Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Visalia votes for sprawl

The Fresno Bee reports that the Visalia City Council voted to move forward with an update to their growth plan. The update will divert focus from their downtown to new commercial strips on what is currently agricultural land.

I thought this quote was particularly amusing

"Take a cue from some of the mistakes Fresno made related to Blackstone," he said. "Once you open the barn door, all of the cattle leave and you can't get them in the barn again." 

Developers want the city to approve growth in the area because it puts them near 99.  The problem is, it's not near anything else, except prime farmland of course

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One of the council members who voted yes, was offended that another on the board called out the move that was blatantly crafted to help developers claim even more land
Shuklian and Council Member Bob Link said Collins sent council members a blunt letter Tuesday that they were letting development interests win the day.
"It was a little offensive," Shuklian said.
- See more at: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/26/3189731/visalia-city-council-votes-to.html#sthash.jK6dwcZ0.dpuf

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/26/3189731/visalia-city-council-votes-to.html#storylink=cpy
"Take a cue from some of the mistakes Fresno made related to Blackstone," he said. "Once you open the barn door, all of the cattle leave and you can't get them in the barn again." - See more at: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/26/3189731/visalia-city-council-votes-to.html#sthash.jK6dwcZ0.dpuf

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/26/3189731/visalia-city-council-votes-to.html#storylink=cpy

Shuklian and Council Member Bob Link said Collins sent council members a blunt letter Tuesday that they were letting development interests win the day. "It was a little offensive," Shuklian said.

The vote was just to begin the EIR, although we all know it will find no fault with the plan to build strip malls along the highway. So while construction is not slated to begin this, nor next year, it likely will in 2015. In the meantime, feel free to take the advice on visiting Blackstone to get a preview of what's in store. 

Just make sure you take that visit with a lump of irony. The person who made that statement and said "said the city is abandoning guidelines that made Visalia a desirable community with its thriving downtown and commercial strip on Mooney Boulevard" is actually a developer, who built this:

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He's not concerned about sprawl, or downtown, hes concerned about competition. I would trust he's quite the expert on Blackstone, as his recent big box development looks to be almost identical to what you'd find north of Herndon.

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If this story sounds familiar, it's because the same battle is playing out in Fresno. Someone wants to build a large strip mall on Herndon and 99 (El Paseo). Meanwhile, the developers of River Park are suing. They claims they're concerned about congestion and sprawl - rubbish,  they just want to delay their competition.

said the city is abandoning guidelines that made Visalia a desirable community with its thriving downtown and commercial strip on Mooney Boulevard. - See more at: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/26/3189731/visalia-city-council-votes-to.html#sthash.jK6dwcZ0.dpuf

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/26/3189731/visalia-city-council-votes-to.html#storylink=cpy
"Take a cue from some of the mistakes Fresno made related to Blackstone," he said. "Once you open the barn door, all of the cattle leave and you can't get them in the barn again." - See more at: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/26/3189731/visalia-city-council-votes-to.html#sthash.jK6dwcZ0.dpuf

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/26/3189731/visalia-city-council-votes-to.html#storylink=cpy
"Take a cue from some of the mistakes Fresno made related to Blackstone," he said. "Once you open the barn door, all of the cattle leave and you can't get them in the barn again." - See more at: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/26/3189731/visalia-city-council-votes-to.html#sthash.jK6dwcZ0.dpuf

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/26/3189731/visalia-city-council-votes-to.html#storylink=cpy

Monday, February 25, 2013

Google bets on suburbs for new campus

Late last week, Google hit the media circuit to preview their brand new mega-campus. 

Google Inc. is preparing to break ground on a 42-acre campus called Bayview that promises to elevate the pampering of its hard-driving, type-A workers to a whole new level.

This marks the first time Google has had the opportunity to build its own campus from scratch rather than hollowing out the shells of buildings once occupied by a tech giant of another era, Silicon Graphics. The new campus is on the grounds of NASA's Ames Research Center, which is next to the Googleplex.
LA Times
 

Like Apple (building a massive "moon-base"), Google has decided that their new campus will be just as suburban as their existing "Googleplex".

It's an interesting decision because it directly conflicts with two of their stated goal; having a green campus, and encouraging "collisions". 

Compare the Google plan with that of campus being built by Zappos.com. Zappos is moving all their employees into renovated buildings in Downtown Las Vegas (no, not the strip, the REAL downtown).

Both technology companies place a high premium on workers interaction. You see, even the world's biggest internet companies has no interest in having employees telecommute because it robs them of critical face-to-face time you'd find around the office - or around a city. That is, the telecommuting future, which has been just around the corner since the 1980's will never actually arrive.
Radcliff said that the bent rectangles seen in the the render encourage a "casual collision of the work force," which would help "create opportunities for people to have ideas and be able to turn to others right there and say, ‘What do you think of this?'"
The Verge

I found the use of the word collision interesting, as apparently its the big buzz phrase in the industry. Compare with Zappos which elaborates on the very same concept:

His message was simple but packed full of inspiration: transform downtown Las Vegas into the “most community-focused large city in the world.” Tony highlighted the current efforts to bring technology, education, and small business development together in a way that creates “collisions, community and co-learning.”
Zappos Blog
Zappos also uses a different phrase to mean the same thing

And if they could live nearby, why not create an urban community aligned with the culture of Zappos, which encourages the kind of “serendipitous interactions” that happen in offices without walls?
NY Times
There's one big difference though. By isolating their campus in the suburbs, those collisions at Google will really only happen among fellow employees. That may not be the best idea, as innovation grows by combining new ideas and points of view. It's one of the reasons after all, that all these technology companies locate close to one another in the Bay Area, instead of spreading out to locations with cheaper rents, shorter commutes, and perhaps just as many amenities (say Boston, or Philadelphia). The exchange of ideas that happen in hallways, on the sidewalk, and in local bars actually benefits all the companies.

