Why the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan and Transform Fresno Must Be Stopped

By Emily Brandt

April 26, 2023

This is a blog dedicated to exposing problems with Fresno City Planning in Southwest Fresno. It uses vast resources of evidence available at the Heritage Center, Fresno Public Library and other documents which I have access to from private collections. The views are my own and do not reflect those of any agency, non-profit or political entity.

Unless she were anticipating “loaves and fishes” miracle math, there is very little likelihood that the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan and the Transform Fresno piece of it could fulfill the actual goals presented in Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s Application Narrative for the Transformative Climate Communities grant dated December 16, 2017. Let’s examine those grant-requesting goals with their supporting data that was carefully curated to prove the extreme need and compare them with the carefully curated data presented in the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan (SWFSP 10.2017) to capture the maximum funding and the Transform Fresno Projects (2016-2023) which are a part of the SWFSP. This convention adopted by city governments and planning departments and government agencies allows what we will call grant application data misuse. This is defined as the plucking of the most negative, neediest data in a given area in order to receive grant money that can be used outside the neediest area when the grant area is expanded to include neighboring areas (that would not otherwise have qualified for such a high level of funds or for any funds at all) or be redirected to another area completely through blending the targeted area funding into the general budget, a practice used, not just periodically, but all the time with Southwest Fresno (SW) for the last 75 or more years. These applications for funding in SW Fresno always receive large amounts of funds based on the consistently high level of need. Why do we say “consistently high” because the funds never get to fill the actual need. This has to be considered a deliberate strategy, or even a scam. We will come back to examples of this later.  

When then Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Assemblymember Dr. Joaquin Arambula testified in Sacramento before the Budget Committee on May 3, 2016, the press release says they “testified to encourage increased investment of Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds in Fresno, which has the highest concentration of disadvantaged communities in the state.” Why is that? Hasn’t Fresno received funds before? Yes, billions of funds that have been redirected to other areas of Fresno.  

In the seven years since this date, that has not changed, yet the plans to bring about that change have all but exploded with city planning departments hiring fresh graduates of university planning programs versed in the language of consultants using terms like “urban greening,” “transit-oriented planning,” “the 15-minute city,” “and green spaces.”  The focus on remediating environmental injustice and sacrifice zones was going to be accomplished by “green equity” with pocket parks, community gardens and tree-planting.  “Space equity” became associated with bike lanes, walkable cities and magnet cores. City bike and walking trails were growing at a fast pace in City of Fresno planning documents to open the outdoors to the residents of impoverished areas. This is all part of the goals of environmental justice.

These ideas in themselves are wonderful, but they cannot be used to address levels of air pollution, both historic and ongoing, from industrial sources that have been left unregulated and unrestricted for decades and are staggeringly high. The linked location is already at 100% pollution-burdened and is one of the Transform Fresno census tracts. Walking or biking beside un-remediated Superfund sites and former battery dumps such as those all over SW Fresno is not “space equity” or any kind of equity. These ideas for change simply cannot work to lower GHG in any meaningful way to help the current residents of SW Fresno.  

Putting people out onto these new complete streets (78) in highly toxic air pollution is not a form of equity. Arguing that increasing bicycle use and walking will reduce GHG sufficiently to make biking/walking safe to do when we already know from studies that air pollution-related diseases kill 800 (6) or more residents of 93706 annually and public transit in SW Fresno is severely limited. There is solid scientific evidence that such ideas are dangerously premature. Outdoor activities in highly polluted air for more than 30% of the year will not improve health outcomes.

Changes to reduce GHG must be completed before building complete streets and encouraging the increased use of bike lanes/trails and sidewalks. Fresno has been promoting the use of bicycles and walking before even making it safe enough to do so. The Southwest Fresno Specific Plan (SWFSP) implements these ideas without ensuring that the air in 93706 and even areas of 93721 is clean enough to be safe. Other areas of Fresno have clean enough air most of the days of the year for such activities, but not these areas. That is why they received the $66.5 million Transform Fresno Project Grants.  

Though, as with all grant data application misuse, the SWFSP and Transform Fresno Projects will not be capable of lowering GHG air pollution, they will actually raise it. We will take a very close look at that later. We are aware that the TCC funds could not aim to correct the entire problem in SW Fresno and Downtown. That is not the issue.  

We offer the argument that it will actually raise emissions, but that the assessments being currently used through the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA and the UC Berkeley Center for Resource Resilient Communities which are not collecting the data needed to show how much GHG is reduced or increased because the California Air Resources Board monitoring system is insufficient to provide such information. None of the human data cited in the Annual UCLA/UCB reports comes from actual data collected from the residents in the census tracts. It is all drawn from the American Community Survey (ACS) records which are known to be unreliable in areas with high levels of low income people of color. It is a project of the US Census Bureau of whom many are suspicious and therefore, they will not participate. Therefore, all of the income, education and public health data is secondary data.  

The six 93706 census tracts (total population 21,649 in 2017 or 51% of 93706 population) and three (total population of 14,631) 93721 census tracts where the TCC Projects are may not even be a significant part of the ACS data. There’s no way to know. At the same time, the GHG data collected in 93706 relies on one AB617 sensor at Fresno Foundry which is east of Freeway 99. There are two other air sensor is a purple air sensors: one also at Fresno Foundry and the second which has been offline for a year or more at Edison High School.     

None of the clinics or hospitals participated using anonymized patient data sorted by zip code such as the studies conducted in Fresno by the American Lung Association and the American Asthma Foundation. Furthermore, with the high level of unhoused people in the area, for whom there is no record, the data could be flawed. The only reliable source of data being used is CalEnviroScreen 4.0 but it is aggregated data. How will we know if GHG has been reduced or it has increased from what it was in 2016? How will we know if the current residents have improved health outcomes? They will not be able to afford to live where they currently are and there is no tracking of primary data from actual individuals if/when they move away. That is why these projects seem destined to succeed on paper, just as the authorities and agencies involved in the projects believe from the hyping of the SWFSP and Transform Fresno by the media since the beginning. In reality, of the 36,280 residents identified in the project areas 93706 and the 93721 added to a subsequent application after the first one after Swearingen’s Downtown Development Plan failed there were only 156 voting on the projects only a small percent of whom lived in 93706 (SW Fresno) or 93721 (Downtown). Most owned property or worked there, but didn’t live there.

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