Wednesday, August 31, 2011

When "improving" a road means destroying everything that makes it pleasant

In this post I will talk about a Fresno road project in which the importance of moving traffic trumps the aesthetic charm of a local road, to the point that a residential neighborhood is being leveled to let commuters speed by on two new lanes.

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Fresno is lacking when it comes to good looking roads. This isn't intended as a bash on Fresno, but just an observation that is painfully obvious to anyone who lives here or stops by to visit. Fact is, most of our main streets are exceptionally wide and bordered with parking lots and signs. It simply isn't attractive.

The sad part is, aesthetics of our main travel-ways is not set in stone, but a result of a series of policy choices. What is sadder is that instead of recognizing this failure in design, local government is pushing for streets that do not conform to ugly standards to be "improved" so that they too can be wide and depressing.

Fresno is set up in a grid pattern, with major roads usually spaced out .5 miles apart. In some parts of town, they're as much as a mile apart. With the exception of the older streetcar suburbs and downtown, it is impossible to make a thru trip using minor roads. These minor roads are designed for local traffic only, with curving detours, cul-de-sacs and other obstacles that funnel all traffic to the avenues.

So anyone who drives in Fresno is familiar with these main streets, as they are your only real choice when it coming to getting from here to there.

The problem is, because Fresno has decided to focus all traffic on these major streets, the only logical choice is to then widen these streets to handle all the traffic being forced onto them. And with that widening, comes the destruction of any sense of beauty.

So of course, drivers in Fresno spend most of their driving time in an atmosphere that isn't attractive, relaxing or pleasant in any way.

Here are some examples.

Blackstone Ave. The green pine tree median does not distract from the ugly signs, the asphalt and the wideness. 6 lanes + 2 unused parking lanes + turning lanes.
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Shaw. The grassy side does not hide the fact that behind it, is an enormous parking lot. Asphalt, signs and more asphalt.
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Cedar. Less wide (only two lanes each way) but again, bleak and depressing.
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Chestnut. Being residential does not make this street any more of a pleasure to drive.
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I think you get the point. These roads may be functional, but they're certainly not stimulating or attractive.

Fortunately, Fresno does have a few attractive roads, and they are found in the older parts of town. What makes these streets attractive is a combination of results that stem from the fact that they weren't designed to be enormously wide.

For example, being narrower means the amount of asphalt is not as overwhelming (in both visual and heat retaining senses). Being less wide also means that the trees are able to provide more of a canopy (yay shade), which is impossible when the right-of-way is a massive 120 feet wide (like blackstone). Finally, even when the properties are set back from the street, they are still closer than they would be on a newer road, which makes the corridor more enclosed.

Why "enclosed" at first may sound like a negative word (think of a cramped, claustrophobic hallway), humans are actually more comfortable in smaller spaces. Wide open plains historically provide for no protection from attacks, and it can be unsettling to walk across such wide expanses with nowhere to seek shelter. Think, for example, of a visit to the mall. The walk from the car to the mall entrance across the open and barren parking lot may feel exhausting, even though the walk inside the mall (with walls on both sides, and a roof) may be many times longer, but will feel more comfortable.

Here are some examples of older, more attractive streets in Fresno:

Huntington Blvd is known for the large houses and wide median. But because the road itself is narrow, the trees can provide a comfortable canopy. (Personally, id plant trees in the median as well)
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Fulton Street (seen before the recent road diet which added a bike lane)is a quick way from the 180 freeway to the downtown core. It moves traffic effectively without sacrificing the pleasantness offered by the narrower corridor
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Van Ness (also seen before road diet) is the northbound partner for Fulton. Again, traffic moves smoothly, but it's certainly not ugly.
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And finally, that leads me to the point of this entry.

Peach.

Peach Ave, shown in the thick red line in the middle, is one of those major streets I was talking about before. The street serves south Fresno and provides connections between the airport, 180, across Kings Canyon and eventually down to 99.

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A "improvement" project is in place to widen the road to allow for quicker commute times. Apparently it does not matter that as part of the grid system, suitable north-south routes are available .5 miles away (highlighted with thinner red lines). Peach must conform with the road system and have two lanes each way, with a center median.

"The project will construct the widening of Peach Avenue to a four-lane divided arterial with a landscaped median island from Belmont Avenue to Kings Canyon Road."