Google apparently is content to limit those collisions to peers. Zappos sees it differently:
“We wanted the new campus to benefit from interaction with downtown, and downtown to benefit from interaction with Zappos.” The only hitch was that it would require transforming the derelict core of a major city.
 You see Zappos has decided to build their major campus in the very center of Las Vegas. Their employees won't just be meeting in stairwells and open floor plans, but also on the street, and in the neighborhood. In fact, Zappos will require their employees to go outside
"We're doing a lot of creative things to move employees between the floors," said Patrick Olson, campus development manager for Zappos.  They're even going as far as closing off the sky bridge entrance from the parking garage, so all employees enter through the same area.
KTNV

Google is not alone in sticking to the suburbs. Facebook is also experiencing a massive campus expansion, after they relocated to an area isolated from civilization by a freeway.

Facebook realized that their high-value employees don't exactly want to be stuck in an office building all day, with the corporate cafeteria as their only option. Because they bet big on their location, they're now trying to retrofit it with a fake town.

Now the ambitious young entrepreneur is building another kind of community, this one out of bricks and mortar. Construction is booming along a bustling stretch that cuts through the center of Facebook Inc.'s campus in Silicon Valley, where staffers stroll or ride bikes and RipStiks between buildings.

Here the social networking giant is designing its own Main Street, putting in storefronts that will cater only to Facebook employees, whether they're in the mood for a straight-razor shave or nigiri rolls. Call it Zucker Burg.

Unlike the days of Henry Ford and George Pullman, when industrialists built towns surrounding manufacturing operations, Facebook is bringing shops onto its sprawling private campus on the outskirts of Menlo Park where there are few commercial establishments other than fast-food joints.
LA Times blog
It sounds like Facebook moved into their big new suburban campus and then realized they'd made a mistake. It was impossible to walk anywhere, and the closest food options were low-value fast food outlets that required a car to access. With competition for labor so high in the industry, it's imperative that they keep their employees happy.

It will be interesting to see if Google has to resort to the same concept, building a fake town, to please their engineers that may get tired of the same isolated community day in and day out. While Google has many cafe concepts and the like, you can't beat (or emulate) the unique tastes of a hole-in-the-wall downtown that's been family run for decades.

Zappos of course, doesn't have to build a fake town. They also don't have to worry about their employees not being able to bounce of ideas with the public. In referring to a company owned bar,

"There will be a clean separation, but yeah we encourage our employees to go grab a drink after work, just right around the corner in the same complex," Olson said.  The speakeasy-style lounge will be open to the public as well.

There's another big difference between the approach Google is taking with that of Zappos.

Like all hip companies, Google is proud to talk about how green their new buildings will be.  Green roofs, hidden parking, natural lighting, LEED certification etc...

But at the end of the day, it's all brand new construction. Meanwhile, in Vegas, all the buildings were abandoned and will be reused - the 40 year old empty City Hall, the 60 year old library, and the abandoned city jail. Generally, one finds that reusing what already exists is greener than building from scratch and slapping on a LEED placard.

Of course, another big environmental consideration is transportation.

Silicon Valley is infamous for its gridlock and auto dependency. In fact, the transit options are so poor that the major tech companies run very large shuttle bus systems to transport their car-free employees from downtown San Francisco to the suburbs.

You can find a useful map here.

One of the perks of locating downtown, even in sprawled out Vegas, is that a wealth of transportation options are available.

The Zappos campus will have plenty of bike parking and is adjacent to the terminals of the various Vegas BRT lines.  It's also close to the former Amtrak station, which may be re-purposed for HSR to Los Angeles. I don't know how many employees at Google bike to work, but the way the roads are designed around their headquarters, I'd wager not to many. At least Vegas has a grid, which gives bike commuters options.


Finally, there's the social-good aspect. Zappos is using their project as a way to take a blighted downtown, and reinvent it. It sounds like it's working.


Most tourists never see downtown Las Vegas. There are a few blocks of mostly run-down casinos, cavernous gift stores and the enormous, glittering LED display overhead called, with hopefulness, the Fremont Street Experience. Less than two miles to the north, there’s the so-called homeless corridor, a patchwork of soup kitchens and air-conditioned shelters that protect the area’s thousands of homeless from life-threatening 115-degree afternoons during the summer. And this is within a greater metro area that has dominated the nation’s unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy lists for much of the last four years. Everyone knows at least one person who has left town for Houston, Dallas or Atlanta. 

Nevertheless, the Downtown Project is hoping to draw 10,000 “upwardly mobile, innovative professionals” to the area in the next five years. And according to Hsieh, he and his team receive requests for seed money from dozens of people every week. In return, the Downtown Project asks not just for a stake in the companies but also for these entrepreneurs to live and work in downtown Las Vegas. (They’re also expected to give back to the community and hand over contacts for future recruits.) In expectation of all these newcomers, the project has already set up at least 30 real estate companies, bought more than 15 buildings and broken ground on 16 construction projects.
NY Times
Mountain View, of course, isn't exactly hard up for cash. Obviously, it doesn't make sense for big companies to pick up, move to a blighted center, rejuvenate it, and then rinse and repeat, but it's nice to see one company using the opportunity (needing more space) for social good. Am I saying that Google should have moved to downtown Stockton? No, but one can imagine the amazing transformation that would happen in a blink of the eye if that had been the case. Even the nearby center of San Jose, with the light rail, the caltrain station and the tight grid can use investment.


