Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Exciting infill development coming to Old Town Clovis!

Two new exciting projects are in the work for Old Town Clovis. One is an office/commercial development near the heart of Old Town, at Pollasky and Bullard. The second is a new residential project up Pollasky at Sierra, what could be considered the original suburbs of Old Town.

The commercial project will be coming to the old DMV lot, next to a brand new plaza built as a beautification project. The Fresno Bee reports:

Two local development companies will build commercial buildings next to the recently completed Centennial Plaza in Old Town Clovis, bringing more restaurants, retail and office space to the city’s growing urban center.

Centennial Plaza Development Group, made up of the Shamshoian family, owner of Realty Concepts in Fresno, and Bill Cummings and James Reedy, owners of Legacy Construction in Fresno, will develop the northern end of the site at Pollasky and Bullard avenues.

Roger Peterson of the Peterson family and Roger Peterson Investments in Clovis will develop the southern lot, the city announced Tuesday.

Both developers are considering three-story buildings, for a total of 31,000 square feet, to blend in with the architecture of the southern part of Old Town Clovis such as the fire station next door and the lawyer’s office building across the street.

Realty Concepts plans to have an office and restaurants in its building, the city said. Its goal is to start construction in early summer 2016.

Peterson, a longtime Fresno and Clovis developer, is planning on having retail and office tenants. He said late Tuesday that retailers are already calling about spaces in the building.
Fresno Bee
The article included a couple of renders that appear to have been put together after an afternoon on SketchUp:

 photo pollasky2_zpshyazx2ww.png

Ahem. Regardless of the quality of the rendering, it does show a decently urban building that will fit right in.

This isn't the first time something has been proposed for that lost. Back in 2011, Granville, known for their GV Urban projects in Downtown Fresno, proposed apartments:
Downtown Clovis, known for its old-fashioned Western charm, could soon be getting a piece of the urban lifestyle: residential lofts with ground-floor shops and offices.  Granville Homes is proposing to build 35 loft-type condominiums above commercial and office space at the site of the old Clovis City Hall and the former state Department of Motor Vehicles office. A plaza at the front of the project would serve as an entryway into downtown Clovis where Bullard and Pollasky avenues meet.
 That was obviously never built. Clovis stated that they weren't ready for these big city changes.

So what's this new plaza they all keep talking about? Well, that's something I've been meaning to visit....

Here is the parcel we're talking about: The ugliest block in Old Town

 photo pollasky3_zpscb7fj5qe.jpg

On the north side of the emptiness, you can clearly see where the DMV building used to be, demolished within the past decade, and since used for parking. 

Within the past year the lost has seem some great changes. They've built the new plaza, and narrowed the street by adding new curb extensions on all corners. They also made the walk from Clovis Avenue nicer, and realigned the parking on the Bullard stub.

Behold, from March 18, 2015:

 photo pollasky4_zpsbibhtkap.jpg

You can see where the two new buildings will go. Rather skinny! The parking will be hidden in the back, and accessible by alley. Once they're in, the area will be much, much nicer.

To my surprise, Google Streetview has been by recently (April, 2015)! I still have to go down and take a look, but here is what they show:

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Note the curb extensions and textured pavement.

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Note the new lights, the plaza, the extended sidewalk, and the unfortunate loss of mature trees.

The plaza:
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On the Clovis side, Bullard officially became a parking lot, rather than a useless road, and new sidewalks were installed with more trees and the antique-style lighting om Clovis Avenue.

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 photo pollasky11_zps9lqjk2vv.jpg

In a shocking development, it seems to appear that Clovis Avenue was narrowed by almost a foot!

 photo pollasky12_zpsfsu9a7fy.jpg  photo pollasky12_zpsfsu9a7fy.jpg

Of course the Avenue really needs a road diet, with a center turning lane and bicycle lanes.

Moving up Old Town, we find ourselves at Pollasky and Sierra where an interesting new residential project is proposed.

 photo pollasky14_zpsnznwrcgh.jpg

In yellow, you see the existing Old Town Bicycle Trail.

The property marked off is the one in question. On the left, in red, the developer proposes to keep the homes, but add carports accessible from the alley. The exciting stuff takes place across the alley, in the green lot.

First let's look at the existing homes:

Apparently, they have an interesting history!

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According to the filing (PDF), they were moved to Clovis in the late 1940's from Fresno Airport, where they previously existed as housing for officers. At 730sq ft, they are small by modern standards. They are all occupied and will not be touched, for now.

The empty lot is where the fun lies. The developer proposes knocking down the existing home and building 5 new homes, each about 1,500sqft.

I don't know how old the existing home is, but I would say "very"

 photo pollasky1_zpsu9fbhvui.jpg

City ordinance requires that all new homes have 60 feet of street frontage, which can't be done here. Instead, they are proposing three homes on Sierra, and two homes fronting the Old Town Trail. That is, the front of the house would look onto the trail, with the existing alley serving as car access.

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The developer uses a similar project in Davis, CA, as an example.

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The developer also claims that this will make the trail safer and more attractive. I agree - right now most of the trail looks at the back of industrial buildings, thanks to its history as a rail line. By having homes front the trail, it will add eyes to it.

By most measures, five new single family homes isn't the most exciting of projects, but in this context, it's pretty interesting. It is bringing new residential development to the "downtown" area of Clovis, where residents can access the trail, and walk to restaurants, bars, banks, and stores. It's not exactly a skyscraper, but for a city that is constantly bulging outwards, it is certainly something different.

When put in the context of a new hotel, the finally completed trail, and the upcoming new library, it is clear that Clovis is continuing to work towards creating a strong downtown. Of course, there's a whole lot left to do. The area still has plenty of empty lots, especially along the trail.Maybe one day we may see a 4 story apartment/retail structure approved?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Don't let the drought kill your trees!

