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Good morning, and welcome to the Fresnoland Lab newsletter. Today is Tuesday, Jan. 26th.
Last week in Fresnoland, Monica wrote about water bill debts that have accumulated in the months since Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted a moratorium. She also wrote about whether Vice President Kamala Harris will persist in her advocacy of water rights as she had done as a senator and candidate for the office she now holds.
It’s Danielle Bergstrom, policy editor for Fresnoland, here.
This week, I’m going to wonk out on two of my favorite things: urban planning and the Tower District. (I’m actually a trained city planner! I’m also a Tower resident.)
If you’re on social media, you may have seen the #keeptowerweird hashtag pop up.
It began in response to the owner of the historic Tower Theatre selling the building to Adventure Church. The theater is currently in escrow. A second bid from current occupant The Painted Table came in, and they’re taking some heat for attempting to go against the church.
The snag: the theater isn’t zoned for a large-scale church. It’s in the “Commercial Main Street” district, which is intended for walkable entertainment areas like Olive Avenue in the Tower, home to several bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.
The community has pushed back, and hard — over 2,100 residents and businesses have signed a petition urging the city to reject the church’s presumed application to rezone the theater to allow for a church. The top concerns? Business owners concerned about the future of their liquor licenses if a church is allowed to come in next door; and, what happens to the soul of the Tower District if its namesake is sold to an entity with a questionable reputation with the LGBTQ community.
(The theater is home to the Reel Pride Film Festival, one of the nation’s oldest LGBTQ film festivals, as well as the Rogue Festival, a widely popular fringe festival highlighting alternative and counter-culture performances.)
This isn’t the first time a community has protested over a church buying a cultural asset — as explained in the Visalia Times-Delta, a church tried to buy a major downtown theater there, and the Visalia City Council used its eminent domain powers to shut down the potential sale and keep the theater ownership community-oriented.
We’re likely at the beginning of a long, protracted battle over the soul of the Tower District.
So far, the city appears skeptical of the rezoning request, as evidenced by this letter from City Manager Thomas Esqueda and public statements from City Council members Esmeralda Soria and Miguel Arias, both of whom represent the Tower District. The council is expected to discuss the matter during the closed session of their meeting this Thursday.
This isn’t the first time the Tower District has faced a test of its character. But the Tower is uniquely positioned, compared to many other Fresno neighborhoods, to control its destiny.
I spoke with two people with a long history in the Tower: Mike Clifton, the current chair of the Tower District Design Review Committee, and Craig Scharton, the politician-turned-urban revitalization evangelist who got his start in politics organizing in the Tower District.
In 1986, a local family proposed to build a nine-story apartment complex on the corner of Floradora and Van Ness avenues, across the street from single-family residential homes, and adjacent to a small strip of bars, restaurants, and shops on Van Ness.
Neighborhood residents organized against the project, and successfully got the City Council to reject the project’s proposal. But the local City Councilmember, Ted C. Wills, supported the project, against the protests of the neighborhood. They were infuriated. Scharton, an unlikely candidate, ran against Wills, and won.
But he soon learned that power can only get you so far if you don’t know how to use it.
In 1988, Tower residents — including Mike Clifton — banded together to fight a proposal to build a convenience store and car wash at the corner of Palm and Olive. They lost. The Circle K and the adjacent car wash are still there.
Residents went to their then newly elected city council member, demanding: how could you let this happen?
Scharton said the proposal never came to the city council. It never had to.
At that time, Olive Avenue was zoned C-6. That’s the type of zone district you would see on a street like Blackstone, where strip malls, car lots, and repair shops are the norm.
It was also planned to be a four-lane, divided road, sort of like Palm Avenue, where cars go very fast, discouraging people from wanting to walk around, or eat on a sidewalk patio.
The Tower District is what planners call a “streetcar suburb” — fancy, brand-new homes built in the first part of the 20th century along the streetcar lines that ran up Wishon, Fulton, and Van Ness, mixed in with apartment buildings, bungalow courts, and small commercial districts, lined with restaurants, bars, and shops.
It’s one of the city’s last intact walkable urban districts that haven’t been totally destroyed by urban renewal schemes or freeway construction. (Could that be because much of the Tower wasn’t previously redlined?)
But more important than the urban design charm of the Tower, it’s the alternative culture and LGBTQ+ capital of the San Joaquin Valley.
Back to zoning. Typically, if a business complies with the zoning, they don’t need to go to the planning commission or the city council for approval.
So Scharton went to Russ Fey, Fresno State Urban Planning professor and asked for his help.
Fey told him: you need a specific plan.
In planning parlance, a specific plan is a big deal. The Tower District already had a plan on the books — the Fresno High-Roeding Community Plan, adopted in the 1970s.
But community plans aren’t legally enforceable. They don’t include specifics about zoning, building height, or design. Specific plans are, well, that specific.
And the Fresno High-Roeding Plan wasn’t built by the community. Residents wanted something that represented the community vision for the neighborhood.