I don't think Facebook, Google or Zappos will live or die based on the choices made on locating their campus, but it will be interesting to see if different choices are made in five years. Today, it's just a little disappointing to see Google doubling down on Mountain View instead of moving to downtown San Jose or San Francisco.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Comment on newest GV Urban proposal

GV Urban is the subsidiary of Granville Homes which has brought us the only residential development downtown has seen in decades. You know them from the Iron Bird Lofts, Fulton Village, Van Ness Cottages and a few others.


This past week they announced their newest project, which involves the Met block.

The site is home to the former museum, an abandoned commercial building (which GV owns and plans on restoring), a public park, and empty space in what used to be two buildings - the city knocked those down for free.

The block now

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The block previously

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GV plans to keep the Met and the other existing building, and erect residential structures around them. The public park would be taken away and replaced by a private green accessible only to residents.

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As great as it is to see further residential development downtown, the project is far from inspired. The actual buildings would be the very same ones erected twice now on Fulton, but with a new facade - one which comes off as tacky in the rendering. The height wouldn't match the Met, and the circulation plan includes two driveways on Calaveras. The sidewalk looks small and offers no interaction but a dead wall.

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As per all their other projects, all the parking would be on the ground level and in a central surface lot - no underground or structured parking. In fact by area, the majority of the site would be devoted to parking.


I'll be doing a deeper analysis into the problem of the site plan, but for now, I recommend leaving them a comment, either through their Facebook page or their website.

Tell them you welcome their development, but that Fresno deserves something we can be proud of for fifty years. Such a prime block should see excellent architecture, fantastic pedestrian accommodations and welcoming public amenities. 

Opposing the current plan doesn't mean opposing development, it means striving for something better. We shouldn't settle for something sub-par because of the fear that any objection will lead to GV abandoning downtown.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

If light rail was built like roller coasters....

Fresno may not have a light rail line, or any plans for one, but I do like to follow the progress of construction on transit lines in other cities. In the past, I kept up with the development of the Expo Light Rail line in Los Angeles. Phase 1 opened last summer, and Phase 2 is is now well under cosntruction.


Phase 2 to Santa Monica now has almost-completed bridges, well graded sections of dirt, and even the first foray of construction deep into downtown Santa Monica. But even though the first track is scheduled to be dropped off this summer, the line isn't going to open to passengers until 2016, if all goes well.....and these things never go well.

I've also been anxiously awaiting the new Green Line extension in Boston. In the works for well over a decade now, the MBTA still hasn't actually managed to move a single shovel, and that line won't be open until 2017, at best.

Meanwhile, I've also been following construction of the newest coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain, called Full Throttle. Weekly updates are being provided by The Coaster Guy.

While Expo Phase 2 broke ground about a year ago, Six Flags didn't begin their work until about last August. The coaster was announced over the summer, and was probably in the works internally for maybe a year before that.

Right now, their progress looks like this:

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(photos with permission from The Coaster Guy, see full set taken yesterday here)


Even though no vertical construction has begun, and they haven't even started work on the station, four months from now, the worlds tallest loop will be in place, and the ride will be running. Four months, by the way, is about as long as Expo phase 1 spent in the "pre-revenue testing" phase, where trains would run back and forth without passengers over a fully completed rail line. Six Flags will run about a week of tests, before beginning revenue service - and after about a decade, I'd wager the safety record of Full Throttle will be superior to that of the Expo line.

Naturally, coasters and light rail lines are very different.

Like the Expo line, the new coaster is a train, running on a fixed track. Unlike the Expo line, coasters run at speeds over 70mph, and see headways of 90 seconds or less - the Expo line moves along at 40mph and at best dispatches a train every 6 minutes.


Now obviously, most of this is in jest, but wouldn't it be nice if our transit rail systems were built like coasters? The reason coaster construction is so fast is because once the concrete foundations are in place, the track is essentially snapped together like legos. You can see the giant pieces of metal waiting to be assembled. I wonder if this kind of modular construction could be implemented in parts in the transit world? These rides are designed for the long-haul, 40+ years, just like transit systems.

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But more importantly, wouldn't it be nice if the safety rules are reformed?  Expo had to "test" for three months prior to opening, and the FRA requires a lengthy testing timeline for each individual vehicle, if those are bought new (LA used existing trails). It sort of seems like overkill, doesn't it, especially when you compare to an extreme coaster operated by 18 year old part-time workers that can start and complete all testing in about a week, and then run without incidence.

One (less extreme) roller coaster has been running safely since 1902 - or about as long as the MBTA rail system.  Maybe it's time we let Premire or Bollinger bid for transit projects.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Clovis repeals bike licensing, registration requirement

Last May, Clovis launched a new voluntary bicycle registration system with the police department. That system allows residents the chance to register their serial number with the department to try and make theft recovery easier, should it happen. As I mentioned in that article, the new program conflicted with an existing law.

That law, in place since 1975, stated that in Clovis, one is required to register their bike, receive a license.....and display a license plate. The law also included rules on transfer of ownership, and fines. Such a ridiculous law has not been enforced in years, if ever. However, now the council finally took up the motion to repeal that entire section of the code as to not conflict with the new voluntary system.