Not a day goes by without the mention of the word drought in California. At this point, everyone understands how serious the problem is, and what steps need to be taken to help.

Yes, we need to save water, but more important, we need to use water wisely, and that means watering your trees to keep them alive.

Frequently you hear people talking about the evils of landscaping. In most cases, they're right. Bright green lawns serve no purpose aside from aesthetics. Places to play? Theoretically, but outside of the 4th of July, I can't ever remember seeing a neighbor play in their front lawn.

Because of how wasteful these lawns can be, most cities have limited watering days, and encourage people to simply let their grass turn brown.

That's perfectly good advice - as long you as you remember to keep your trees watered!

Unlike grass, which has little use outside of athletic facilities, trees come with a variety of very important benefits.

This article provides some great links into a lot of the research done on urban trees, but here is a summary of the benefits:
  • Higher property values
    • The presence of street trees in front of a house raised the property value by $8,870 and reduced time-on-market by 1.7 days
    • Average price premium of 4% for homes located in the greenest neighborhoods, and a 7% discount for homes in the least green neighborhoods
  • Decrease in crime
    • Large trees indicate a neighborhood with strong community investment – and thus, more effective policing
    • More desirable environment means more eyes on the street to deter crime
  • Health
    • Air quality improvement (very important in Fresno!)
    • Decreased stress
    • Noise abatement 
    • Reduction in heat island effect (again great for Fresno!)
    • Can result in lower traffic speeds = less collisions and fatalities
    • Healthier babies/births
  • Pedestrian activity
    • Shade leads to more outdoor activity (more health!)
  • Environment
    • Better air quality again of course
    • More shade means less use of A/C - less electricity in turn means less emissions
      • Also a great cost saver! 
    • Improved ground stability / erosion prevention 
    • Habitat for animals
Again, the article has links to research papers with citations for these benefits.

There is simply no denying the importance of large, healthy trees, especially in Fresno, with sweltering heat and abysmal air quality.

Letting a tree dry out and die could mean losing all these benefits. This is especially dangerous because a grassy lawn can go from dirt to luscious in a couple of months, (when water is available!) or even in a couple of hours, if you simply want to roll out sod. But a good tree can take years if not decades to reach maturity. Letting a tree die means losing out on the benefits for a very long time.

 photo Clovis trees_zpsfe2va031.png
These giant trees are lucky enough to draw water from an underground canal, but most Fresno-area trees need your help

The Fresno Bee recently had a good article letting people know what to look for in their trees:

If your citrus trees continue to drop immature fruit, if the leaves curl up (a moisture conservation reaction) or if leaf fall is heavy, consider increasing irrigation. Sprinkler water will not soak the soil to the necessary depth of at least one foot. When the top three to four inches of soil is dry, use soaker hoses or a bubbler attachment on a hose to slowly soak the soil for several hours. Plan on weekly irrigation; more often when temperatures are high in July. Supplement irrigation with shower bucket water as needed.

Redwood roots form a shallow mat that lies just under the canopy. The feeder roots that draw up rain water and fog condensation droplets lie at the outer edge of the canopy. Supplemental slow irrigation by soaker hoses, drip emitters or bubbler attachments should be placed at the drip edge and the soil should be soaked to a depth of one foot. Allow the fallen needles to remain under the tree as a water-conserving mulch and do not cut off lower branches that shade the tree roots.

Fresno Bee

From what I understand, the watering restrictions are about automated sprinklers. You can still go out with a hose to water your trees. This way, you can let the grass die off while ensuring your trees get what they need.

Don't forget to only do this in the early morning or late evening, and to always use a nozzle so no water is being wasted.

Another important tip is to use mulch. It is very inexpensive, and it blocks the sun from drying the ground, thus meaning more water is available for your tree, rather than being lost to evaporation. The mulch also blocks weeds and grasses which steal your water.

If you have a tree on the street, or one near your property that is being neglected, try and adopt it. If your neighbor lets their tree die, it hurts you as well.

The Sacramento Bee also has a video with some tips. An important one is to remember that trees absorb water slowly. Flooding your tree is just going to waste water. Instead, they suggest setting out a bucket with holes that will slowly release water, or even using ice. (That wouldn't work for us, our dog would eat all the ice!)

A fancier solution is a soaker hose (hose with holes) attached to a timer. That way you turn it on, and if you forget to turn it off, the timer will block the water for you.

Here are some additional details on using that:

The drip line, which marks the edge of the tree canopy, is a good place to start watering. To “deep water” the tree, lay a soaker hose in a ring around the tree just inside the drip line and continue in a spiral outward. Let the hose run until the water soaks in to a depth of about 8-12 inches, but watch for runoff, especially on clay or compacted soils. Depending on soil type and flow rate of the hose, this may take a few minutes to a few hours. Check the soil to make sure you’re not watering too deep or too little. To prevent runoff you may want to install a simple battery operated or wind-up timer to shut off the hose after a certain amount of time. If water runs off before water soaks in, turn the water off and turn it on again after a couple of hours of soak-in time. If the tree you are watering is small, start laying the soaker hose closer to the trunk or hand water.
Save Our Water

An even fancier solution is to use your existing sprinkler system, but adjusting the heads and locations so that they only water your trees and bushes. This works well if you're abandoning your grass.

Whatever method picked, it is important to remain committed and to water every week. Trees can do pretty well with limited water, but once a tree dies, there is no way to bring it back.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

United abandons JFK - What does it mean for transit at Newark?

While most of my posts related to airlines have been connected to High Speed Rail discussion, I do like to follow aviation news. A couple of days ago, United announced that they would abandon JFK airport in New York and "retreat" to their fortress hub at Newark (EWR). This came as a big shock to many following the industry, because JFK is typically considered the premiere airport for the New York region, and NYC, of course, is the business capital of the continent.

