A group of high school students became activists for social justice in southwest Fresno when they sounded alarms about the abandoned properties that blighted their neighborhood.

What once had been a gas station, a dry cleaning service or a used car lot had been left abandoned, contaminated and undeveloped for decades, creating a scene that Michaelyn Lewis, a southwest Fresno resident, said looked “like something out of a warzone.”

It’s been 10 years since that group of students from Fresno, Edison, Roosevelt and ACEL Charter School formed the Fresno Youth Council for Sustainable Communities with a goal of transforming their communities into thriving and healthy places.

The students have long moved on and made great strides in their personal lives. The brownfields, however, remain — a frustrating and disappointing reminder of the city’s ongoing neglect.

There are an estimated 115-130 brownfield parcels in the city of Fresno. Approximately 56-65 parcels are in southwest Fresno.

They’re often former industrial or commercial sites where redevelopment or reuse may be “complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant” according to the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act.

With the areas abandoned, sidewalks, roads and landscaping aren’t maintained. Inactivity compounds negatively on the nearby residents’ environmental, social and economic health.

Many question why the city has failed to provide needed leadership in addressing the brownfield problem, despite having received significant federal funding and having full community buy-in. Some point to racism and systemic neglect of Black and brown communities.

Environmental racism in Fresno

Brownfields are intricately connected to Fresno’s history — redlining, forced segregation and construction of Highway 99 and Freeway 41 that wiped out businesses which once occupied now-vacant lots.

The concrete slab of a former commercial business on South Elm Avenue, Feb. 5, 2021. Though this was likely an eatery, the area is dotted with brownfields- EPA designated land, previously commercially used, where the presence of contaminates is known, which hinders future development without costly abatement. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

According to the 2000 census, many southwest Fresno populations were either mixed minorities or predominantly Black and Latino.

Unlike other parts of Fresno, where zoning codes prohibited industrial activity from coexisting side-by-side with residential neighborhoods, in southwest Fresno, these uses were allowed to expand, even against the protests of the community.

“When they brought in the 41 freeway, that was part of the factors that took away some of the traffic. People started moving across town and opened up over there, and those people who had shops here, moved or closed their shops,” Lewis said. “And there was nothing, no incentive to really replace what was lost.”

The Maxie Parks Community Center in southwest Fresno, Feb. 5, 2021, has been closed since Sept. 3, 2020, after testing found contamination in and around the building, likely from toxic chemicals used by Imperial Cleaners, a former dry cleaning business. Cherella Nicholson, Program Officer for Central Valley Community Foundation, said this is considered to be a brownfields site. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Drew Wilson, supervising planner with the city of Fresno, said that spotting a brownfield is fairly easy. “A vacant parcel that looks like it has dumping or has part of a building that used to exist that no longer exists,” Wilson said. “That tells you that something was just left or just forgotten about.”

“Business owners just leave a building, or people dump on vacant sites, or somebody says, ‘I’m just going to stop having a gas station,’ and they tear down the building, and the city never goes back to ensure that the gas station tanks were pulled out of the ground,” Wilson said.

“So now, not only do you have a pit where people used to get under the car to work, but you have the old storage tanks that nobody said anything about — that was put underground, full of used oil. So this is what we’re seeing — the consequences of neglect.”

A bent utility-type pipe atop a concrete slab, on an overgrown lot, probably used for commercial purposes on Elm Avenue in southwest Fresno, Feb. 5, 2021. The area is dotted with brownfields- EPA designated land, previously used, where the presence of contaminates is known, which hinders future development without costly abatement. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Wilson attributes the prevalence of brownfields in southwest Fresno to “longstanding discrimination” and the city’s neglect as resources were diverted away from southwest Fresno.

“We had white flight. We had redlining. You could argue intention,” he said. “That stuff was done intentionally to bring down a neighborhood.”

Leading a vision for change in southwest Fresno

“I definitely remember going out and looking at different brownfield sites in 2011 and figuring out, ‘What can even be put there?’” said Maya Olais.

She, along with other high school students Alice Lindo, Khyri Brown, Max Torres, Alejandro Rivera, Becky Lee and Arajonae Brown were determined back then to “create whole neighborhoods,” to connect with policymakers to clean up brownfields.

It was February 2011 when the students from Fresno, Edison, Roosevelt and ACEL Charter School formed the Fresno Youth Council for Sustainable Communities. Only one was Caucasian. All but one lived in south Fresno.

Their goal was to transform their communities into thriving and healthy places that preserve the environment and provide economic opportunities.

Chickens look for feed on a brownfield lot in southwest Fresno, Feb. 4, 2021. The lot was the site of a gas station decades ago. The area is dotted with brownfields- EPA designated land, previously commercially used, where the presence of contaminates is known, which hinders future development without costly abatement. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

“I had never done any kind of activism or social justice work before that,” Olais said, but she was “passionate about community change and social justice,” and was eager to learn.

That year, the Redevelopment Agency of the City of Fresno received a total of $400,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to educate the city’s west Fresno community about brownfields, build community-led brownfields reclamation and create an action plan for community collaboration and revitalization.