This is a good thing. Even if the laws were never enforced, having bogus laws on the books can lead to police abuse. Imagine if you're riding a bike, but breaking no law. If unenforced laws that no one knows about are still valid, an officer could stop you and cite you just because he doesn't like your face.

The details of the old law are pretty amusing, in how absurd it is. Frankly, it seems like they took the automobile section of the law, and simply pasted in the word bicycle. Fortunately, the fees and such were "reasonable".

Here are some extracts of the section which has been repealed, and some simple reasons why they made no sense.
It shall be unlawful for any person to operate or use a bicycle propelled wholly or in part by muscular power upon any of the streets, alleys, or public highways of the City without first obtaining from the Police Department a license therefor.
Naturally this section doesn't work out so well because Clovis is not an island. Once cannot simply ban all bicycle traffic from Fresno, for example. 
......Such licenses, when issued, shall entitle the licensee to operate such bicycle for which such license has been issued upon all the streets, alleys, and public highways, exclusive of sidewalks, of the City.
The City shall provide license plates and seals, together with registration cards, as designated and furnished by the Director of the Department of Motor Vehicles of the State. The registration cards shall be numbered in chronological order as issued, with the registration number of the license plates shown thereon. It shall be the duty of the Police Department to attach such license plate to the frame of the bicycle to, which issued. Such license plate shall remain attached during the existence of such license. The Police Department shall also keep a record of the date of issuance of each license, to whom the license was issued, and the number thereof.  

Clearly the people who wrote the law (and voted to implement it!) had never actually seen a bicycle. Would the license plate have been 2 or so inches wide? Placing such an object on a bike, which wasn't designed to hold one is not just a hassle, it's useless. Occasionally someone who isn't thinking will ask why bikes aren't required to have license plates, as they could help in identifying lawbreakers. They don't stop to think that car plates are hard enough to read, a 2 inch one would be impossible.

That doesn't even get into the massive bureaucracy of such a program, if it were actually enforced.

This next part is also ridiculous

All persons engaged in the business of selling new or secondhand bicycles are hereby required, within ten (10) days after each sale, to report such sale to the Police Department. Such reports shall set forth a list of all sales made by such dealers, which list shall include the name and address of each person to whom sold, the kind of bicycle sold, a description and the frame number thereof, and the number of the license plate attached thereto, if any.

It shall be the duty of every person who sells or transfers ownership of any bicycle to report such sale or transfer by returning to the Police Department the registration card.......

So essentially, selling a bike had more registration requirements than selling a gun!

As I mentioned previously, the fees weren't exactly a burden...

The license fee to be paid for each bicycle shall be One and no/100ths ($1.00)    Dollar for each year, or portion thereof, from the date of issuance to the expiration date of the license and shall be paid in advance. Pursuant to the provisions of Section 4.1.06 of this chapter, such license may be transferred, and a fee in the amount of twenty-five (25) cents shall be paid for the registration of such transfer
But really, march on down to the police office to hand over 25 cents and fill out a form explaining the transfer of bike ownership?

Somehow, the people writing the law thought that not only would these fees cover the cost of the bureaucracy....but enough would be left over to build new bike trails!
Revenues from license fees collected pursuant to the provisions of this chapter shall be used to pay expenses incurred in support of the provisions of this chapter, to reimburse retailers for services rendered, to improve bicycle safety programs, and to establish bicycle facilities, including bicycle paths and lanes, within the City.
The fine for not following the law was to be an onerous $5, which could pretty much be applicable to 95% of households in Clovis. Even if you don't ride a bike, almost everyone has one (or five) in their garage.

However, this part here does go back to where I talk about how having something like this in the books could lead to abuse
In addition to the penalties provided by Title 1 of this Code for violations of the provisions of this Code, the Police Department, or any of the members thereof, may impound and retain possession of any bicycle operated in violation of any of the provisions of this chapter and may retain possession of such bicycle until the license provided for by this chapter is obtained by the owner of such bicycle.
That is, if they didn't like your face, the cops could say "no license plate, no bike" and leave you stranded. Did it ever happen? Probably not. But why leave it to chance?

Fortunately, no objection was raised by the city council last week, and the section of the code has been removed.

Below the jump, the full section of the municipal code, as it will probably disappear from the Internets soon.  You can find it yourself here, section 4.1


Monday, February 11, 2013

Should parking hold up trail development?

This Sunday, the Fresno Bee ran an excellent spread on the plans for the extension of the Eaton Trail in North Fresno. The article was somewhat familiar...about two years ago, I reported on the very same trail having not progressed even though planning had been ongoing for a decade. Even though two years have passed, nothing has happened.

Normally, you'd think the reason for the delays would be money. Not in this case. $30 million is sitting in the bank, waiting to be spent on river improvements, including the trail, bathrooms and canoe launches. If you want to know what the existing trail to the north looks like, I have a few photos here.

So whats the holdup? It's Fresno, so naturally....parking. In a city that is overrun with parking lots of all shapes and all sizes, the Bee is stating that what is stopping construction on a walking, cycling and equestrian trail is insufficient parking.

Because naturally, one can only arrive at a walking and biking trail that would be connected to an already existing popular trail in a car. Bike to the bike trail? Please. This is Fresno.

"But what of those who want to come from tens of miles away!?"

Fair enough, the river can be a regional attraction. Not a problem. Parking already does exist. The trail would be anchored by Woodward Park, which has many, many parking spaces and very few users. Outside of 4th of July and the two annual concert events, those lots are always empty.

Let's take a look. 