Plenty has been written about what it means for the aviation world (alliance partners, connections, fares etc.), but personally, I am more interested in what it means for transit at Newark International.

One can argue all day about which airport is most convenient to Manhattan, and quite frankly, there's no winning argument. By road (via yellow or black car) which airport is most accessible to Manhattan corporate headquarters depends on the day of the week, the time of the day, and how many collisions happen along the way. With zero traffic, they're equidistant, but it's New York City, and there's never zero traffic.

That of course, is one of the main advantages of transit. Assuming proper funding, transit can provide something a car cannot: proper trip planning. When you plan on taking a car to the airport, you need large amounts of buffer time to account for traffic. If there is no traffic, congrats, you're wasting valuable time at the gate. If there's too much traffic, you miss your flight. With a train on the other hand, you can more easily plan your trip with a schedule, from the office door to TSA line, down to the minute.

United of course understand how important accessibility is to their customer base. From their press release:
Manhattan business travelers, particularly those who work on Wall Street and throughout lower and western Manhattan, enjoy easy access to Newark Liberty, the most convenient of the three New York-area airports.
Again, by car, it depends. But by transit? They're correct, thanks to the 24/7 PATH subway line, which links the World Trade Center and Wall Street to Newark Penn Station.

PATH, you say? United? Where I heard those two together before?

In talks with United Airlines, the Christie representatives have suggested that they would direct the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to begin a long-contemplated extension of the PATH train to Newark's airport rail station, providing a long-desired direct rail link with Lower Manhattan, these people said.

In exchange, these people say Mr. Christie, via Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, has asked United to provide service to a slate of cities from Atlantic City—a small airport with a spotty track record of supporting commercial service. United is the dominant airline at the Newark airport, carrying about 70% of the passengers.
September 2013, WSJ

The rest of the article claims that United would not serve Atlantic City, because they don't really care about PATH. That was September, 2013.

And yet in that November, United did announce service to Atlantic City, from Chicago and Houston. And shortly after that, the PATH extension suddenly gained a lot more traction. (Those flights have since ended)

That wasn't the only trade United made to get the PATH extension funded.
Were the friendly skies of United a little too friendly to former Port Authority Chairman David Samson? Elected officials, airline watchdogs and even Samson's successor say they are concerned by reports that United Airlines and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have been subpoenaed for records involving Samson's travel from Newark to an airport near his home in South Carolina.

United launched the service in September 2012, after Samson became chairman in early 2011. It then dropped the three weekly flights by its ExpressJet regional subsidiary three days after Samson resigned last March amid an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office in Newark prompted by the September 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures.

That means each flight averaged just under 25 passengers, or a 50 percent booking rate, well below the rate of 85 percent or higher common among carriers. Flying that kind of route for 19 months just doesn't make sense, unless short-term ticket sales are not what you're after, said Kate Hanni, founder of California-based

"No airline would continue a flight that was regularly half full, unless it was receiving government subsidies," Hanni said. "If not subsidized, then United was operating a flight that was losing money, again airlines don't continue flights that are burning a hole in their pocket unless they have someone important of great influence on board."

Connecting the dots together, what has happened here is clear. United has known for a long time that they were going to leave JFK and focus on Newark. United also knew that the only way to do so and continue to be successful is to convince people that Newark is the most convenient airport from Manhattan.

Today, it's debatable. But with a PATH extension, it wouldn't be.

United has proven that they can't really compete on price or service with the rest of the industry. Jetblue, for example, offers an extremely attractive premium product at less than half what the dinosaurs charge. They just announced an increase in trips from JFK, as a result of the United move.

However, by consolidating at Newark, United can compete on their large network, and with a PATH extension, on convenience.

Convenience. Convenience is key. And it can be sold at a premium. 

Convenience is so important to United's future business plan that they will lose millions on one flight to cater so a single executive, and millions more in serving an airport that everybody knew had no demand. United was clearly investing in the PATH extension.

Unfortunately for United, it turns out that the PATH extension is a really bad idea for everyone who isn't United, and would cost way too much. As such, momentum slowed, especially after the feds started investigating that special chairman flight.

That doesn't mean United doesn't get what they want though.

It just so happens that as the PATH extension became politically infeasible due to exploding costs, another solution was found.

Earlier this year:

The 19-year-old AirTrain monorail system at Newark Liberty International Airport is being targeted for replacement.

Thursday's authorization votes come four months after the Port Authority issued its first contract for preliminary work to extend the PATH commuter rail system from Newark Penn Station to the airport rail station, a project estimated to cost $1.5 billion.
This announcement reeked. A 19 year old rail system being at end of life? That's unheard of! It's only the end of life if you bring out your shotgun to the shed.

Especially since in 2014 it was closed for 3 months during the peak summer tourist season to undergo a complete refurbishment. Why would they spend all that time and money to refurbish the system if they were looking to get rid of it? Obviously, they weren't and the refurbishment was planned before the PATH extension unfolded, and the organization had to scramble for an alternative. 

Here is what I believe is happening:

The PATH extension is dead. United however, needs better rail. Solution: A brand new, state of the art AirTrain that travels at 40mph, rather than 15mph, can carry more than 4 people per car, and serves the current PATH terminus, Newark Penn, rather than the Airport Rail Station.After all, if the entire system is at "end of life" and has to be replaced anyway, why not just extend the track another mile or so into the existing Newark Penn? If you're spending a billion or so on a brand new system, what's a little extra to add some extra track?

For United-bound travelers, any transit trip from Manhattan requires transferring from rail to AirTrain (also true at JFK). Making that connection at Newark Penn or Newark Airport Rail Station is no different to the air passenger. However, serving Newark Penn rather than Newark Airport Rail does provide significantly more transfer opportunities, as every single NJ Transit and Amtrak train stops there, along with intercity bus carriers and Newark Light Rail, and of course PATH.

