Fresno Mayoral Election – What will it mean for sprawl?

If you support investment in a strong downtown, curtailing sprawl, focusing on infill, fighting slumlords, and supporting high speed rail, which candidate should you support in the upcoming Fresno mayoral election?

Downtown Fresno, before the removal of the Fulton Mall

The good news is that fortunately for Fresno, neither candidate is a disaster. Neither candidate has declared that downtown should be abandoned, or that bike lanes are part of a secret international agenda, for example. Unfortunately, that means that voting tomorrow becomes a little harder, because one has to conduct a little research.

The candidates are Democrat Henry Perea and Republican Lee Brand. If you only follow national politics, the choice seems simple. For whatever reason, over the last decades, the Republican Party has taken stances against sustainable transportation, High Speed Rail, and investment in infill. But we’re talking about Fresno, and it’s not so clear cut.

For the past eight years, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin has shown a strong interest in everything I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Although she is a Republican – born in Texas and raised in Arkansas – Mayor Swearengin strayed from the typical Republican platform in her efforts to fix Fresno’s core. She was one of the strongest supporters of High Speed Rail, she oversaw the first residential development in downtown Fresno in decades, brought in $40 million in federal funding for BRT, pushed a master plan that focused on infill, and even stood her ground against the first developer attempt to ignore the master plan in building a new suburban supermarket.

This of course, has been in strong contrast to California Republicans on the national stage, such as Nunes, Denham, Valadao, and Issa. Indeed, the prime reason Mayor Swearengin hasn’t had a stronger list of successes has been to the right wing reps on the Fresno City Council. Those council members have shared the following gems:

On Planning

“I always side with the free market. Who knows more about retail, Smart & Final or the city of Fresno?” says Council Member Clint Olivier, whose district includes the project site. “In a case like this, I always side with the business owner. I always side with the free market.”
Smart and Final

On Bicycle Lanes

Public support for the bike lanes on Fruit was overwhelming, but one voice prevailed. City Council Member Steve Brandau argued there was not enough bicycle traffic to justify a bike lane on Fruit Avenue between Shaw and Herndon. Brandau cited his own informal traffic study as evidence.

“I went out and parked under a shade tree, it was on a Saturday, a beautiful day and I counted in one hour 374 cars and zero bikes.” 
Council Kills Road Diet 

On Public Transit

The feds and the state will pay for this bus with your tax dollars, but is that a good use of your money if we don’t need the bus?
Fresno Kills BRT 

 On Infill Development 

Our citizens have always preferred bigger homes on lots with a backyard for barbecuing. They like driving cars while listening to music.

This general plan would be more at home in Sacramento or San Francisco. It is now popular in California for public policy to be made on the whimsical notions of the “intellectual elite.” They live off high six-figure salaries and have less common sense than the average Walmart clerk.

That said, this general plan is still focused on high-density infill development that is diametrically opposed to the free market. Until that fact changes, I cannot support this 2035 General Plan Update.
Infill Plan 

These kinds of statements extend beyond Fresno’s borders into Madera:

On a plan to provide public transit between Fresno and Yosemite:

“Busing will herd visitors between set locations like cattle, and will take away from leisurely travel time that helps the local economy, giving tourists more flexibility to shop and dine,” Bigelow said

Fresno’s “spine,” Blackstone Avenue

But even against this kind of obstruction, the Mayor got her way more often than not. Of course, that included projects I personally did not support, such as removing the Fulton Mall. However, even in that case, the project was done as an attempt to bring investment to downtown. Rather than, you know, letting the free market sprawl to the sierras and back. Incidentally, the people in Fresno like what she has done. She was originally elected with 54% of the vote. She was reelected with 75%.

The point here, is that one can still be the Republican mayor of Fresno and not subscribe to the national party line.

Which brings us to the two candidates, and why strong consideration should be given to both.