Green: Existing trail, ends at locked fence
Dotted green: Proposed trail
Yellow: The main large and always empty parking lots, including two very large lots to support the mountain bike racing courses. Very few events are held there.

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This lot is a prime trail access point to the existing trail, and very convenient to the extension

Not one car.

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Lets view the same lot two years later

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Elsewhere in the park?

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A little further north, the city built a lot for trail users on Copper and Friant. Ever seen anyone use this lot?

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The other end of the trail would lead off a commercial development, which of course is home to many acres of parking, never used (that building is home to one of the rare underground garages in Fresno)

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Clearly, a NEW car lot on the river basin is of the utmost importance! And that would be in ADDITION to another new lot which would be built outside of Woodward Park where the current trail currently ends.

The middle section would be in a residential neighborhood. Residents there are concerned that the trail would bring traffic to their streets. Right, because nothing says "gridlock traffic" like an access point to a trail.

As the Bee tells us, the residential neighborhood was built with roads equipped to handle an additional 1,500 homes thank thankfully never materialized.....that's the land now in the hands of the river conservancy.

As you can see, here are the roads that lead to where the trail access would be. How wide are these residential streets? A shocking 5 lanes wide. No homes actually face the streets, so any street parking would have zero affect on residents.  The road is widen enough for diagonal parking on both sides. Not that any would be needed. Again, if the region's premiere park is always a ghost land, how many people do you think would drive to this specific access point? At most, on the busiest of weekends, I'd wager you'd find five cars at a time.

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So who's demanding the parking?

In an absurd plot twist, it's the people who have this as their mission statement:

The San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust's mission is to preserve and restore San Joaquin River lands having ecological, scenic or historic significance, to educate the public on the need for stewardship, to research issues affecting the river, and to promote educational, recreational and agricultural uses consistent with the protection of the river’s resources.

Nothing quite preserves the ecological, scenic or historic significance of the river quite like parking lots in the basin! 

What happened is that the city has sided with the rich bluff-residing NIMBY's and stated that a parking lot shouldn't be built. The NIMBYs naturally don't want any parking near them because of the "traffic" that would be generated. Frankly, you could build a 2,000 slot garage and the amount of traffic wouldn't exceed that of a single family home, which is why I propose they simply re stripe the existing road for diagonal street parking (which would never be used anyway).

Instead of cheering that they can save money AND protect the river....the trust is throwing everything they have at building new parking lots.

The Bee article ends with the following:
For now, a key piece of the San Joaquin River Parkway remains stuck in limbo. "I have trust in the process," Marks said. "Eventually there will be a trail system we can all go out and enjoy."

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/09/3168005_p4/the-lost-trail-bureaucracy-stifles.html#storylink=cpy

Apparently not in Fresno, where concerns over parking have been taken to such an absurd length that it becomes difficult to separate satire from reality.

Friday, February 8, 2013

UPS to deploy EV trucks in Fresno market

I've talked a few times in the past about how even though Fresno and the Central Valley are home to the nations worst air, we have almost no electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure.

During the summer, the air board asks people not to drive, because the air quality approaches very unhealthy levels, but at the same time has to issue warnings for people not to bike because that would involve breathing the bad air. So naturally, people drive just as much, if not more, than they would on any other day. And without a push for electric vehicles, the number of non-polluting cars on the road is minimal.

While Costco and Walgreens have installed charging stations in their parking lots around the country, none are in the Fresno market. Blackbeard's, which was set to install the city's first real public EV charging station has seen their progress stalled for months. On the public side, those in charge have decided that grants available to improve air quality are best used.....to widen roads.

There is some good news though.

Today UPS announced that they would be deploying 100 electric delivery trucks on certain routes. That's not a huge amount, but what is especially exciting is that they're being deployed to the cities that would most benefit from the reduction of diesel exhaust.
The vehicles have a range of up to 75 miles and primarily will deliver packages to customers in Sacramento, San Bernardino, Ceres*, Fresno and Bakersfield.
Autoblog.com   *Near Modesto
Consider me shocked. When I saw the headline, my very first assumption was that they'd be deployed in San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles, because that's where they'd generate the most publicity.

Instead, they're being sent out where they're needed most. 

Now, UPS isn't doing this entirely because they're so nice- they're receiving significant public funds to work with EV vehicles. Fortunately, that's also helping create local valley jobs.
The vehicles were manufactured in Stockton, California by Electric Vehicles International (EVI). The purchase of these vehicles from EVI is also providing new jobs and revenue to the state, as well as creating vehicles that will improve air quality.
I'm not a fan of corporate handouts, but if the choice is between using CMAQ funds to widen a road or buy an electric delivery truck, I think the choice is pretty clear. Why not start by equipping the US Postal Service with greener vehicles?

If you see an electric UPS vehicle doing the rounds in Fresno, I'd love to hear about it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Destroy pedestrian mall so drivers can cruise?

This week was home to the annual "State of Downtown" breakfast, once again held in the Pacific Southwest Building's ballroom, which anchors the Fulton Mall. Naturally, as has been the case the past few years, talk centered on what to do with the mall.

The mayor has been pushing for years to rip the whole thing up and turn it into yet another two way street with parking - ie, every other road in the city. She's asking the feds for millions of dollars to get the bulldozers going, claiming that it will start revitalization downtown, even though she ignores that every other street is open to cars, and not one is doing economically better than Fulton.

Naturally, they brought in an "expert" to claim that the best course of action is indeed removal. At least according to of The Fresno Bee, who's been running a series of hit pieces on the mall for years. 