And for the Port Authority, extending a light-weight elevated monorail is significantly cheaper than a legacy rail system in a limited right of way.

If you can't bring PATH to AirTrain, you bring AirTrain to PATH. I'd put large sums of money on this being put in motion very soon. 

One problem: United is moving in October. Any new AirTrain would not open until 2018, under a very best case scenario.

United cannot afford to bleed customers in NYC for 3 years. So what can they do?

Easy: Make EWR convenient today, by leveraging existing transit options.

The Lower Manhattan Customer: PATH + Shuttle

Today, PATH terminates at Newark Penn. Passengers going to the airport must either board a local bus ($2.35), which stops at all terminals, or take an NJ Transit train for about 60 seconds, and then transfer to the AirTrain, and pay something like $10 for the privilege of hauling luggage through three different rail systems. That's the opposite of convenience. Not even a railfan would wish for that. The local bus is fine, but let's face it, for most flying passengers, the idea of boarding a local public bus in Newark is not attractive.

But a United branded bus from Newark Penn to the United terminal, free with proof of United ticket? That's not scary at all. Between terminal shuttle buses and rental car shuttle buses, airport shuttle buses are an ingrained part of the airport experience. There's nothing scary about boarding a sleek bus with GIANT UNITED branding on the side, and no need for an additional fare.

That's convenience.

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An example of a bus used by an Airline company to transfer passengers

The (high end) Midtown Manhattan Customer (and Connecticut!): Amtrak

Today United is the only US airline to offer a code-share agreement, a partnership that has existed exclusively at Newark since it was a Continental Hub.

United Airlines and Amtrak have teamed up to provide the ultimate experience in seamless travel and to offer you the opportunity to earn more award miles. Earn award miles on qualifying Coach or Business class fares per segment on Amtrak when you fly United and make a connection at Newark Liberty International Airport to or from any of the following Amtrak destinations: New Haven Rail Station, CT; Stamford Rail Station, CT; Philadelphia 30th Street Station, PA; Wilmington Rail Station, DE.

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Amid an ocean of cancellation, United's partnership with Amtrak stood out clearly before a winter flight.

United Elite passengers can also take advantage of the Acela Clubs at stations such as Boston and New York Penn.

United Club Members with a valid United Club Card are entitled to access ClubAcela locations and may bring in two guests or their spouses and children under the age of 21. United Global First or United BusinessFirst passengers with a flight coupon or boarding pass with a same-day, international segment in United Global First or United BusinessFirst are also entitled to ClubAcela access.
And United even offers a ticketing counter at Penn Station.

All sounds great, except for one little problem: The program hasn't really been looked at in a decade, and the existing form can be more of a hassle, rather than a convenience.

For one, few Amtrak trains stop at EWR. Further, there is a United rule that they will not book you on an Amtrak train that departs/arrives less than 90 minutes before/after your flight, even though the transfer can be done in under 30 minutes.

And finally, the codeshare agreement doesn't include NYC Penn Station!

The problem:

Your high level executive paying $3,000 bucks to fly to LAX is wary about going to Newark from midtown. He does not care for the boarding zoo at NYC Penn. He also is not interested in NJ Transit, because, ew, NJ Transit, and how do you even pay for that when the secretary books your trip?The black car is great, but people keep crashing in the tunnel and missing the flight is simply not an option.

But Amtrak? They're alright. The executive takes that every other week to Boston.

The solution:

Enhance the United partnership with Amtrak to include code-share into NYC Penn Station. There's already Club Acela access with priority boarding, keeping the executive away from the Jersey masses.

And more importantly, work with Amtrak to ensure that the right trains stop at EWR. Again, most trains skip EWR now, and there are large gaps in service. By working together to ensure the schedules work out, so the right trains stop at EWR to get these high rollers onto the LAX flight, EWR has become infinity more convenient than JFK.

In fact, the comparison is no longer EWR vs. JFK - it's Penn Station vs JFK, and Penn Station is 3 blocks away. 

The (common) Midtown Manhattan Customer: NJ Transit

That's all great to fill the front of the plane, but how about everyone else?

New Jersey transit already offers service to EWR, but like Amtrak, there's a schedule problem. While all off-peak trains stop at EWR, most trains skip it during rush hour in the peak direction.

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This again is where coordination could come in. Should every train stop at EWR? No. But if United has 80% of passenger share at EWR, perhaps it's time to take a look at the schedule to make sure the right trains are stopping. You can have 500 trains service the station, but if they all arrive 5 minutes too late for a transfer, it means nothing.

The Queens and Brooklyn customer: NJ Transit..???

There is no question that for any potential United customer east of Manhattan, JFK is closer and more convenient. Period. Getting to EWR via car or transit required diving into Manhattan, and dealing with tunnels and/or multiple transit agencies.

But what if it didn't have to be that way?

NJ Transit currently drives their trains from Penn Station to Sunnyside Queens, where the hang out, loop around, and return when needed.

But unless you have an NJ Transit uniform, that's a ride you can't take.

However, it just so happens that work is underway to build a new LIRR train station in Sunnyside, Queens, right before the yard and loop that NJ Transit uses. That is, once this new station opens, every NJ Transit train is going to slowly roll by the platform.

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This future rail station will be conveniently close to a large number of New York subway stops

Imagine if rather than rolling by, the train stopped. And let people board. And then took those people to the Newark AirTrain. One seat. One ticket. From Queens to United check-in in 30 minutes or less!?

Seamless. Convenient.

EWR convenient from Queens, in JFKs back door? It could happen! With coordination and cooperation.

Seems hard to believe right? An American transit agency working to make travel within a metro area convenient? Fantasy!