Here is the scope of the project, which will cost $25,080,000. I am not sure if this amount includes the cost of the 45 property acquisitions.
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And finally, here is the section I will be focusing on, which is truly the only section that can be called attractive.
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So why do I consider this section attractive? Because it is only two lanes wide. No, not two lanes each way, but a grand total of two lanes. On each side are residential homes and large trees which enclose the corridor.

There is a trail crossing which is manageable because trail users need only to cross two lanes.

One section even has a series of enormous palm trees, possibly marking the border of what was once an enormous ranch.


Narrow.
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Easy crossing
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Large palms
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Not the worst drive is it?
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Now, if you are reading this and thinking "that's not that attractive, I've seen better" I agree. In a world with billions of streets, you can certainly find a nicer one elsewhere.

But lets compare this very same road just above and beyond where these images were taken, in locations where the street has already been widened.

At the northern portion of the project, the road widens to what eventually will be the true girth of the avenue.

Isn't it fantastic?

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Let me bring the point home. This is the southern end of the narrow bit.
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And a 180 degree turn in the exact same spot yields...
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Amazing. See how a little widening can drastically change the feel of the road?

Unfortunately, it's not some kind of blog trick. Here is is again with the narrow and wide bits in view.
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Sort of depressing.

To be fair, the widening project includes a green median. So lets move a few yards further south to see what the future holds.

I can't wait.

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I hope I'm not the only one disappointed by this "improvement". I'm especially going to be sad to see the hundreds of mature trees be chopped down and replaced by little stickly things that will take 20 years to grow to wider stickly things. Median trees just don't grow like residential trees do.


Note: Sharp eyed readers may have noted that some of the homes in the screenshots above have boarded up windows. The city has purchased land from 45 properties, and will demolish the majority of them. Demolition has already begun on many. A classic way to liven up a neighborhood is apparently to evict everyone.

So homeowners be forewarned. If your residential street becomes a popular cut-through route, and you are in search of measures to calm the traffic (like a r traffic circle), be wary. Your city might take the Fresno approach and solve the problem by simply removing the residents. Mustn't let silly homes slow down the traffic.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

It is concert season in Fresno

I love concerts. Unfortunately, many of the big (and middle sized) names don't stop in Fresno. But those that do, usually stop by in the Fall. At least, that's what I've noticed. We get a sprinkling of concerts from January to August, and then it pours for the rest of the year. Of course, the Fresno fair helps in that regard.

Here are some of the big (and middle sized) names of note coming to the Fresno area.

This list is not all inclusive, just the names I would enjoy. I will update the list as needed.

Updated: November 21

August 27..........Y & T at Tower Theater
September 8.......Molotov at Rainbow Ballroom
September 9.......OneRepublic at Madera Fair
September 10-11 Wet Electric: Lil Jon, Richard Vission, Marcus Schossow, EC Twins, DJ Vice, DJ Bl3nd, Liquid Stranger and more at Island Waterpark
September 10......Tito el Bambino at Rainbow Ballroom Delayed or cancelled?

September 13......Tears for Fears at Table Mountain
September 16.......Gloria Gaynor at Woodward Park
September 17 ......Cheap Trick + Everclear + Tesla + Candlebox (Blazefest) at the Regional Sports Complex

September 27......Santana at Bakersfield Robobank Arena
September 30......FUSE Fest Multiple Venues in downtown Fresno
September 30......FUSE Fest Multiple Venues in downtown Fresno
October 3.........DJ Tiesto at Selland Arena
October 5.........ZZ Top at Fresno Fair
October 7.........Sick Puppies at Fresno Fair
October 7.........Smash Mouth at Chukchansi Casino
October 12........Journey at Savemart Center
October 13........Billy Idol at Fresno Fair
October 14........Incubus at SaveMart center
October 14........Uncle Kracker at Fresno Fair
October 15........Godmsack at Fresno Fair
October 22........Rocktober: Lit and others at Woodward Park
October 25........Judas Priest at Bakersfield Robobank Arena
October 28........Ladies Night Out 2: Bell Biv DeVoe, Color Me Badd and H-Town at Savemart center

December 3........Steve Aoki at Rainbow Ballroom
December 8........Salvador Santana at Fulton 55 $10-$12
December 10.......Rise Against, A Day to Remember, Awolnation at Selland Arena
December 23.......Wiz Khalifa, Common and Aesop Rock at SaveMart Center $45
February 7........Attack Attack at Rainbow Ballroom $20





Also of note:
Check the full Fresno Fair lineup here:
http://www.fresnofair.com/concert-series-paul-paul

Sacramento will be a stop for the Rockstar Uproar Festival on October 13.
Bands include Avenged Sevenfold, Three Days Grace, Seether, Sevendust and others
http://rockstaruproar.com/bands/

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

River Park retail expansion should focus on using surface lots, not garage

Expansion of retail at River Park shopping center should focus on developing the open surface parking lot, and not using up the first floor of one of the only structured garages in Fresno (outside of downtown).