I found two things alarming with the reporting; one is that the Bee would let him cover and report on the breakfast, even though he has made it very clear what his own personal opinion is. The second, is that his own personal opinion doesn't exactly reflect what's popular these days.....to put it lightly, Mr.

In a recent blog entry, George recalls a quote from when the mall was being built which he uses to emphasize something that he feels the pedestrian mall took away - the life of downtown
“’Dragging the main’ on Fulton will be no longer for the youth of our city. I dragged it for the last time this morning with a little bit of heartache. But those heartaches have to go. We have a new city to build, one not only economically sound but one which will be esthetically one of the greatest cities in the western United States.”
Bee News Blog

Ah yes, the days where the gang piled into the car after school to cruise down the strip, seeing and being seen, and then pulling into the drive-in for a shake. 

If only Fulton Mall were a street again, those glory days would come back! I can see it now....the stay-at-home moms rushing into Gottschalks for the latest sale, JC Pennys across the street putting up their elaborate window displays, the court workers enjoying their three martini lunch at the Downtown Club.....

Except what George may not realize is that people don't do that any more. Outside of the foothills and the mountain, people generally don't drive around "window shopping" from their convertible for pleasure. Imagine this: If the mayor announced Shaw was to be closed for good tomorrow, you could interview 1,000 people and find 1,000 of them complaining about the closure making their trip longer - not one of them will lament the loss of being able to slowly cruise down the street, eh, drag. And unlike Shaw, Fulton isn't exactly a vital corridor for vehicle traffic. As much as it may pain him, returning the Fulton Mall to look like Fulton Street of 1963 won't bring any of those cherished memories back to life. 

The department stores are gone for good. The 58-store Gottschalks chain based in Fresno didn't go out of business in 2009 because of the Fulton Mall. JCPennys isn't suffering nationwide because of the mall either, and adding cars won't get them rushing back.

Does it seem absurd that I would suggest George somewhat hopes for this? It's not if you look at the way he apparently blames ALL of downtown's troubles on the mall. Of a recent walk he says

I came to a run-down apartment complex on the corner of Mariposa and Illinois Street. Next to the apartments was an empty field. It was about 35 feet wide and perhaps 80 feet long. Tiny. This is the infill development opportunity that the 2035 General Plan update figures to make irresistible to private-sector developers.
There was a for-sale sign in front of the field. Contact Terri Drewes at Guarantee Real Estate Services if you’re interested. She’s one of many stuck cleaning up after Gruen and Contini.
The "mess" he's referring to is the mall.

Here is the property in relation to the mall (the red line)

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He is seriously suggesting that this small parcel clear across downtown is vacant due to the pedestrian mall. Suddenly, blaming the failure of Gottschalks on the mall doesn't seem so far off.

The rest of his extensively large blog post is mostly devoted to how wonderful Van Ness Ave USED to be, before the pedestrian mall parallel to it was built, along with a massive underground parking garage.

If you're not convinced that Mr. Hostetter is out of touch, consider this....

(referring to the 50 year old photo) 

Van Ness has two southbound lanes and two northbound lanes. A narrow unbroken line separates the lanes running in each direction. A thicker unbroken line separates southbound and northbound cars.....
There’s a good view of the sidewalk on the west side of Van Ness. It looks wide, clean and uncluttered. No trees, no one pushing shopping carts. The sidewalk is inviting.
Just how inviting were the Van Ness sidewalks in the past?

Well, take a look.

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It's a glorified high speed parking lot. That is what he considers inviting. That is what he dreams that Fulton Mall could look like. Incidentally, not much has changed on Van Ness from the above image, except the park grew a little and bus stops replaced parking. Most of the cars were sent underground.

Just as an aside, what does George apparently think of Fax?

There I saw two huge FAX bus stations. Almost all of the east side of Van Ness from Tulare to Fresno Street is one vast bus stop. Except for the Vets Day Parade, no one walks along that stretch of Van Ness.
Truly baffling. He's talking about THE central hub for the Fresno bus system, where almost every line lays over, providing multiple transfer opportunities. Thousands of bus passengers walk there every single day.....and yet he claims that no one walks there? It's a shame that George considers those bus riders as nobodies.

I suggest reading the entirety of his blog post, and maybe you'll come to the same conclusion I did:

who yearns for the sleek and shiny "autopia" of the 1950's, complaining that the pedestrian mall (and underground garages) of the 1960's destroyed downtown. But it's 2013.....the 1960 plans may not be perfect, but going back to what existed in the 1950's isn't going to fix that.

Just ask Oklahoma City. 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/05/3161767/architect-urges-fresno-to-reopen.html#disqus_thread#storylink=cpy

So, Fresno Bee, why is this guy writing all your Fulton Mall articles?

Going back to the breakfast itself, compare how George's article contrasts with those of other local news sources who aren't vested in blowing up the mall.

Here is what thebusinessjournal.com had to say about the guest speaker

The keynote speaker was Henry Beer, a resident of Boulder, Colo. and a member of the design team for the Pearl Street Mall, a four block pedestrian mall that has a number of locally-owned and operated businesses and restaurants and is a popular destination for tourists visiting Boulder.
Check the rest of the article, not a word in it about adding cars.

Fox?
Swearengin lauded the Downtown Fresno Partnership for their efforts to revitalize the area and backed the newly launched "I Believe in Downtown" campaign Tuesday morning at the annual State of Downtown breakfast.
Again, check the tiny article....not a word about destroying the Fulton Mall, just talk about the successes of the years events.

