Tuesday, February 23, 2016

An overhead look at downtown Fresno before high speed rail changes everything

About a month ago, I went out and took hundreds of pictures around downtown Fresno. The intention was to post them quickly, but that obviously didn't happen. My post about the changes at Fresno State took a few days to put together, and then I was away from the internet for a week due to a planned surgery.

This set of pictures was originally intended to show the current state of High Speed Rail (HSR) construction in Fresno. However, a lot has happened in a month, so they're no longer current in regards to construction activity on the project itself. Instead, they will serve as a benchmark of what downtown Fresno looked like right before serious construction started in earnest, and before private investors started taking note of the prime empty lots.

I believe that HSR is going to absolutely transform downtown Fresno. Office towers that have sat empty for years will become hot amenities. Empty lots that have lain fallow since a fire 50 years ago will be quickly scooped up. Sidewalks that are empty past 5pm will be bustling when trains start unloading passengers.

Here are where things stand now.

We begin our journey from above. I'll follow up shortly with photos showing the view from the ground.

Pictures were taken from the Pacific Southwest Tower, access thanks to Craig Scharton's tour. First photo was taken in the direction of the red arrow, with the following pictures moving in a clockwise order, as shown by the orange arrow.


This will be ground zero of high speed rail. The building with the yellow triangle features is the Southern Pacific Depot. The old train station, built in 1889, it is the oldest commercial building in the city. Today, it serves as office space. Amtrak runs on a different rail line and does not stop there. However, the new High Speed Rail station will be built directly behind and above it. The structure will be preserved of course.

The less attractive building in front of it was the Greyhound station. Greyhound recently left the station and moved to the current Amtrak Station. I'll do a separate photo post about it. That building will remain standing for a couple of years for HSR related work, and then be demolished for the new station. 

Pulling back a wee bit...

Moving to the right, clockwise, we see an existing roadway underpass that's set to be expanded to accommodate HSR. That dark blue building on the corner, in front of the Bank of America, was a very large adult store (Wildcat Adult Superstore) and has since been demolished. It had to come down due to a change in alignment of the roadway to accommodate the new underpass. Across the street, the Cosmopolitan Tavern will be demolished once their new location opens by the Convention Center. They made a deal where they bought a portion of a city owned surface parking lot to erect a new structure.I would guess the big white building closest to the tracks will also go away.

Moving the camera to the right, we see the enormous potential. Giant empty surface parking lots will make way for new offices and residential towers that want to be near the station. That pinkish building on the right is Hotel Fresno, an asset that has seen a series of failed renovation efforts. Once the station feels real to investors, watch that old hotel bloom.

Zooming in a bit (Hotel Fresno isn't in great shape), we see the two roadway bridges over the existing rail properties. One of them is now completely gone, and I'll have photos of that in the ground update post.

Moving to the right again, we see the Fulton Mall. If you're familiar with Fresno, you know that this pedestrian mall is about to be ripped up and turned into a street in the name of urban revitalization. I am fully confident that those efforts will fail in returning the corridor to a shopping oasis. However, once the station opens, the corridor will be bustling. A shame that green canopy will be almost entirely obliterated.

Moving right again...

 Continuing right, we can see how far Fresno has sprawled to the horizon.

And now we're facing the opposite direction of the rail station. The centerpiece here is the courthouse, with its park. High Speed Rail won't bring much change to this government dominated landscape, except in adding happy pedestrians. Community Regional Medical Center are the two large buildings further back. They currently have a UCSF branch, and I can see that expanding with improved connections to SF.

Moving on, we see a more modern side of downtown Fresno, sort of. That tall building in the back is the Federal Courthouse, supposedly the tallest building in the city, I guess depending on what you measure. Built in 2005 it's the city's only modern tower. It's also very attractive. The Amtrak station sits right behind it. That section of town, with the modern City Hall and the new First 5 building has a cluster of modern development. All government, but attractive. HSR won't really make a dent over there.

I'll have a photo update of the completed First 5 building coming up, along with a look at how Greyhound fits into the Amtrak station. Also near Amtrak is a new project which renovated and expanded an old warehouse into modern offices. 

As we keep turning, we see another lot just prime for some great development.

Now we're back at the Fulton Mall, and Chukchansi Park, a failed effort to spark redevelopment downtown. Sure, it's a nice stadium (and hosted the New York Cosmos in a friendly exhibition game tonight), but since it opened in 2002 it hasn't generated much interest in the area. Supposedly that is going to change soon, but I think the HSR winds are the real reason. Let's check back in a year to see if that proposal goes anywhere.