Arajonae Brown, one of the high school students, said she became “involved in a lot of advocacy” because she was concerned about racial disparities in the economy, the judicial system and, particularly, the southwest Fresno environment.

She became more invested in “recognizing my environment and working with my community” to find solutions, and would later intern at Fresno City Hall and participate in brownfield assessment. She learned about property value and how environmental racism was at the core of what ails brown and Black communities.

Brownfields Remediation Revolving Loan Fund

In the following years, the community saw grant funding, meetings and more plans, but little change.

Cleaning up brownfields “takes the grants; it takes the EPA; it takes the city; it takes the council members; it takes the city manager, and it takes whoever is currently owning that land, in order for those funds to go to use for that particular property or that particular land,” Wilson, the city planner, said.

Anyone who wants to apply to the city for help in remediating a suspected brownfield should contact Wilson. He outlined the steps needed to remediate:

  • look at the history of the site;

  • take ground samples from the site for testing;

  • if remediation is needed, create a remediation plan;

  • clean up the site.

A focused effort was made in the Elm Avenue Corridor in southwest Fresno when the city received a $175,000 grant from the EPA to create an area-wide plan. A grant report described the area as “among the most economically disadvantaged and polluted in the city and in California. A legacy of automobile industry-related uses has left behind several vacant and blighted properties along the corridor.”

A sign of optimism stands over chunks of piled asphalt, on a previously commercially-used Elm Avenue parcel, in a southwest Fresno, Feb. 5, 2021. The area is dotted with brownfields- EPA designated land, previously used, where the presence of contaminates is known, which hinders future development without costly abatement. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

City staff and community leaders worked together on a road map for development, coordinating a Youth Photovoice Project in fall 2018, hosting training on brownfields for staff and community leaders and creating plans and site designs.

Then, in 2019 and 2020, the city received two additional EPA grants — the $600,000 Coalition Grant and the $800,000 Brownfields Remediation Revolving Loan Fund.

City staff worked with several other municipalities and EPA officials about “best practices in the brownfields world” — to determine what was needed to have long-term success.

And, city staff tried to create a formal brownfields working group in Fresno — bringing together government agencies and nonprofit organizations to identify projects on brownfield sites “that will catalyze development in areas with a high concentration of Brownfields.”

Lots of meetings, little change

While applauding Drew Wilson’s role in bringing “together community resources and funding to clean up this area,” Lewis concludes, “Nothing has happened as far as major development” in the brownfield cleanup.

“We talked to the city of Fresno, had people come down from the EPA, we shared information as far as what was going on,” said Lewis, who served on the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan and the Elm Avenue Revitalization Plan committees. “Why hasn’t this been remedied all these years?”

“No change,” is the chorus from most people who have been involved in brownfield remediation efforts over the years.

“Not much has changed” in 10 years, said Cherella Nicholson, program officer for Central Valley Community Foundation.

Cherella Nicholson, Program Officer for Central Valley Community Foundation, stands at a brownfield site, at Elm Avenue and Reverend Chester Riggins Avenue, Feb. 4, 2021. The ground there is contaminated by a gas station located there decades ago. Though the site has been rehabbed into an outdoors community center, Saint Rest Plaza, development would be hindered by ground contamination. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Southwest Fresno “looks the same to me,” Olais, who was in southwest Fresno in October 2020, said recently.

Wilson concedes that “few grant milestones have been accomplished to date” but that there “has been tremendous work going on behind the scenes” to build the coalition and empower it to start spending grant money to assist development in southwest Fresno, Chinatown and downtown.

He points to St. Rest Baptist Church’s brownfield experience as an example of how community groups can collaborate with the city to have successful cleanup results. However, the St. Rest brownfield is still unremediated, and the plot undeveloped.

He attributes recent inaction to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for the city staff to be “focused on the immediate needs of the community and its partners.”

Additionally, the pandemic and its associated rules made it impossible for public outreach and coalition-building, which were essential parts of the brownfields works.

Economic development in an impoverished area

Developers are reluctant to invest in brownfields.

“They feel like the banks are not going to pay for a lot of the remediation funds because you’re not going to get a return on that investment if you build a building,” Wilson said.

The city’s failure to make progress with southwest Fresno’s brownfields are tied to the area’s “lack of infrastructure,” said Miguel Arias, representative of Area 3 on the Fresno City Council. Brownfields constitute “the biggest barrier in west Fresno.”

Arias said the city must do more because of the impact on the area he represents. “We cannot allow the investment by the private sector, the public sector to skip west Fresno,” he said.

Because there is no guaranteed return on investment, investors are unwilling to be involved.

“We’re trying to establish relationships with core partners, to create catalytic development that makes the appetite for development so strong, that nobody can say, ‘Well, we don’t want to go there because there’s contamination,’ Wilson said. “We provide all the resources to make sure that people know, if there is potential contamination, how much contamination there is, and how much it would cost to fix up.”

In the past, planning departments would market to big developers — those with money or development experience — to convince them to develop vacant pieces of land, Wilson said.

“That’s not been our approach, and we don’t want to make that our approach. We want to work with the property owners to identify what they want to do, and then try to connect them to resources to make that happen. We’re still learning how to do that.”

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