Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Westlake: Another Granville Disaster

Update: Kiel Shmidt has put together an excellent map of the project, how it compared to another Granville development (Running Horse) and the city boundaries.

That map can be seen here.

The Fresno Bee has published their article on the subject, including some good pictures of the site. That article can be read here.


In 2005, Granville proposed a giant exurban residential development west of Fresno.

Now they're making moves to actually build it.

They're calling it Westlake, and they want to use 430 acres to build 2,600 new homes....and a giant lake. In typical Granville fashion, they want to do this in the middle of nowhere, far from jobs, businesses, and entertainment. Well, not nowhere - the area has plenty of productive farms.

The project will be in the center, west of Grantland, where the canal meanders through. 

 photo westlake1_zpsb8674e1e.jpg
Sound familiar? Yes, these are the same people who want to build a medical college 20 miles out of town, because according to them, there's no suitable land anywhere closer. This project is marginally closer - 10 miles away from downtown, and 3 miles from the 99, but it's clearly still leapfrog development at its worst. Why not build the college here? Because the college is just a way to get more housing approved further away.

Incidentally, the same developer owns an enormous parcel just 3 miles from downtown....which they want to use for commercial almond farming. They're also the same developer who strongly supports the eradication of a pedestrian mall downtown, claiming that making it a road will "revitalize" the area. Of course these projects do everything possible to destroy downtown, by sending people as far away as possible, so you shouldn't be surprised when I tell you I don't exactly trust them on that note.Would you?

 photo westlake2_zps8005f2ed.jpg

So what can make building 2,600 homes in the middle of nowhere even worse?

Building a giant artificial lake, in an area experiencing a drought, surrounded by farmers desperate for water. As the Bee reported just this week:

Pine Flat Reservoir is a ghost of a lake in the Fresno County foothills — a puddle in a 326 billion-gallon gorge.

Holding only 16% of its capacity, Pine Flat is the best example of why there is high anxiety over the approaching wet season.

Read more here:

Dwindling reservoirs should be a wake-up call to Californians, said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources. The state has not declared a drought, but now is the time to prepare additional water-conservation ideas for next year.

Read more here:

 "January through May 2013 were California's driest in about 90 years of recordkeeping," Lucero said.
Fresno Bee

Read more here:

The Granville solution? Building what essentially amounts to a giant evaporation pool, an artificial lake that will constantly need fresh water pumped in.

 photo westlake3_zpsbb52d05d.jpg

Can it get any worse? Naturally.

Notice in the map above, that the lake is one continuous body, with no crossing points. In other words, the street grid, which is currently made up of major roads every .5 miles, will have no east-west route for a mile and a half. Dakota and Ashlan will lead to a dead end. Gettysburg will be forced to transform from a quiet street to a major arterial.

In other words: A lot more driving, as people are forced to detour.

Naturally, they claim this project will be pedestrian friendly, environmentally friendly, support mixed use and "reduce dependency upon the automobile."

Come again?

Ignoring, for a second, the location of the project.... the site plan makes it impossible for most residents to NOT drive anywhere and everywhere.

Say a resident wants to go to the "community commercial" which will "meet the local needs."

Can they get their, walking? Nope. There's a lake in the way. Residents are going to get in the car, and drive a couple of miles just to get somewhere that should be a five minute walk.

 photo westlake5_zpsa91fd423.jpg

How about the neighborhood school? Same problem. So close, but so, so far.

 photo westlake6_zpsa374e702.jpg

Now look 30 years in the future, when Granville, and their developer friends, have populated every nearby parcel with homes. Anyone trying to go east, you know, towards the rest of the city, has a lake in their way. 2 mile instant detour.

What was that about reducing dependency on the automobile?

Naturally, such a situation calls for mitigation. More money for transit? A new bike trail? No, of course not.

The solution, like all solutions in Fresno, mean widening every area road, and adding traffic signals at every intersection. Like magic, all the extra traffic is "mitigated." Bikes? Pedestrians? Transit users? Internal circulation? I guess those concerns get paved away under new lanes.

I could have sworn the state passed a greenhouse gas reduction law, but apparently it doesn't apply to Granville, or Fresno.

Anything else wrong with this project? Come on too easy...

Every development in Fresno is required to add community green space - parks. Granville is going to build a whopping 55 acres!

And by park, they mean lake. You know, the private lake surrounded by the new homes. In other community green space. And apparently that's ok.