ABC did dig into the idea of removing the mall

During Tuesday's state of downtown breakfast, pedestrian mall expert Henry Beer told local leaders about the Fulton Mall's major drawback. Beer said, "This place needs to be made visible and accessible."
And how about the Fresno Bee?

George started the article like this:

There's no doubt in the mind of noted urban architect Henry Beer about what Fresno's Fulton corridor needs -- cars.

Fresno needs to look Fulton between Tuolumne and Inyo streets "straight in the eye," Beer said Tuesday morning at the annual State of Downtown breakfast. That six-block stretch is now a nearly 50-year-old pedestrian mall. It generates a fraction of its economic potential

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/05/3161767/architect-urges-fresno-to-reopen.html#disqus_thread#storylink=cpy
Lead with the annual successes? Nope.

Amazing how preconceived notions about what should be done can vastly influence the kind of article that comes out!



There is one bit of giant irony that none of the articles mentioned.....

The speaker who flew in to call for destruction of the Fulton Mall?

The firm he founded has their offices.....


........on the enormously successful Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall in downtown Boulder. You know, just the very same mall his company designed and has been attracting people for over 40 years.

Photobucket
The speaker claims there's one thing that is a recipe for success:
Finally, cars, cars, cars. "Cars animate a place," Beer said.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/02/05/3161767_p2/architect-urges-fresno-to-reopen.html#storylink=cpy
Really? Because looking almost directly outside of his office, at the start of the pedestrian mall, you know what I see?

Dozens of bikes, including a successful B-cycle bikeshare station.

Photobucket

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Cars, cars, cars indeed.


Monday, February 4, 2013

What Fresno can learn from Oklahoma City

Streetsblog recently ran an interesting series of articles about Oklahoma City and the changes implemented by their current mayor to make the city a more attractive, more liveable and healthier place. The lessons for Fresno are extremely relevant.

Cornett’s zeal to make Oklahoma City a healthier city led him to take a hard look at the built environment. He realized that car-centric, pedestrian-unfriendly streets weren’t just costing residents their health, they were costing brainpower — too many of Oklahoma City’s talented young people were leaving. Businesses didn’t want to locate there because their employees didn’t want to live there.
 Streetsblog Interview Part 1

That's exactly what this blog talks about. In order to make an attractive city, one in which Fresno State graduates aren't trying to run away from, you need to start by making the bone structure of the city (the transportation network) attractive and safe for all users, not just those in SUVs. 

Before getting into the article and the points made, lets see why it makes sense to take lessons from Oklahoma City and apply them to Fresno.

To start off with, the cities are pretty similar. Both have strong agricultural roots (and the conservative politics that come with it), and a city design that's drawn from the same mold. Oklahoma City sits 205 miles from the much larger and influential Dallas - Fresno is 220 from Los Angeles. Like Fresno, Oklahoma City built a AAA ballpark downtown to try and revitalize a historic area littered with surface lots (their stadium holds just 500 more than the Fresno one).

Oklahoma is a richer city than Fresno (thanks to the oil) but that doesn't stop them from having a 16% poverty rate. While Fresno is a good 10% higher, neither are exactly something you'd brag about.

Population wise, they're in the same league.

Population:
Oklahoma City: 591,967
Fresno: 509,039

Oklahoma is spread out over a much larger area....

Area
Oklahoma City: 621.2 sq mi
Fresno:  112.308 sq m

But that doesn't matter much. The metro areas are of similar size and city boundaries don't mean much 

Metro Area:
Oklahoma City: 1,278,053
Fresno: 1,081,315

So what does Oklahoma have to teach Fresno?

For one, investing downtown can be done, with great results.

Mayor Cornett sought — and got — public support for a $777 million package of investments to construct a new downtown park and recreation areas by the riverfront, build out the streetcar system, expand sidewalks and biking trails, and create new senior wellness centers. Another $180 million was raised to redesign downtown streets. If Oklahoma City is a different place now than it was 10 years ago, residents have the mayor to thank.

Naturally, Fresno doesn't have that kind of money right now. That's ok. You don't need $777 million to make a city attractive.

Note that getting the money isn't impossible.

(referring to taxes) Passed ‘em all. But they’re not easy to pass. We have a very active anti-tax environment in Oklahoma City. So it’s something short of a miracle that we’ve been able to pass this series of initiatives and we’ve never lost one. And the last time, we had a funded opponent — our police and fire unions opposed it.
Even with the powerful police and fire unions against him, the conservative people of Oklahoma voted yes for projects to rebuild the city.

But let's assume taxes are out of the picture (we already have Measure C).

Fresno directs plenty of money at an enormous array of road projects. From the widening of Peach Ave, to the ongoing projects surrounding the brand new CA-180, we can't forget about how Herndon keeps growing and how the city wants to build the "essential" Veteran's Boulevard. The list goes on.

Here's the key: Most of that money doesn't come from City Hall, it comes from the county Measure C, the State (Caltrans) and the feds. But it's Fresno that requests the money to be spent this way - the states aren't the ones demanding that Fresno demolish a dozen homes to add new lanes. That means two things happen simultaneously:

1) Large sums of money get poured into road widening, and none on other modes of transport
2) The city is made less attractive to those who prefer not to drive absolutely everywhere.

Does spending so much money to speed people out of the city make sense?


Luckily, it can be changed.