Fantasy of course, unless there's a giant corporation behind the scenes who would really, really, really, benefit from this type of agreement. The kind of corporation who goes way out of their way to lube up those holding the planning purse with unprofitable flights. Oh, and a NJ Governor ready to throw billions at a PATH extension, and a NY governor who will ignore transit at all cost - unless of course money can be used to make flying easier.

There never seems to be money to make small improvements to transit service, especially for buses. But when it comes to airports, the money flows like champagne. I think there's a good chance United will be pushing for more transit to Newark, and I think our political elites are willing to pay for it.

And at the end of the day, the hardworking schmuck who needs to get to Queens from New Jersey may just come out a winner. Not on purpose of course, but that sure would be nice. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Greyhound moving into Fresno Amtrak station to make way for HSR construction

Due to upcoming High Speed Rail (HSR) construction, Greyhound will be relocating from their own station near Chukchansi Park to a vacant section of the Fresno Amtrak Station. This move is scheduled for later this year, and will remain this way until the new HSR station is constructed, with space for Greyhound. That is, the lease runs for 10 years, but Greyhound is allowed to leave whenever their new waiting area is finished.

Greyhound ticketing and waiting will be kept separate from Amtrak, as can be seen in the site plan:

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The new Greyhound will be fronting Tulare. Because the train station is a historic site, they cannot modify the facade at all, except to add some appropriate signage.

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Gryehound passengers will probably make use of this empty plaza

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Having a multi-modal terminal will be an asset to passengers leaving from Fresno. Riders will better be able to compare schedules and prices between Gryehound and Amtrak, and also pick another service if their original planned transit provider is experiencing delays or problems. It also opens up transfer possibilities.

While the waiting areas will be separate, Greyhound customers will now be across the street from a new 7-11. This is in contrast to the existing Greyhound station, which sits isolated from all retail. Apparently the Greyhound station used to have a cafeteria, but that has been closed for a very long time. This image shows that the Greyhound Station has existed for many decades, with the Post House Cafeteria on the right (now rotting plywood).

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Another benefit for riders will be taxi service. Rather than being split between the two stations, more taxis will be available at one place.

One question is, where will the buses go?

As you can see in the following aerial, the existing greyhound terminal is a serious bus station, and can fit in 13 buses at gates, with an additional two on the side. Incidentally, the building that says Charter High School is an old train station. It will be preserved by HSR construction. The future  train station will exist over it.

 photo greyhound6_zpsrejfjbny.jpg

However, the Amtrak station has no such bus infrastructure. The agreement with Fresno indicates that Greyhound will be given use of 15 parking spots, but there is no statement as to in which lot.

In the following map, I show some potential loading areas for the bus.

 photo greyhound4_zps72u3rils.jpg

Loading buses at 1 would be very close to the waiting room, and very convenient to Greyhound riders. However, buses idling there would make the Amtrak experience less pleasant, as their waiting area sits right behind the drop-off.

4 is even closer, but it would require removal of parking meters.

3 is the existing Amtrak parking lot, which is almost always at capacity. Would the city really kick out Amtrak customers to allow buses to sit around? It's also quite a walk from the future Greyhound area. To the right of that, there's an even larger surface lot owned by the sits that almost always is empty. That would be great for buses, but again, it's far.

Finally, the city owns a number of surface parking lots in the area, including number 2, north of the tracks. That would be a very short walk from the waiting area, but the problem is that it sits across the track. A slow freight train rolling by could delay buses and passengers by five minutes.

Aside from bus layover logistics, the location is also a downgrade for riders not getting on or off in Fresno. Because the Amtrak station is much further from the 99, all trips will see the addition of up to 10 minutes.

 photo greyhound5_zpstjlcdrtj.jpg

On the other hand, the YARTS trip just got 5 minutes shorter.

Incidentally, if you're curious, the rent will be 85 cents per square foot, which I assume will be significantly cheaper for Greyhound that maintaining their existing depot. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Smart and Final saga concludes: A victory for the Fresno master plan!

I actually began writing this post in early April, and was getting ready to publish under a VERY different title: "Fresno caves on proposed shopping development - goodbye master plan, we barely knew you."

But here we are in June, and what at early glance appeared to be a swift win for a suburban developer, and a loss for the residents of Fresno actually has ended up with a happy ending for all involved, well, almost all. As far as land use planning goes, this was one exciting ride.
It all began in mid-March, when the Fresno Bee ran an article on a proposed development on Blackstone and Clinton:
Fresno City Hall is a house divided over a grocery store proposed for Blackstone Avenue. It has come — the first big test for Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s general plan. Who is in Fresno’s development saddle, business as usual or high ideals?

 photo clinton1_zpslj7lomzj.png

The battle was simple: Smart and Final wanted to build a new store, inside the red rectangle above. They wanted to set it up allll the way on the back of the lot, and line Blackstone with acres of asphalt parking. Oh, and a drive-thru fast food restaurant of course. You know, your cookie cutter suburban layout, that design one guy came up with in 1956, the layout which has been reused time and time again, with little or no modification.The same layout, incidentally, that currently exists across the street, where it says Wells Fargo (it's actually a Save Mart supermarket).

But it's not 1956! You see the city of Fresno went through a very lengthy public process which culminated with the January approval of a new general plan, one which puts infill first, and asks for urban design ideals.

And so, following the voice of the people, the city asked Smart and Final if they would consider putting the store along Blackstone, with parking in the back.

The developer said no.

So the city asked if they would put an additional retail building on Blackstone, to create a street-wall.

The developer said no.

You see what the city wanted is what the shiny new general plan had set aside for the area.  The area has been designated as Neighborhood Mixed Use, which means

"local-serving, pedestrian-oriented commercial development, such as convenience shopping and professional offices in two- to three-story buildings. Development is expected to include ground-floor neighborhood retail uses and upper level housing or offices.....the built form will have a scale and character that is consistent with pedestrian-orientation...Automobile-oriented uses are not permitted"

What Smart and Final proposed:

 photo clinton3_zps7tn7qsou.png

  • Pedestrian oriented? NOPE. Massive parking lot with the retail set all the way back.
  • Two to three stories? NOPE. Single story big-box
  • Mixed use? NOPE. Only retail.
  • Banning automobile oriented use? NOPE. Fast food restaurant with wrap-around drive-thru at the prime corner.