In fact apparently everything about this is ok. Mind you, I'm not the first to raise these concerns. Back in 2008, the "Council District 1 Implementation Committee" drafting a letter noting their concerns with the project. They also noted that there are serious water concerns, including that of a depleting water table. They mention that a project of this size that's auto dependent will clearly have a significant carbon footprint. They also noted that the employees of the commercial retail will likely not be able to afford a lakeside home, meaning residents will commute (drive) to town, and retail employees will commute (drive) into the development.

That last concern is the same as with the Millerton College Plan. They intend to build thousands of homes, and claim there will be little traffic, ignoring that the people who study and work at the college will likely not live in that community, due to the price.

The committee listed many other concerns, including the enormous cost of annexing a giant development so far divided from the rest of the city.

You can see that letter at the very end of the enormous project report. (Warning, massive PDF).

Shovels aren't scheduled to hit the ground this year, as Granville is amending the plan somewhat (swapping homes around), meaning the city has to approve this again. Of course, they will. When a developer says they want something, Fresno gives it to them, consequences be damned.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Clovis gets grant for solar bus stop lighting

One of our frequent commentators is going to like this news.

Clovis has received a grant from Homeland Security to install solar lighting systems at various bus stops around town.

I find homeland security to be an absurd waste of money, so I think it's fantastic that Clovis is milking the cow to actually produce real benefits for local residents. I don't understand how a light at a bus stop is meant to deter terrorism ... but it's money the transit system can use for a good cause - customer service.

I've argued previously that Clovis and Fresno should apply for every possible grant they can process, and this is a good example of the benefits. It's especially nice to see that Clovis remembers they have a transit system, even though it doesn't operate at night, and has very few shelters.

Here are the details:

Grant: $73,950
To buy: 36 "pole-mounted" solar bus stop lights
To buy: 6 "shelter mounted" solar bus stop lights

A company called "Urban Solar" will provide the pole-mounted units, which will operate for 4 hours after dusk, and two hours before dawn. "Sol Inc." will provide the shelter units, and their systems will be on all night.

Presumably, the shelter system can last longer as panels will occupy the roof of the shelter, while the pole unit will be a single panel on top of the light.

The primary purpose of the pole units are so that the driver sees waiting passengers. They provide very localized light at the stop. Again, it's sort of odd because Clovis transit doesn't run past 6pm... but any sidewalk lighting is good. Currently, many Clovis sidewalks can be very dark, as the street lights are aimed exclusively into the road. On another positive note, these lights will advertise the existence of bus stops, which many people may not realize exist. Perhaps better awareness of the bus stops will lead to louder demand for night service?

Fresno, which does offer slightly longer night service, would do well into looking at the Clovis installation. The cost seems very reasonable, especially when paid for by the feds.

Here is what the pole unit looks like, according to the manufacturer website:

 photo clovis1_zpsfde7d17d.jpg

The shelter unit will be installed on existing bus shelters, and provide light to the seating area.

  photo clovis2_zps3497f6f3.jpg

Installation is to be finished by the end of the year.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Small Gap in Herndon Bike Path to be Filled

There's a small improvement coming to the Fresno bike network.

As everyone from Fresno is well aware, if you're in the north part of town, Herndon is the only way to go east or west...if you have a car. 6 lanes of 50mph traffic might get you across quickly in a motor vehicle, but it's an obstacle by bike. Sure, it's legal to bike on Herndon, but no one would ever actually do it.

The streets to the north of Herndon are calm and quiet...but they don't really connect. You can always go south, but that's a .5 mile detour just to get to the next road.

The city is attempting to solve this issue by creating a multi-use path on the north side of the avenue. Why wasn't it built when the six lanes of asphalt were? I don't know. But for now, every year some money trickles in which is used to fill in gaps.

This time, it's for the gap between Fruit and Palm.

Here's what the path does west of Palm.

 photo herndon1_zps72410a8a.png
And here's what the path does east of Fruit

 photo herndon2_zps9a601b11.png

According to this resolution (PDF), $260,000 will buy about .3 miles of trail. The cost seems very high to me, but it's in line with what Clovis paid for a trail expansion earlier this year.

Once this is done, one will be able to bike comfortably along Herndon from Ingram to Marks, which is 2.5 miles.

Monday, October 7, 2013

When parking minimums attack

Moving around Clovis or Fresno, it's easy to see that almost every business has a parking lot that is too big for even the busiest of days. The reason is due to parking minimums. The city requires that businesses provide a certain amount of spots, which is odd, because cities tend not to demand that businesses provide things to customers. There's no law, for example, that a movie theater must provide popcorn with every ticket, or that a supermarket must fill every grocery cart with chocolate.