Behind the baseball stadium, we see the industrial side of town. There have been many plans for this area, including trying to bring in Bass Pro Shops. That obviously never happened. Lots of potential though. The South Stadium dream:

The reality:

And now we're back to where we started. See that white mound thing in that dirt lot across the railroad tracks? The Central Fish Company is located right behind it, an interesting business that's a mixture of a seafood counter, Asian supermarket, and lunch spot. I suggest checking it out if you haven't. It's part of Chinatown, an area that has a cute street grid which reminds me a lot of Old Town Clovis - but with a lot more empty buildings. That whole part of Fresno has been neglected for decades, as it sits on the "wrong" side of the tracks.

That is all for our look from above. I hope to upload pictures from the ground in the near future as well, which show the city before HSR.

They will focus on:
  • Old train station and Greyhound (future HSR station)
  • View from Chinatown
  • View from above the railroad track

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Clovis to host parklet festival this May

Well, this is unexpected.

This May, the City of Clovis will host an "Urban Design Festival" which appears to be a competition to design and build a parklet. If you have never seen a parklet, it is where a mini-park is created using what were previously 1-2 parking spaces. Usually, these parklets offer some seating and greenery, as a way to expand the sidewalk and interface with nearby business. You know, the opposite of what Fresno is doing by removing park space to accommodate cars.

Parklets have popped up throughout the country, including in Los Angeles and San Francisco. As far as I know, there haven't been any installed in the Central Valley.

Check out this example from Philadelphia, or browse dozens of examples here


Take a look at the poster:

Here is the event description:

Real downtowns have been subdued by the automobile. It’s time for us to take back our streets, invite all of your friends to join in!

On May 14-15, the City of Clovis will be hosting an Urban Design Festival in Old Town Clovis. This fun weekend design festival offers the opportunity for all community members to participate in creating human scale places in parking spaces. Over the course of two days, school classes, designers, builders, downtown businesses and EVERYONE is invited to create and showcase unique, temporary urban settings. It is a little like a parade where the floats are fixed and the public flows by.

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS is open to all interested parties free of charge and designated spaces are available on a first-come-first-served basis. Turn in an application to reserve a spot for your design. Awards for various categories will be given on the first day of the festival.

For more information and application forms, visit http://www.ci.clovis.ca.us/Depts-Services/Planning-and-Development/Taking-it-to-the-Streets

I love the description of a "parade where the floats are fixed and the public flows by." However, it's important to note the parklets will be spread throughout the downtown area, and not be placed side by side.

Clovis has an attractive walkable downtown, known as "Old Town" which is home to one of the best farmer's markets in the region. However, the small center is more of a tourist attraction than a real place of business or residence, as the shops mostly sell antiques, trinkets, and curiosities. Fun to stroll, but you can't get your weekly errands done on Pollasky (the through street). That being said, there are plenty of restaurants, bars, and coffee-shops that to provide a continuous attraction. 

Here is a map of the downtown area and where the parklets will be installed:

Notice parklets also located on Clovis Avenue! Also, the satellite image clearly shows the new plaza and streetscape project on the southern end of Pollasky - look for my on-the-ground photos in a couple of weeks. The empty lots are slated for development.

Presumably, this exercise will be a way to show businesses the value of a parklet and evaluate different design preferences. I would be shocked if the city wasn't surveying visitors to see their preference.

The reason I stated that this is unexpected is because Clovis has never been a strong advocate for urban amenities. Sure, 30 years ago Old Town was refurbished into the pleasant walkable neighborhood we see today (by adding the old west theme), but on the flip side, they turned down a mixed use housing proposal because they saw it as too dense (at four stories!). 

In fact, this blog has not been kind at all to Clovis, which I associate with continued sprawl:

Walmart and McDonalds - the Clovis way of life? 
Chipping away at the Clovis trail system – again. 
Clovis: A pedestrian-oriented development without any sidewalks...?
Clovis sprawls north, wonders how to revitalize south
Come sprawl with Clovis

Although 2015 did see some good news:
Clovis now has an Urban Greening Master Plan
Exciting infill development coming to Old Town Clovis!

