Fresno needs realistic plan for revitalization

By Darius Assemi Special to The Bee
Sept. 8, 2015

I love Fresno. This community has been instrumental in the success of my family and my company, and for that, I feel a deep sense of responsibility for its revival.

Fresno has rich cultural diversity, a booming agriculture industry, excellent school districts, affordable homes, and one-of-a-kind access to the Sierra and the sea, all of which make it a special place.

But our city is not without challenges. Poor air quality makes national headlines, crime rates are high, too many young people drop out of school, too few graduate from college, and our overall prosperity has declined.

Clovis, a city that contends with similar challenges, was recently named the No. 1 city in California to raise a young family. Similarly, Visalia and Bakersfield have rebounded from the economic downturn with soaring prosperity and low unemployment.

Why do Fresno's challenges seem insurmountable? Young people leave for college, professionals seek higher-paying jobs in more prosperous cities, retirement is difficult for those who can't afford to quit working, and others retire out of our area.

However, Fresno has incredible potential. The right budget and a realistic General Plan will spur our revitalization.

Plans and policies adopted by local government determine Fresno's desirability. Our mayor and city council regulate growth through the General Plan, an instrument that shapes our city's future. The General Plan regulates the types of homes and commercial centers that can be built in coming years, and it determines where they will go.

Two years ago, Fresno began the process of updating its General Plan, a process that by and large ignored the private sector. The proposed plan calls for mid-rise housing on the Blackstone and Kings Canyon corridors. It also calls for homes in new growth areas to be smaller and closer together.

People will live in the housing they desire. A segment of Fresno residents has already embraced high-density living in downtown's Cultural Arts District. With the right improvements the Blackstone-Kings Canyon corridors may become their next destination in the future.

As part of the General Plan update, city leaders are revising the proposal for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Blackstone and Kings Canyon. In addition to BRT, let's offer incentives to facilitate private investment in these corridors and other areas of similar need. These incentives can include reducing property taxes, eliminating fees and red tape, and physical improvements including median island landscaping, landscaped pathways and façade improvements.

With these types of incentives our local businesses have fewer hurdles to success. When businesses are successful, government revenue goes up and more funds become available for community services and nonprofits. This is one way to improve prosperity in our city.

Future plans must also address air quality problems. According to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, most of our pollution comes from mobile sources. To improve air quality, we need a system-wide, regional approach to transportation and growth. It should include traffic light synchronization, electric buses, improvements to the FAX system, and BRT that includes the Shaw Avenue corridor and service to educational hubs. The use of wood-burning fireplaces must also be curtailed.

A network of trails for pedestrians and bicycles must be part of the solution. People who live in neighborhoods with a network of parks, trails and greenways are twice as healthy as people who live in neighborhoods without such amenities. We can promote active lifestyles and reduce greenhouse gases by implementing a similar approach.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, I like some aspects of the new General Plan, including the use of urban villages. This concept creates self-sustaining communities that provide residents with everything needed to live, work and play in their own neighborhood. These concepts are being introduced and welcomed.

Our company studies Fresno's rapidly changing demographics, and we encourage city leaders to do the same. For Fresno to be successful, we must recognize the dramatic changes that are taking place and understand what they mean.

Resident preferences and good planning will ultimately govern the success or failure of our city. When we plan growth in this fashion, we build a foundation for a more vibrant and economically mobile community — one that will entice new talent to diversify our economic base.

That base will allow for the infusion of more capital for our police department, providing resources for better technology and more officers, making our city safer.

A solid economy will give Fresno the resources to increase funding for education and provide students with means to become productive members of our community. We will be able to create opportunities for more students by expanding arts and vocational education, mirroring the efforts of Superintendent Mike Berg in Central Unified.

Supporting Fresno State President Joseph Castro's vision for higher enrollment at Fresno State will result in more students attending higher education locally. When students are educated locally they are more likely to remain a part of our community and add to our talent base, enhancing economic vibrancy.

Creative solutions and a more holistic approach to Fresno's growth will increase prosperity. It will put to work the more than 34,000 unemployed adults in our city, provide students with the first-rate education they deserve, and allow Fresno to become the regional hub for excellence it should be.

Our vision for Fresno provides economic mobility in all parts of this city, blurs the north/south divide, and unites different interest groups to address our challenges. When government, businesses, nonprofits, media and educators work together toward a common goal, we can affect change in our city.