After a few years and dozens of community meetings, the Fresno City Council unanimously adopted the Tower District Specific Plan in 1991, in the Tower Theater.
And then they launched a committee made up of residents whose job was to defend the plan.
A little over a decade after the plan was approved, the Tower District Design Guidelines were approved — another initiative led by Tower residents.
(Full disclosure: I served on the Tower District Design Review Committee in 2019.)
The Tower committee has had its run-ins over the years. Clifton said one of the biggest fights was over a proposal to build a drive-through coffee kiosk in the Tower Theater parking lot. Drive-thrus are antithetical to walkable, urban districts. And the kiosk would have eliminated much-needed parking for businesses.
The committee’s recommendations are ultimately advisory to the City Council.
“Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose,” said longtime Tower committee chair Clifton. “As long as we fight like hell, I’ve learned to shrug off the times we lose.”
If Adventure Church moves forward with the rezoning process, it will have to get through many stops: but the Tower District Design Review Committee is one of the first on the list. These are public meetings, and Tower residents are encouraged to participate.
The church will also need the City Council’s approval to amend the Tower plan.
Plan amendments aren’t exactly uncommon in Fresno, but very few have faced significant community opposition, in my memory.
The Tower plan has given residents significant leverage in land use decisions for the neighborhood.
Increasingly, city councilmembers have seen the advantages of having a community-driven plan help drive future investment and business decisions in a neighborhood.
These plans don’t just talk about zoning and land use. They help the city figure out how to prioritize resources for streets, sidewalks, parks, and bike lanes.
In the past decade, the City Council has approved specific plans for southwest Fresno and the Fulton Corridor in downtown. Three more are underway: west of 99, South Central Fresno, and Central Southeast.
As someone who used to be involved in implementing the plans, I can’t say this enough: read your plan. Ask your city councilmember to join the committee responsible for fighting for it. If your neighborhood doesn’t have a plan, ask your city councilmember to make a budget request for one.
I’ll leave this on one final note: plans can be changed. They should adapt, as the community shifts to respond to need. But a plan is only as good as the community behind it. Get your neighbors involved!
And now, the week’s top reads:
(For the most recent local coronavirus updates, visit www.fresnobee.com/coronavirus.)
Housing, Transportation, and Land Use
Gov. Newsom and top legislative democrats announced a deal to extend the state’s eviction moratorium through the end of June. Sacramento Bee
Fresno declared an emergency over these apartments in 2015. Now, a man died in a fire there. Fresno Bee
The federal eviction moratorium, implemented through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been extended to the end of March, to help tenants who have been battered economically by the pandemic. NPR
Soil-less gardens and farms? It’s a growing industry — $9.5 billion in sales is expected to nearly double in the next five years. Hydroponics — the soil-less cultivation of crops in controlled environments — might be the future for growing enough food to feed an exploding worldwide population. Los Angeles Times
Fresno travelers have one more airline to choose from when Southwest Airlines enters the Fresno air travel market with daily nonstop round trips to Las Vegas and Denver. Fresno Bee
According to estimates provided by state court officials, California courts are bracing for eviction cases to double over the next year as pandemic-related financial woes deepen for thousands of renters across the state. Los Angeles Times
Mayor Jerry Dyer announced a new program to get Fresno’s homeless, which will target an estimated 250 people who are presently sleeping in tents and other unsafe areas along Highways 41, 180 and 168. Fresno Bee
How many California renters stand to lose their homes when the state and national moratoria end? It depends on whom you ask and what they are using as gauges. Cal Matters
Economy and Neighborhood Inequality
The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell slightly last week to 900,000, according to the Labor Department’s report. However, unemployment numbers are still historically high and reflect the devastation of a raging pandemic. Los Angeles Times
President Biden is asking the Department of Agriculture to allow states to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — commonly known as food stamps — and to increase by 15 percent benefits awarded through a school meals program for low-income students started during the pandemic. Washington Post
America’s unemployment numbers are staggering, an indication of the economic hill the new administration has to climb when it comes to getting desperately needed help to millions of workers. Vox.com
The global coronavirus pandemic and the measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 worsened Fresno’s 2020 unemployment picture. Fresno Bee
Water and Air Quality
As the pandemic forced businesses to shut down and put travel on hold, wealthy countries reduced their environmentally-harmful emissions in almost every sector of their economies, but carbon emissions from gas-guzzling SUVs increased. NPR.org
Firefighters chased wind-driven blazes up and down the state early this week as trees and trucks were toppled, Yosemite National Park was forced to close and two coronavirus vaccination centers were shut down. Months-old embers from a deadly California fire were blown back to life by powerful winds that raked the state and prompted safety blackouts to tens of thousands of people. Fresno Business Journal
In an effort to maintain a strict cap on emissions from cars– the single largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office directing the government to revise fuel economy standards, reversing the Trump administration rules. Sacramento Bee
The Tule River Tribe of Tulare County, a Central Valley Native American tribe, is getting $250,000 to develop a comprehensive energy and climate plan. Fresno Business Journal