So why was this even a fight? After all, if the plan requires the developer follow the rules, how could the developer ask for the exact opposite?

The reason is because the development was set in motion BEFORE the new general plan came into effect! That means it got to follow the old guidelines that have allowed Blackstone to look the way it does.

So Fresno has no legs to stand on, and the developer wins right?

No! Fortunately, way back in on March 26, 1991, the Tower District Specific Plan (PDF) came into being. And while few would stand on Clinton and Blackstone and feel a part of the district, it just so happens that the boundaries extend to that very corner!

The Tower District Specific Plan states that new development must " Eliminate and prevent on-site parking which fronts on major streets and develop urban, in contrast to suburban, standards for provision of on-site parking"

And there it is. The Smart and Final plan, as presented, is not allowed, and hasn't been for twenty years! Oddly enough, this critical detail, about how the new general plan wasn't really at issue, was never brought up by the Fresno Bee in their 4 or 5 articles...

But another problem arises!

The city was ready to allow development with a modification that would meet the Tower plan, but not in any way shape or form meet the new general plan. That is, by adding a second minor retail building on Blackstone, and improving the pedestrian walkway.

 photo clinton4_zpsg1m7fd1l.png

It was at this point, when the above plan appeared close to final, when I was ready to publish under the original title...

That's when things got really political. All this was going on at the planning level, but some of our most enlightened city councilors decided to get involved, long before it would reach their room.

Indeed, Fresno City Council Member Clint Oliver came out guns blazing, with the kind of logic you'd expect from a freshman taking econ 101:

"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.”
Fresno Bee
What Mr. Oliver failed to understand is that his job is to represent the people of Fresno, not the shareholders of Smart & Final. He is correct that the company most likely has more expertise when it comes to moving cheap overstock products, but that's not the question at hand. The job of the planning commission, and then the city council, is to vote on a site plan that affects all of Fresno.

The people of Fresno had at this point spoken time and time again about what they wanted, and it's not more of the same.

Zoning laws, and the planning process which followed, were created because municipalities quickly discovered that the development whims of the individual should not trump the welfare of everyone else.

For example, I am sure Mr. Olivier would reject a proposal for a scrap yard or an oil refinery or a nightclub immediately adjacent to his property. Would he care that the scrap yard people know more about scrap yards than him or the city? Would it matter that the oil people are the authority on oil refining? Would it be relevant that the proposed nightclub management could run the best nightclub in the world?

Of course not, because that kind of development would have a negative impact on him and his neighbors.

One can stroll down Blackstone Avenue to enjoy the fruits of half a century of siding with the free market. Lot after lot of undervalued or dilapidated and abandoned development, built by the free market, and abandoned by the free market, left to the public to clean up the mess.

There is an old, abandoned Happy Steak building at Blackstone/Clinton and a tire shop at Blackstone/Vassar. There are a few houses, at least one empty, and lots of weeds on the site.  (Fresno Bee)
Like most of Blackstone, the lot in question is an eye-sore, a failed development concept. Smart and Final proposes to come in and build in the same style of 50 years ago. That style of development may in fact serve them well, but in fifteen years, when their cheap building begins to rot, and require additional investment, they might simply abandon it and move elsewhere, as the neighboring businesses did.

Mr. Oliver thinks Smart and Final knows better than the people of Fresno, who came to meeting after meeting to demand new development standards. Mr. Oliver forgets who he represents. That is unless, he thinks he represents developer campaign contributions.

Fortunately, the mayor and her team actually listened.

And so a few days before the matter was set to come to vote again, it was tabled, for backroom talks.

That was in April.

May came, and so did some supermarket news for Blackstone:

Two Vons stores in Fresno are set to close June 12, leaving 127 supermarket workers with an uncertain future. The Vons location near Blackstone and Ashlan avenues, as well as the store on Nees Avenue and First Street, were underperforming, confirmed Keith W. Turner, senior communications & government relations manager for Safeway Albertsons. Business Journal

The Blackstone Vons is just a few blocks away from the controversial site.  Another vacant box coming to Blackstone. Why did Vons fail? A new Walmart Center opened a block away - also on Blackstone - just a few months ago. If I recall correctly, Mr. Oliver praised the Walmart for bringing revitalization to Blackstone, and jobs.

Then June arrived, with another bang.

Save Mart is closing its Clinton and Blackstone avenues store, citing competition, the company said Tuesday. The news comes just weeks after Fresno learned it would lose Vons stores near Blackstone and Ashlan avenues and First Street and Nees Avenue.

The Save Mart store is one of a few full-line grocery stores in its neighborhood, and will close June 27. All the store’s 62 employees will be moved to other area Save Marts, said spokeswoman Stacia Hill Levenfeld. Prescriptions at the Save Mart pharmacy will be transferred to the Save Mart at First Street and Bullard Avenue. Save Mart owns the property and a new tenant could already be in the works, but nothing is finalized yet.

Remember the map near the top of the article? The big box with acres of surface parking across from the proposed Smart and Final development? Yup, that's the Save Mart. Indeed, here's the picture of the corner the Bee ran with in March:

 photo clinton2_zpstydv0g9g.jpeg

“Over the last several months the competition has become more intense and we made the decision to close the store,” she said.  City Council Member Clint Olivier, whose district covers the area, said he doesn’t know the retail business well enough to know “if the presence of a Walmart for 90 days can drive an established grocery store three miles away out of business. I think the loss of this Save Mart to the surrounding neighbors is like a one-two punch in the gut,” Olivier said. “We’ve lost Vons and now Save Mart.”
Fresno Bee

So I just had to go back and check...