But parking is special, it must be provided, usually in very large quantities. Because this regulation exists, you'd think there would be many hyper-local studies on the use. Nope, all the rules come from an old book with old studies from places far, far away. That can lead to hilarious demands....and disastrous results.

One item that came before the planning commission recently was a proposal to re-use the Gottschalks building at Sierra Vista Mall. That building was part of the 2008 mall expansion, but has been vacant since 2009 when the chain went out of business.

The new tenant that wants to come in is an indoor electric go-kart joint. While that indicates that the mall is still desperate for tenants, and has given up on finding an anchor, it will be nice to see the space used for the first time in over 4 years. The location also makes sense, as the nearby movie theater is probably the most successful part of the mall.

Go-karts are an interesting example of land use, because they occupy a lot of space, but can only attract a few people at a time. Sadly, the city doesn't make this distinction, and considers it a standard commercial use. Take a guess at how many spots you think such a use needs, and how many the city is requiring...

 photo parking4_zpsead9ae90.png
A go-kart place and a department store use space very differently. The large track, for example, is always mostly empty, allowing for races. At most, you might get 20 people racing at the same time. On an exceptionally busy day, you might get 20 more people waiting in line. Add a staff of 5, and you've got yourself a peak crowd of 45. Let's just go ahead and round up to 50.

Logically, one would assign parking demand based on how many people would use a building.

In this case, we could expect maybe 50 people at peak-of-peak. One most also consider that go-karting is a social activity, so people carpool. 

Kids party? 5 people per car/van.
Teens at night? 4 people per car/suv

If every single person drives alone, a parking lot of 50 would be more than enough. Realistically, you shouldn't expect more than 20 cars at any given time.

How correct is my estimate?

According to a company that actually build these tracks, the largest go-kart installations need 12,000-15,000 square feet of space for parking and ticket sales.

 Essentially, 50 spaces once you factor in the aisles and such.

So far I'm guessing 20 spots will be used, with 50 needed for peak-of-peak. A manufacturer is also claiming 50, and we can assume they also recommend for peak use.

Let's try one more approach ... simply visiting existing go-kart locations and seeing how well their lots are used.

Clovis has go-karting, at Blackbeards. In fact, that location has two go-kart tracks, bumper boats, three mini-golf courses, water slides, batting cages, an arcade, and more. That location has two parking lots, the lower one, with 60 stalls, and the upper one, with 120. I go there occasionally to use their batting cages, and have never seen the upper lot even open. Meaning 60 stall can handle the demand for parking for a place many times larger than this proposed use.

Don't take my word for it, look at Google.

Lower lot....about 15 spots used when this image was taken.
 photo parking2_zps1d745257.png

Upper lot (almost never opened, and so always empty). 
 photo parking3_zps30b9311f.png

One can also go to Fresno, to Boomers. Same situation: go-karts, arcade, mini-golf etc etc

They have 200 parking spots, but that includes an empty retail pad, so really they have around 100.

Survey says....about 13 used.

 photo parking1_zps2529c96d.png

Did the city do such an analysis? Nope, the city is content to use a one-size-fits-all approach to parking, an approach that has never been studied locally.

What they're requiring here is:

1,000 square feet = 5 stalls in a commercial center.

That means the requirement for "at least" 300 stalls, easily 10 times as many as are needed. That's not even considering that at a mall, people park once and visit multiple shops.

"Fortunately," the building already exists as part of the mall, so the parking issue was handled when it was built. The mall has over 5,000 spots, so approval was not an issue...this time.

Another applicant was not so lucky.

Remember how I brought news of another McDonalds moving into town? Have you wondered what happened to it?


McDonalds, as you may know, is a very large chain, which makes a whole lot of money. Indeed, if I had to ask anyone in the world how many parking spots get used in a suburban drive-thru fast-food restaurant, I would ask McDonalds. They're the experts. I may not like their product, but I think we can all admit that they have every part of their operation down to a science.

And yet Clovis has denied their application because the city thinks it knows how many parking spots McDonalds needs, and knows better than McDonalds. On one side, we have a multinational corporation which runs dozens of local stores, and has probably done hundreds of studies on parking demand. On the other side, we have a very generalized parking generation manual.

Clearly that manual knows best.

In this case, McDonalds wanted to build on a corner lot, which looks to be part of an existing shopping center, but isn't. They planned to build their own parking, and meet the requirements by sharing with the center for the remaining spots. Problem is, a tenant of the existing center (El Pollo Loco) got to veto this arrangement because as part of their lease they have an exclusive chicken license.