Last week, the Fresno Bee casually mentioned that the owners of River Park are looking to expand their shopping mecca by adding new retail space.

A plan also is under consideration to add space for more stores. Part of the parking garage's first floor may be converted to store space, she said. That idea is in its early stages and Kashian did not say how many spaces it would create or when it might happen.

Much can be said about the economic reasoning (lack of?) behind adding retail space in the Fresno market, which is flooded with empty locations searching for tenants. Some locations have been empty for years, including many that were built and never occupied.

I will not focus on that aspect because I believe if there is one place in Fresno where retail can expand, it is River Park. River Park has an extremely strong local brand strength and has weathered the last recessions extremely well. While many stores did close, they were quickly replaced with new tenants.


First, for my out-of-town readers, an introduction to River Park.

River Park is a shopping area located in the NE corner of Fresno, the most affluent part of the city.

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While River Park itself is a registered brand name referring to a specific set of stores, many people use the name to refer to the entire strip of stores along Blackstone, between Nees and Herndon.

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This area includes every chain store imaginable. Curious if Five Guys is better than In'n'out? Try them both. Not sure if Sam's Club has a better selection than Costco? Both there. Does the Borders going out of business sale have better prices than Barnes and Nobles? You can check, they're right across the street from each other. And finally, is Sports Authority better than the Sports Authority? That's no typo, the chain operates TWO identical stores, directly across the street from each other. Why? Why not, it's River Park. If you want real sports competition, there's always REI, also at River Park.

I think you've gotten the point. From big box stores like Best Buy and Target to mall standards such as Victoria's Secret, Macy's and Ann Taylor and food chains from Macaroni Grill to Chick-fill-a back to PF Chnags, River Park is the whos-who of mega-chains.

And no, don't ask how many Starbucks there are. Nobody's been able to count them all without losing track.

So where was I? Ah yes, so that's the entire shopping district, but as I mentioned before, the people who own the brand name operate a smaller subsection of the strip.

This area here is the REAL River Park, with each color having a slightly different name, for whatever corporate reason (they are known as RP Plaza, Shops at RP, RP Marketplace).

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In the middle section, in yellow, is the parking structure, which is the focus of this post. It is a very basic two story structure, and while the roof is never full, the first floor (shade!) fills up.


We zoom in one last time to the “Shops at River Park” where the proposed retail expansion is tot ake place.

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The main anchor on the right is a 21 screen multiplex (the Imax is hidden in the middle of shops to the left of it). The parking garage, a massive two floors (ground and roof) is up north.

Directly in front of the movie theater is a pleasant pedestrian area, with various restaurants, shade and places to sit. This area is somewhat recent, and has become the center of River Park.

Looking again at the above image, you'll notice I used a green line to indicate active storefronts. I’ve used a green dotted line to indicate dead areas, where stores are located but we get to enjoy their unfortunate behind. The movie theater, by nature, is 99% giant dead wall.

The yellow line is where I assume the proposed new stores would have their entrances located. This would serve to activate a new corridor, which is currently only used by drivers looking to park.

This is the first reason why I think building stores there is a mistake. As you notice from the map, there are no stores facing the garage, just their rear service entries. So any new retail in this small corridor will have the unfortunate reality of being a one-sided street. Naturally, all the stores were built to face the pedestrian plaza in front of the theater complex and the small street that offers very limited parallel parking.

Fortunately, there is a better choice for expansion that does not involve using the garage.

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In red is an existing surface parking lot, south of the shops. This area is actually faced by various stores, so it will be easy to turn the area into a series of pleasant corridors, because unlike the garage street, there are not many service doors.

Here I’ve added retail (about the same amount as would be possible in the garage) but the open plan also makes it easy to segment the new area more accessible blocks. What this does is allow River Park to feel more like a small town, with various streets in a more grid-like pattern.