 On behalf of District Seven, I’m pleased to welcome Walmart to the Blackstone business corridor,” said Clint Olivier, Fresno City Councilman. “Walmart will bring new life to a key corner of the district, bringing convenient shopping options, new jobs and additional customer foot traffic to surrounding businesses. This announcement is just another example of the steps my office has taken to re-energize and improve a very crucial part of our city’s business core.” Walmart

Sounds about right. Claiming credit when Walmart decided to open. Claiming ignorance when two established supermarkets go out of business shortly after. All while claiming that the free market knows best, but are another two vacant storefronts an asset to his district?

And what would this all mean for the Smart and Final project? Would Clint and his supporters claim that anything was better than nothing, even if it went against all the city plans?

But here's the interesting part; Save Mart just so happened to be at the same intersection Smart and Final wanted. And Save Mart just so happened to have the very same outdated layout that Smart and Final craved. And Save Mart was now vacating the premise in 30 days, and looking for a tenant.

A match made in heaven!

A match so perfect, that Mayor Ashley Swearengin had to bring it out during her State of the City address.
At today’s annual State of the City luncheon, Mayor Ashley Swearengin announced Smart & Final has just signed an agreement to open a new store in a building at Blackstone and Clinton avenues currently occupied by Save Mart.
 In fact, the deal was carefully coordinated with Smart and Final

During the mayor’s speech, a spokeperson for Smart & Final actually sent out a press release confirming the deal.
“Smart & Final recently signed a lease for the Clinton and Blackstone space and is currently working with the city of Fresno to finalize details,” the release stated. “We plan to put in a full-size Smart & Final Extra! store which will offer a full produce selection, bulk foods, organic and natural food products and an expanded meat section.”

The Smart & Final announcement’s timing served as an exclamation point to the mayor’s upbeat address.
Busienss Journal

A happy ending for all! And such great coordination between the city and the private sector!

All happy....except City Councilor Clint Oliver, with an egg on his face. And rather than celebrate the happy ending, he decided to throw a fit. After all, his rants about the free market and the city scaring away business were completely wrong. Turns out, you CAN follow the people's mandate AND bring in big business.
Even before the mayor finished speaking, City Councilman Clint Olivier, whose district includes the blighted stretch of Blackstone, tweeted: “Cheering smart & final going into existing building is laughable. There's still blight at Clinton and Blackstone. Still crime and filth.

 photo clinton5_zpsu01oo2vm.png

Of course that logically makes no sense. Had Smart and Final done what they originally wanted, there'd be a shiny new blighted parcel across the street from an old blighted parcel. One which might have vary well been vacant for a decade.

And everybody who lives in Fresno knows that building new while letting the old become abandoned and blighted is a recipe for disaster.

After all, that's 50 years of Blackstone Avenue in a nutshell.

Oh, and curious on what sent Clint off? It just so happens that today, Clint Oliver announced he would be running for CA31. I'm going to guess his little fit was because an entire campaign strategy had to be redone after the Mayor's announcement. It's hard to run on "good urban planning destroys business" when it all worked out in the end. Well, all except for the businesses which went under after Walmart came in.

Friday, May 29, 2015

A novelty for Clovis: new hotel to be built over parking

Fresno and Clovis are the land of surface parking, where commercial garages, both above and below ground, are rare. Indeed, the only non-surface parking structure I can think of in Clovis is the garage at the Clovis Community Hospital (not counting surface lots with solar panels above them).

So I raised my eyebrow at a proposal for a new hotel on Clovis Avenue, not far from Old Town. The empty lot where a new La Quinta Inn is proposed is quite narrow, so to fit the required parking, they're planning on building the hotel over it.

This type of building is common elsewhere, especially LA, but as far as I can tell, it the first such example in Clovis.

It will be nice to see the hotel built up 4 stories, right up to the avenue, and not set back with an acre of surface parking.

Further, as this is more expensive to build, it shows that Clovis might just be nearing that point where commercial developers can no longer to afford to waste so much space on surface parking. When land is plentiful, the developers don't care how much they use.

But maybe Old Town is finally growing up?

The hotel is planned for an empty lot, just south of where our dog goes to get his baths.

 photo quinta1_zpszt5rqvn7.png

As an aside, the above image shows an interesting Sim City approach to planning. Industrial is on the right, separated from a strip of commercial with a railroad (now trail) and an avenue. The commercial in turn, shields the residential on the west side. I don't know about you, but that's exactly how I'd start off all my new cities.

With parking below, the hotel comes quite close to Clovis Avenue.  The building will be 65 feet high, which should create a nice street wall. Oddly, the area has an obscenely low height limit of 35 feet. However, the height limit has been waived for multiple hotels in the past. 

 photo quinta2_zpseqqmvpvo.png

It will fill this view:

 photo quinta4_zpspcwyupqb.png

There will be a wee bit of surface parking at the back, by the dumpsters. What's interesting is that to meet the parking requirement (92 stalls for 79 rooms, seriously?) the hotel people have come to an agreement with the neighboring lot to the south to share spaces if needed.

 photo quinta3_zpswknazqmg.png

While usually a new cookie-cutter hotel isn't exciting, this one at least hints at a shift in the economic value of parking within central Clovis.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bus from Fresno to Yosemite starts this weekend! Adds exciting local options!

This weekend, public transit service begins for the first time connecting Fresno to Yosemite. Aside from serving a tourist purpose, the system also will operate as an important commuter and community connection. Thanks to the anonymous comment letting me know the schedule was up!

