The 1.73 acre plot of land that was rezoned by the Fresno City Council on January 19, 2023. Credit: City of Fresno

It’s just a rezone. But an hour-long debate at Thursday’s Fresno City Council meeting made it clear that it’s much more than that, for some council members.

In short, five members of the Fresno City Council approved a rezone of a northeast Fresno site from high-density housing to regional mixed-use. Councilmembers Miguel Arias and Nelson Esparza opposed the rezone, raising questions about whether the city is avoiding its responsibility to encourage building denser housing in more affluent neighborhoods.

The project: well, that’s unclear. But the site is a nearly two-acre plot of land behind Total Wine and the Villagio Shopping Center, on Nees and San Pablo Avenues in northeast Fresno.

It’s zoned for apartments. City planners say the site is great for housing – it’s within walking distance to dozens of shops and restaurants at Riverpark – and, around the corner from two grocery stores and the city’s bus rapid transit line.

But the owner – restauranteur Dave Fansler, wants something else, or, at least, he’d like more flexibility to build more than housing. What might he want to build? No one knows, just yet.

(Fansler, it should be noted, has had a litigious relationship with the city of Fresno, suing the city in 2020 over Covid-related restrictions for restaurants and filing a claim for damages in 2022, alleging that Councilmember Arias is killing the rezone in question out of retaliation for the former suit.)

The site was rezoned to high-density residential in 2015 during the last General Plan and Development Code update, which focused on building more high-density housing near transit and amenities. 

So Fansler embarked on a process to rezone the site from high-density residential to regional mixed-use. Here’s where it gets complicated.

In 2019, the state legislature passed a bill meant to accelerate building more housing – Senate Bill 330. It requires cities to remove red tape from building housing, and – relevant here – it prevents cities and counties from downzoning a site that is meant for housing. Downzoning is a term planners use to describe reducing the number of homes allowed on a site.

According to the city’s planning director, Jennifer Clark, regional mixed use zoning is not a downzone from high-density residential. Regional mixed-use zoning actually allows more homes to be built, compared to high-density residential zoning, Clark said at the hearing.

High-density residential zoning locks the developer into building housing. With regional mixed-use zoning, the developer could build anything from personal storage units to retail shops. Mixed-use zoning is not a guarantee that housing will be built.

In order to comply with SB 330, the developer would be required to work with the city to find another site that they could rezone to accommodate the ‘lost’ homes that weren’t built on that site. It doesn’t matter where in the city the homes are moved to, on paper. In fact, the lost homes are not required to be built. Zoning isn’t reality.

“This is a loophole,” said Arias, on the dais. He expressed concern that the rezone was coming to the council before an actual project was decided on.

“But the fact that there’s not a project proposed – what gives me some weariness, is that we’re going from definitive housing, to maybe there might be some housing, and so there’s some discomfort there,” Esparza said.

Lobbyist Dirk Poeschel who represents Fansler, said that the reason a specific project hasn’t been proposed, is financing. “We didn’t want to come forward with a project that didn’t make sense in the marketplace.” Councilmember Mike Karbassi, who represents the area, noted the difficulty of obtaining bank financing for a project that’s incompatible with the zoning.

This isn’t the first time the city has approved a rezone without project details: according to city manager Georgeanne White, there’s been at least four rezones approved since 2018 without a specific project attached to them.

Poeschel told the council that his client is committed to figuring out a housing solution. “We understand our responsibility. We’re either going to come back with a multi-family residential project, or we have to find replacement units.”

But Arias expressed concerns about the developer opting out of building housing and possibly  rezoning any site in the city – leaving less opportunity to build homes in a more affluent part of Fresno. 

“I think that sets a very bad precedent,” he said. “It leads us to simply create concentrated density and poverty in portions of our city, while allowing for other parts of the city to develop as affluent areas because they have low density housing.” 

Insisting that the issue is mainly about neighborhood compatibility, Karbassi said, “let me worry about what the person is going to develop in the community. Because in the end, if it doesn’t go well, I’m the one residents will yell at.”

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