The first thing you have to do is change the perspective. The way I describe it is: We have built this city for cars. We have to start building this city for people. When that message percolates inside City Hall, inside your public works department and inside your planning department, they start to look at things differently. And what I noticed was, it wasn’t a lack of enlightenment. It was a lack of direction. They were doing what they felt like they were supposed to be doing. And when we exposed this new direction, I was amazed how much creativity was inside those departments that I hadn’t seen before, that hadn’t been tapped. It was as if they’d been unleashed — all these new ideas.

With the proper leadership, all the departments who are working together to widen streets at the expense of everything else can use that knowledge to direct money to alternate projects. Fresno is full of bright engineers and planners, many of whom support better pedestrian and cycling accommodations - they just need a leadership that says they should pursue that.

Mayor Cornett describes a situation that is all too familiar in Fresno
We didn’t have sidewalks in a lot of communities and so we’re going back in and building, literally, hundreds of miles of sidewalks throughout the city. It’s a lot better to do it on the front end and not go back in later and put those in. It’s more expensive to do it the way we’re doing it. But it is what it is.
Can you remember the last time the city went in and installed sidewalks on all the (poorer) neighborhoods that lack them? How about the way the city widens a road and installs no sidewalk - leaving the area with no pedestrian accommodations for years or even decades until a developer comes in. The price of inaction is measured in lives.

The mayor of Oklahoma City also talks about bikes.

We’re completing our bicycle trail master plan. We were using some federal money every year that came in to extend our bike trail plan. One day I asked the parks director in a public meeting, I said, “At the rate we’re going, when are we going to finish our master plan?” And he was speechless. And what I realized was, we were all going to be long gone by the time we finished our master plan.

Sounds exactly like Fresno. The bike master plan debuted in 2010 to praise. How much of it has been built? 2013 will see the construction of a whole 1,100 feet.  In Oklahoma, they hit the ground running and turned the plan into reality.

The mayor also talks about obesity, and how the built environment contributes to it. Look around - Fresno is an obese city. Like Oklahoma, it's because of all the driving.

We were allowing ourselves to be more and more obese and less healthy. When I looked at it freshly I thought, “No wonder we’re not healthy – we’ve designed this city so you never have to walk anywhere.”
But again, he pushed through change. And it worked.

Last week, when the Wall Street Journal announced failures around the country of cities to capitalize on weight-loss challenges, the article singled out Oklahoma City.

There have been notable successes. Oklahoma City said last year that it had lost "the equivalent of 100 elephants." But a less celebrated ritual has also emerged: local leaders from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Walpole, Mass., poring over disappointing results, trying to figure out how diets fared so badly.

Do you really think the residents of Fresno would react any differently from those of Oklahoma City? He says the people love it - and I'd wager the residents of Oklahoma City own more trucks per capita than those of Fresno.

In fact, we’ve designed this city so you can’t walk anywhere! That’s not easy to change, but you can certainly start, and it’s happening much more quickly than I would have ever guessed that it could. People really like the new direction. And we’re now building neighborhoods where you don’t have to own a car if you don’t want to. You can live, work and play all in the same neighborhood — and that was unheard of ten years ago.

The second interview dives deeper into the political side of things. You know those old people who comment on the Fresno Bee website about blowing up downtown because they haven't been south of Nees since Nees was first paved?

Oklahoma has those people too.

Here’s what I do. I try to win an intellectual argument. I stand toe-to-toe with a lot of retired suburbanites who don’t like downtown, don’t like me, are tired of funding taxation. I’m serious, they have more negativity than you could possibly imagine.

And when I’ve lost on every turn and every argument in this debate that takes place in neighborhood after neighborhood I close with this: “We’re creating a city where your kid and grandkid are going to choose to live.”

And they know it’s true. Because in Oklahoma City, my generation left. If you had an advanced degree, there wasn’t a job for you. And so people left. They’re now in Houston and Dallas and New York and Washington, DC and Tokyo and all sorts of great places. We raised a lot of really smart people. They’re gone.

Sounds exactly the same, doesn't it? Downright spooky how similar it is.

As the interview goes on, (outside of the NBA talk), you get more insight into a city that was just like Fresno

So our successes are very impressive to us. In the grand scheme of things, most people are still moving to the suburbs as opposed to downtown. Most people still choose a 10- or 15-mile journey to work — which only takes 10 or 15 minutes.

We virtually had no downtown housing 10 years ago. The only people we had living downtown were people in jail. We had fewer than a thousand, probably, living downtown. And the demographics of the downtown culture have completely changed. I live downtown.

The interview closes with talk about attracting business. Fresno over and over again has tried schemes to get big companies to move in, to no avail.

Maybe it's time to try the opposite approach?

We learned the hard way that we were trying to attract jobs by incentivizing businesses to move to our city. What we learned is, if we create a better city for us, people will move jobs to our city because they know their employees will be happy there.

A company like Facebook or Twitter is never going to move to Fresno today, even though they could save millions on rent, because they'd lose the majority of their staff - those engineers and professionals want to live someone where they can be happy, even if it means paying $3,000 a month for a one bedroom apartment in a 50 year old building.

Dell moved a couple thousand of jobs to Oklahoma City — or created them; they were brand new jobs. And one of the things their guy told me was, “We spend a lot of time and energy training our employees. We can’t afford to locate a facility in a city where we don’t think they’re going to stay. They’ll leave Dell, not because they’re dissatisfied with us, but because they don’t like living there.”

There's nothing Fresno can do to turn into San Francisco, but the administration can start by making some very important changes to the way the city is designed. It's too late to attract the current star companies, but what happens when a group of Fresno State students creates the next big thing? If the city doesn't change, they're taking the first San Joaquin to the Bay area and never looking back.