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White = commercial area.
Yellowish color = pedestrian flow, including an extension of the pedestrian street
Grey = Convenient store-front parking (angled)

This way, all the corridors have the front of retail on both sides of the street, making it more attractive for shoppers. The service doors and such can face the road to the south, which currently is bordered by two parking lots anyway.

Another great advantage of building here is improving the connection between the mall-style stores and the big-box stores like Target (giant white store in far right of image), By creating actual streets, people will be more inclined to walk between one section of stores and the other, instead of making the awkward 2 minute drive.

Not only will bringing the two areas close together create more shopping opportunities (hey look, its x store!) but it serves to lessen the traffic in the parking lot, and also demand for parking lot spots.

Under the current system, a single shopper may need two spots, one at Target and one at Panera. Maybe even a third, at the bank. If the walk is made comfortable, people will park once and do all their shopping, like at Fashion Fair. The walk is really short, but the current design makes it seem endless, because walking across a boiling asphalt desert is remarkably unpleasant. Also, as parking lots lack sidewalks, walking is less comfortable because you must always be looking out for reversing vehicles and such.

By building on a surface lot, instead of converting the garage, we also get many more benefits, besides lessening the traffic.

Garages are more comfortable places to park, due to the shade. When temperatures hit 110, parking a car in the sun is an incredibly uncomfortable experience. Further, surface lots are not only ugly, but wasteful and detrimental to the environment. The asphalt absorbs all the heat, making a hot day even hotter. It also prevents rain from entering the ground. Concentrating all the parking in a single garage is both better for the shopper and for the environment.

So my proposal is to do the expansion in steps:
1) Expand the garage. Add another floor or two, which should cover River Park’s parking needs for the rest of eternity.
2) Once garage is finished, then build new retail in existing surface lots. The lost parking spaces have now been rebuilt in a covered garage. Angled parking on the new streets gives the impression that parking isn't miles away (it's not)
3) If the garage is build large enough, it is easy to convert the other surface lots in the future to retail, as demand warrants. Perhaps in the very distant future, we might even see shops facing Blackstone, instead of parking.

I think my proposal is better for both the shoppers and the stores. We get a more comfortable shopping experience, and the stores get more foot traffic.

So please, River Park planners, keep the garage, but ditch the surface lots. Turn your flat strip of stores into a "3D" shopping space. It's good for us, and it will be good for your business.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A month ago I posted about seeing brand new bike lanes being painted on Kings Canyon Rd and Ventura Ave in Fresno. I later went out there to confirm that they do in fact extend from just west of Clovis Avenue to the railroad crossing that marks the entrance to downtown.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find anything on the city website showing recently painted lanes, or a planned schedule of lanes, so I don't know if there have been any other streets that saw new lanes.

If you see any new bike lanes in Fresno, please mention them here!


We start in Clovis, who has decided that King's Canyon must be extraordinarily wide. Why? No clue. Waste of money really.

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We cross into Fresno, on Clovis Ave

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Just past the intersection, the new bike lanes start
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The continue on as the street turns into Ventura. Even though the road is wide enough for parking + lanes, parking has been disallowed in this area

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Further down, parking is allowed

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Parking continues until the downtown section begins.

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Monday, August 8, 2011

Living Green Lecture - Part 2

Here is part two of the Creative Fresno Living Urban lecture.

A Q&A session was held with the city sustainability person, and during it, the following was mentioned:

-Evaporative cooling is more efficient that A/C, but fell out of favor in the 70s.

-In the past few decades, Fresno has grown 8x…but the land area consumed has grown by 12x.

-A pool pump, set incorrectly, can add 50% to a home electricity bill.


After the brief session, the president of Granville homes spoke. While Granville is known for their suburban detached homes, an arm of the company called GV Urban is responsible for many of the new residential developments downtown. Without them, downtown Fresno would be as stagnant as ever.

He started on a grander scale by noting that as a business man and resident, he wants to see more government investment in water storage and solar technology, because it will help make living in Fresno more sustainable.

He then moved on specifically to downtown Fresno, and noted that land is not priced correctly. That is, it is not priced at demand levels but at speculation levels. Downtown is full of empty lots, but they are very expensive to purchase.

The reasoning:

1) The city and county paid high prices for the land they purchased to build things like the courthouses and such. This set a standard
2) The owners of the other lots expect to sell their lot at this inflated price
3) There is no incentive to not sell an unproductive piece of land. Because property taxes were kept frozen, it is not costing these owners much to look over a barren piece of dirt. They have every incentive to hold onto it and hope that one day, someone will pay the inflated amount.