I think this is a good sign that they have heard the non-stop talk about revitalizing downtown Fresno and are ready to compete with their own urban amenities. Combined with the infill proposal, new plaza, and future library, City Hall may be coming around to a strong downtown. Naturally, Fresno should compete back by adding their own parklets.

If you're interested in building a parklet, be sure to visit their website.

If you would simply like to attend, they have a Facebook event page to add to your calendar.  

Note: I will be unavailable for about a week starting Tuesday February 9th.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Fresno State Finally Gets Serious About Non-Car Transportation!

Fresno State, officially California State University, Fresno, has for decades been a driving university. The campus arrived at its current location in 1956, and at the time it was located far from the city. That was intentional - with agriculture as a core mission, the University purposely surrounded itself with farms. Even today, the 388-acre main campus is attached to the 1,011-acre University Farm. As such, one was expected to drive to campus. Especially because students came from all over the Central Valley.

Fresno State in the 1950's

However, much has changed since 1956. Fresno grew, and now the campus is completely surrounded by urban (or suburban) activity. The University has also grown tremendously, and now hosts a population of over 25,000 (students and staff). While commuter students still represent a large portion of the population, 8,000 students and 2,400 staff live within 5 miles of campus - an easy bicycle commute over perfectly flat land. 

Unfortunately, campus officials have been slow to respond to these changes. For decades they've operated as a car-campus, and made no efforts to change that. As recently as 2012, the transportation plan was all about driving and parking. Remember this story?
Fresno State faculty members gathered Thursday to express dismay and confusion over the university's decision to chop down 160 mature trees, making room for 600 more parking spaces on the east side of campus.
In that same article, I pointed out that the campus transportation mission appeared to be a tad bit focused on one, and only one thing:
Traffic Operations welcomes you to California State University, Fresno.

Our goal is to provide you with safe and reliable access to our campus. We are dedicated to maintaining accessible, attractive and safe parking facilities.

Our objective is to manage parking resources efficiently, emphasizing customer service, so that students, faculty, staff and visitors are able to park without difficulty and lawfully.

We are always exploring new ideas and methods to improve our existing parking and transportation system, and we welcome any suggestions that you may offer. Please take advantage of the information provided on this web site and the services we offer so you can make the most of your campus experience.

 Since then, the only other articles I've written about the campus have been:
  • A 2014 plan to add bicycle lanes to Barstow - bike lanes which as of two weeks ago, still did not exist
  • A critique of the Campus Pointe Shopping development adjacent to campus, namely, how the non-motorized transportation links to it sort of suck
  • A news story on them adding electric vehicle charging stations 
Not the most exciting of headlines.

Is the focus on parking justified?

Due to the low price of parking (lowest in the entire State University system), and poor non-motorized connections onto campus, there is indeed a strong demand for parking. That's induced demand for you.

However, after adding 600 spaces just three years ago, there are again from the student body about congested parking lots. A popular request to build a parking garage won't solve the problem, and would be extremely expensive (estimated at $40 million).

Aside from a high expense of accommodating more and more drivers, that focus on the automobile has created a nasty little problem. More cars need bigger roads, which in turn result in elevated danger for everyone else. Check out this map showing the past 5 years of collisions involving bicycles (orange triangles), pedestrians (red circles), and skateboards (brown).

Notice that intersection on the bottom left? The one where they can't even fit in all the little colission triangles?

Well, when you make pedestrians cross the equivalent of 10 lanes of traffic to get to class, they get hit.

And then they probably decide that maybe they should drive instead, creating more demand for parking, and more demand for driving.

Oh, and note the top right of the crash map? All those little bicycle triangles?

They're getting hit here:

While this roundabout absolutely improved safety for drivers, it failed to accommodate bicyclists, as stated by state design guidelines. I pointed that out in my critique of the Campus Pointe development.


Anyway, after apparently conceding that you can't build your way out of congestion and parking demand, it looks like change has finally arrived at Fresno State. And not just a small change: a wave of changes meant to encourage alternative modes of transportation, all happening within the past 6 months.
  • New campus shuttle bus
  • Partnerships creating bus service to Visalia and north to Yosemite
  • Free bus passes on FAX and Clovis Stageline for all students and staff
  • Scramble crosswalk on Cedar
  • Bicycle barns (secure bicycle parking)
  • Bicycle maintenance stations
  • High quality Active Transportation Master Plan prepared by Alta
Even their mission statement has seen a change. Compare the quoted statement above to what the website shows today:

Reduce parking demand!
    Let's dive into all these improvements.