public is insane.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Fresno downtown and midtown photo update!

This will be my last Fresno construction update photo dump for awhile! Once again, I've gotten far behind and my photos are quickly becoming out of date. So rather than 2-3 posts, they're all going in here!

This follows a couple of other recent photo updates:
Clovis Infill
Fresno BRT
Fulton Mall

This update contains:

Manchester Mall Revitalization
Mid-Fresno Trail pre-construction
Fancher Creek
Trolley Creek Park
Kings Canyon Steak n Shake and Del Taco (plus lack of BRT work and residential parcel).
Cosmopolitan Restaurant
H Street Redevelopment 
Greyhound Station
Community Hospital
Cultural Arts Park
Park Crossing  (Fresno 40)

This is a very image-heavy post, so be warned when you click through to continue:


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Clovis Infill - A Photo Update

It feels a little odd talking about infill in Clovis. It doesn't quite roll off the tongue, as the city is known for its endless subdivisions. And yet in 2017, Old Town Clovis appears to have almost as much infill construction as Downtown Fresno going on.

I reported on two of these projects in July 2015, but I've added a few other ones here.

  • Centennial Plaza
  • La Quinta Inn
  • Rail-Trail Housing
  • New Library
  • Sierra Meadows Park
  • Clovis Community Hospital

Centennial Plaza


Let's start with the big one: Centennial Plaza. This is the heart of Old Town on Pollasky, and I last took a look in May 2016 when the new plaza was finished. That update was focused on the street improvements, but now new buildings are rising up to frame the plaza.

Only 3 stories tall, the new building does make an impression in a downtown where a second story is a novelty.


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No basement here

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Close to the street

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Construction has also started on the building framing the other side of the plaza

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La Quinta Inn


A wee bit south, we find construction has finally started on La Quinta Inn. I reported on this one in May of 2015. Aside from building on a vacant lot, what makes this development interesting is that the hotel will be built over parking. This signals that demand for development in Old Town has increased to the point where large surface parking lots no longer make economic sense.

It's a start.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Look at Construction on Fresno's Fake BRT, and New FAX15 service

Improvements have arrived to Fresno's bus system (FAX). The most impactful, for riders, was the introduction of FAX15 on January 9th. The initiative saw the return of 15-minute frequencies on portions of route 9 and 38, from 6am to 6pm. What most cities consider "standard service" is a luxury Fresno riders will be happy to have.

FAX15

Oddly enough, none of the marketing for the new service mentioned what routes were affected. The new webpage said "Shaw and Cedar."

fax15

ABC-30, the Fresno Bee, and all other reported the same:

The new buses will travel up and down Shaw and Cedar Avenues with pick-ups and drop-offs every 15 minutes instead of every 30 minutes. 
I was confused. No bus route serves Shaw and Cedar. Multiple bus routes serve Shaw. Only one does Cedar. 

It appears that FAX-15 operates on Routes 9 and Routes 38 as a short-turn service. That is, every other bus will only run a section of the route, providing that section with 15-minute frequencies. The rest of the line will continue with service every 30 minutes.

For Route 9, Fax-15 buses will run from Shaw and Brawley to Shaw and Cedar. The leaves an odd orphan section at the east end.

For Route 38, Fax-15 will run from Cedar and Shaw south to Cedar and Jensen. 

Route 30 is also getting 15-minute service, before the BRT branding rolls out. You wouldn't know it from the news report or the FAX website, but that's what the map and schedule shows. When the fake BRT starts, it is supposed to improve to every 10 minutes. Speaking of BRT, the end of this post has construction photos.

The route maps, and the system map, indicate the enhanced service area with a dash system.A PDF was also created that sort of shows it.


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.

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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.