Stops will be at:
  • Fresno Greyhound
  • Fresno Amtrak
  • Fresno Airport
  • Fresno State
  • Outside Kaiser Permanente Hospital (near River Park)
  • Madera, Highway 145 Park and Ride
  • Coarsegold Market
  • Oakhurst Best Western
  • Tenaya Lodge
  • Wawona Hotel
  • Yosemite Valley (three stops)
 photo yarts5_zpstpb1baco.png
YARTS has developed an extensive long-distance bus network to serve Yosemite.

The first bus leaves the Fresno airport bright and early at 4am, with the next four trips starting at the Greyhound station at 7:52am, 9:10am, 12:10pm and 2:10pm. A final commuter run leaves Fresno at 5:45pm and goes only as far as Oakhurst.

The trip is scheduled at around 4 hours, from end to end. with the commuter portion (to Oakhurst) taking a little under two.

The return trips are reversed, with the first trip starting at Oakhurst (6:00am) arriving downtown before 8am, and the last bus leaving Yosemite at around 7pm.

Check it out for yourself here (PDF)

Overall, the schedule seems very well thought out, and fares are reasonable. Going from Fresno to Yosemite costs $30 for the round trip, and that includes park admission. To Coarsegold and Oakhurst, round trip service from Fresno is only $15. One child under 12 rides for free with an adult.

Further, here's something that could be exciting for Fresno residents:

The new YARTS service allows for improved local transit connections!

Service from the Madera Park and Ride to Fresno is listed as $6 round trip, and no pricing is listed for trips within Fresno. Presumably, that is not their market however....

Say you want to get from Fresno Amtrak, to Fresno Airport. With FAX, you'd have to take an 8 minute walk to the Courthouse Park, and then a 34 minute bus ride on Route 26. With wait times, you're looking at an hour!

If your times work out, with this new bus, you could do it in a flat 15 minutes! On weekends, the FAX bus only makes this trip 12 times a day (once an hour), so adding 5 new trip options is a big deal.

In fact, this would be the first addition of any public transit service in Fresno in over a decade.

On FAX, going from Fresno Amtrak to Fresno State requires that same 8 minute walk, and then a 36 minute bus ride! YARTS will do the trip in under 25 minutes, with no walking.

Finally, Google Maps shows that to get from the Airport to Fresno State via FAX it would take over 1 hour! And you'd have to sweat out the transfers, on a system that refuses to invest in technology that lets riders know when the next bus is coming.

 photo YARTS_zpsztmvfdl6.jpg 
The abysmal state of transit in Fresno

On YARTS, the very same trip will fly by in 15 minutes!

Here's the best park:

YARTS has taken the initiative to make sure they're listed as a Google Maps transit option as of this weekend.

So when you search the routes for today or tomorrow, you get the map above.

But let's set our plans for next week:
 photo yarts2_zpshz9wuoft.png!!!

Presumably, this option won't be well advertised, because they want riders going to Yosemite, but at least for the northbound trip, you could simply buy a ticket to Madera and get off early. It'll cost a little more than FAX, but with those time savings, it would absolutely be worth it.Southbound trips may be less reliable, because you'd be counting on a bus being on time after over 3 hours on the road.

It's just so exciting, here is another trip...

This week:
 photo yarts4_zpsqfwuuq6v.png

Next week:
 photo YARTS3_zpsjbjsej9s.png

Of course the bus will also provide an excellent lifeline to the foothill communities, and the early and evening rush hour trips show that as a goal. Further, monthly passes may be made available.

The bus also takes cash and credit card, making payment easier than on local buses.

It is unclear at this time if signage will be going up to advertise the bus stops, and if there is a park and ride arrangement with Kaiser to allow people to park there all day for free.

For now, the bus is scheduled to run daily from May 23 to September 27, and hopefully it proves a success and is extended, at least on weekends, into the fall.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Two new public electric vehicle charging stations open in Fresno

Two months ago, I decided to look back at the state of public electric charging infrastructure for electric cars in Fresno. Sadly, the situation was still very dire.

Fortunately, there has been some news on that front. Chargers have arrived at Fresno State and Downtown:

Fresno State is planning to give electric car drivers more options to "charge up" under plans announced Friday to build a six-stall charging station on campus.

University officials say the station located west of Save Mart Center will have two quick-charge pumps -- a car's battery could recharge in 20 to 30 minutes -- plus four more for longer charges. It's being paid for through a $397,000 grant from the California Energy Commission.

The university's station is scheduled to open in September 2015. Electric car drivers can currently power up at just a few public locations, including the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District office, Schneider Electric, and Lithia Nissan on Blackstone Avenue.
Fresno Bee

The chargers actually opened ahead of schedule, and can be used immediately.

The chargers are open to the public, but not free. Fresno State charges $3 per day to park there normally, unless you have a semester pass. During events at the Savemart Center, prices are a flat $10 or $15.

On top of that, the charger itself with cost you $1 an hour. 

Due to these costs, it will really only benefit students and staff who would park there anyway, or those who are attending an event. Further, the chargers are too isolated from Shaw Avenue business to be of any use to anyone not conducting business at the University.

A new location downtown does provide for more flexibility.
Four new recharging stations for electric vehicles were opened Wednesday in downtown Fresno by the Fresno Area Hispanic Foundation.

The foundation installed the charging stations at its Downtown Business Hub, 1444 Fulton St. The charging stations are the product of a partnership between the Hispanic Foundation, the San Joaquin Valley Electric Vehicle Partnership and NRG eVGo, through a grant of almost $20,000 from the California Energy Commission and other state agencies.
Fresno Bee
I could find no information on pricing or access. However, the lot is located at Fulton and Stanislaus, just north of the Fulton Mall. It is located across from the Cornerstone Church and from the new Lede apartment building under construction.

The lot itself is not gated, so it may be open 24/7, depending on their signage and towing policy. That would allow one to charge up while visiting an area store or restaurant.

It's good to finally see some options, but there's a long way to go.

Read more here:

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