This led to his next point that was very surprising for a housing developer to say:

Higher taxes are needed to spur development!

Besides causing the property owners to incur costs, that would prompt them to sell to someone looking to develop, the speaker noted that when invested properly, the additional tax revenue can really make downtown look more attractive. More street lights, more landscaping etc will draw residents downtown.

Another thing he moved onto is that there is too much street space downtown. He noted that there is very little traffic (note my pictures from a few days ago) so the street space isn’t being used. But all the asphalt stores heat, creating an island effect that makes downtown Fresno uncomfortably hot. He was proud to note that the Iron Bird development eliminated a small street and expanded the sidewalk (concrete reflects heat).

He then turned from talking about the success of Iron Bird, to some of the difficulties. He mentioned that currently, 12 of the 80 units are vacant, and this creates a whole new set of challenges.

As developers only have a certain amount of money available, the easy choice is to develop a suburban project that they know will sell, instead of risking it on an urban one. Even if their urban development is profitable, there is an opportunity cost, because it is likely that their suburban development could be even more profitable.

While GV has been a pioneer in urban development, and taking a giant risk, he was frank about the fact that if the market doesn’t respond quickly, their experiment will have to end. They currently have two other projects in the works, each with very different market focuses, but if the community doesn’t come together to support them, then they will have no choice but to move away from downtown, and no other developer will come in.

There will be a part three!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Backup your hard drive. No really.

It's advice everyone has heard, and most people do...sometimes. Keeping a safe backup of all your important files in an external hard drive.

I do it about once a month. My pictures, mostly, as that's what I most care about. TV shows, music and such? Maybe every six months. Documents? Not as often as I should.

Well, I had a small scare last week, and I almost lost 5 weeks worth of stuff because I had gotten lazy with my monthly backups. They shouldn't even be monthly, it should be more often than that.

Basically, I turned off my computer one night, and everything was well. Windows said it had to install a couple of updates, routine stuff.

Next morning, I turned on my PC, and Firefox was acting like it was brand new. My homepage was the default "thanks for downloading!" page. My history and bookmarks were all gone. I wasn't worried, Firefox does screw up sometimes, but it keeps automatic backups.

So I opened my secondary browser, Chrome, to do a google search on how to retore my Firefox stuff (I didnt want to use firefox to avoid overwriting the automatic backup). Well, Chrome was acting like it was brand new as well. Now I was slightly worried.

I eventually found where Firefox keeps the backup, so I opened up Documents....

And the folder was empty.

Music? Empty.
Video? Empty.
Pictures? Oh God, empty.

So now I was worried.

Extremely worried. Luckily, before panicking, I realized that my HDD was still safe. After all, if Firefox and Chrome were installed and working, clearly it hadn't been a total failure. I quickly opened up the "My Computer" screen...and my HDD was reporting that it was just as full (65%) as I had left it the night before.

So my documents were safe! Hopefully.

Turns out, my user name was corrupted, and the front end (software, quick links) weren't communicating with the back end (the actual files on the HDD). They were all there, and still worked fine, but the software couldn't find it. I just had to navigate to them the long way.

Don't ask me why.

Turns out, it wasn't a hard fix. Annoying, yes, but not hard. I had to create two new user accounts, the one I'd want to use, and a middleman. I then had to log into the middleman, find the files the long way (C>Users>James>Documents vs just James>Documents) and simply transfer them to the new account.

Took a few hours (I dont know why, as the files didnt move anywhere) but they're all safe. And all my firefox history, bookmarks, passwords etc were working again.

And of course, I did a full backup to an external drive. TV shows and all.

So please, dear readers, do not neglect those important backups. It may seem unimportant now, but by the time you realize you REALLY should have been doing it, it may have been too late.

I got lucky (as lucky as wasting a few hours is). That may not always be the case.

Also, I'm back in Fresno, from Boston.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Technical difficulties

As is obvious, Ive gone from posting 2-3 times a week to none at all. The reason is twofold. I've taken a last-minute trip for a week to Boston (where I am now) and my laptop has been having technical issues.

So I've had very little computer time...and the computer time I've had has been spent trying to fix this problem. All seems to be good now, so I should be back to posting soon. I plan on getting the second part of the presentation comments in tonight, then more at the end of the week if possible.