So they came back asking for a variance to the requirement.

Current requirement, 1 spot per 100 square feet.

Which for them meant 36 slots required, and they proposed 21.

The city rejected the variance, because in their expert opinion, a shortage of spots would cause parking lot congestion, even though McDonalds thinks their customers will have more than enough parking. The city was also concerned about the new site plan (PDF) which located the driveway closer to the intersection. That's a more valid concern, forced upon the chain because they're not allowed to use the existing driveways in the shopping center.

At no point did the city express concern that the site plan was terrible for pedestrians, and that a drive-thru stacked against a major corner was an abysmal use of space. As always, parking and "congestion" was the issue.

I won't shed a tear about McDonald's being sent home, but that doesn't mean it was right.

Maybe it's time for Clovis (and Fresno) to base their parking minimum requirements on actual local studies, and not generalized outdated national recommendations. It doesn't make sense to leave a lot empty because the current regulations are assumed to be perfect.

Bonus News:

The Atlantic Cities recently ran a story about absurd parking minimums for schools in Mesa. They provided a cool chart which shows that Fresno is in line with cities like Dallas and Phoenix. Nothing to be proud of, but could be much worse. At least we're not Mesa.

Bonus News 2:

In June of 2012 I wrote on how Blackbeards, home to a go-kart example, would be the first location in the city to get public EV charging stations.

In January of this year, I noted that it still hadn't been built

 As of August.....still nothing. The solar umbrellas were about 25% done last time I was there. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Fresno Governments Should be Proactive about Stranded Tourists During Federal Park Shutdown

Every year, millions of people come through the Central Valley to visit the area national parks. In 2012, Yosemite saw 3,853,404 visitors, Sequoia got 1,106,584 and Kings Canyon received 566,810. Sadly, I can’t look up monthly stats because the National Parks website is closed (seriously), but it’s safe to say that even an off-season month like October gets significant visitors. Indeed, due to the weather, it may be one of the best months to visit.

Of those visitors, countless make their journey from international locations, primarily Europe. I know every time I visit, I hear more French and German than English in the National Parks. While not all those visitors pass through Fresno, many do arrive at FAT or drive through the city on the highway.
Fresno has done little to capitalize on this tourism, as most see the area cities as little more than a rest-stop and a chance to try In-n-Out. Right now is prime time to change that, at least a little bit.
A trip from Europe to Yosemite isn’t planned at the spur of the moment, and is probably impossible to cancel at last minute. After all, planes have been booked, vacation days have been requested, and backpacks purchased.

Rather than leaving these visitors to struggle to find activities, the city and county should try their best to direct visitors to other local attractions. Remember, while San Francisco is calling, it should be expected that most had already set aside time for that during their trip. 

While the parks may be closed, outdoor recreation is still possible. The area is full of mountain lakes to kayak on, and trails to hike. A local tourism expert can provide info on the differences between the lakes, boat rental information, and directions. 

Other unknown destinations exist as well. The Cat Haven, just a few miles east of Clovis, is an interesting destination for anyone, and is well worth a visit. In the city, the underground gardens and the Fulton mall can also provide for a few hours of sight-seeing. Agriculture also provides a destination, as I guarantee the produce here is better than that found in Stuttgart. 

It’s food, in my opinion, where the area shines brightest. Without orientation, a European tourist might assume that River Park provides the best cuisine of the land, with its bright lights and full parking lots. In fact, if they were to poll a passer-by, they might come to the conclusion that Elephant Bar is the highlight of the state. Of course, we all know that’s not true. On their own, a tourist would never stumble upon Tacos Tijuana, Dusty Buns, Organic Fresno, or the “pho collection” on McKinley….never mind countless other delicious local favorites. 

Even if these tourists are only captured for a day, it’s money and exposure that’s badly needed.
So Fresno, Clovis, and County….get something going ASAP. Set up a stand at the airport, and put up a sign on 99. It may not quite be Yosemite, but surely some time with the Ansel Adams exhibit at the Fresno ArtMuseum can lessen the pain?

Incidentally, Yosemite is not fully closed…

Signs will soon be posted around the Yosemite Valley to warn visitors they have less than two days to leave. The only people who will be let into the park will be those driving through to another destination.

According to the website, visitors can still drive through the park, just not stop. Just say you need to get across Tioga Pass, and you’re welcome in. Better than nothing right?