Both Brand and Perea have a lot in common. They’ve each lived in Fresno for over 60 years, and both have experience in local government. Brand has had 6 years on the Fresno City Planning Commission and 7 1/2 years on the Fresno City Council. Perea also spent time on the City Council and currently sits on the County Board.

At first glance, I thought this would be a classic case of North Fresno versus South Fresno. Brand is a Republican from North Fresno who also works in apartment management. Perea has built a coalition in South Fresno, home to downtown. For those unfamiliar with Fresno, the northern side is generally wealthier and whiter. The southern side has lower averages incomes and higher proportions of minorities. The southern side developed first, and the city has constantly expanded north.

A housing development, “The Grove,” replaces an actual
orange grove in Clovis 

And yet curiously, all the Fresno-area sprawl developers have thrown their hat in with the Democrat, Perea.

That includes the folks at Granville, which have made a series of unfortunate power plays in an effort to shape the election in a “pro-sprawl” message. These plays included an op-ed in the Bee slamming Mayor Swearengin’s tenure, a nasty online video hailing the virtues of supporting sprawl development, and an “October Surprise” announcement that they would sell all their downtown Fresno properties.

Their message and goals have been clear and transparent. The question is, why have they thrown money at Perea?

I can think of two reasons:

  1. They believe he will win, and are trying to gain favor
  2. They believe he best aligns with their goals, and are trying to ensure he is elected.

The Fresno Bee has written plenty about the candidates, and one sentence was particularly alarming to me:

How the city grows has been another issue where Brand and Perea have differing visions. Brand is strongly behind a revamped city General Plan that focuses on infill – the practice of first developing open lots in town before growing beyond city limits. The plan was a cornerstone of Swearengin’s second term, and as a City Council ally, Brand helped push the plan.

Perea, on the other hand, is refusing the shut the door on growth at the city’s fringes.
These stances would seem to place Brand in the more liberal position of limiting growth at the city’s edges, while Perea’s stance to let the free market decide is more in line with a Republican point of view.

Perea has questioned the wisdom of pushing infill to the exclusion of fringe growth, thinking builders may simply go to Madera County, Sanger or Clovis if they are limited in efforts to build new subdivisions at Fresno’s outer reaches.

Brand, however, says that “sprawl creates deterioration of older neighborhoods. They over-consume services. It’s a losing business model.”
Fresno Bee

Why did I highlight that line?

Because that talking point is identical to the one raised by Granville to justify their sprawl.

Remember that online video I mentioned?

A few months ago, Granville took the extraordinary step of launching “GV Wire,” which produces and distributes political propaganda.


GV Wire talks with Loretta Sanchez for U.S. Senate about water, ISIS and those Hillary Clinton e-mails.

Why on earth is a suburban tract home developer from Fresno suddenly creating videos about ISIS?

And it just so happened that one of their very first videos made the argument that Granville should be allowed to sprawl in Fresno or else they would pick up their heavy machinery and continue sprawling in Sanger and Madera.

So again, is Granville funding Perea because he happens to agree with them, or are they exchanging cash for policy?

The Fresno Bee recently endorsed Perea, but with one caveat:

We would prefer that he engaged in less old-fashioned power politics and more in consensus building.
Fresno Bee

This type of “power politics” is concerning. It leads to agreements such as “Sure you can sprawl out 4,000 new homes, but only if you build 400 apartments downtown.”

These are the types of games Granville and friends love to play, especially with tax money subsidies. Indeed, that’s probably what they expected with Swearengin. They hoped that the goodwill they built up would means the general plan would pave the way for more suburban sprawl. Unfortunately, after not getting their way, they threw a fit.

Mayor Swearengin’s husband gave the following statement on the issue:

There was a day, not so long ago, in Central California when developers were able to push City officials to do their bidding to the detriment of local citizens. Some used govt money to build downtown projects to try and manipulate rulings from City officials in other areas of our town. Some developers have been quite angry the last 8 years that City hall represented the citizens first and demanded developers do their work within city planning and parameters. Some developers have not taken it well that their influence over the City of Fresno was lost and now they are doing all they can to try and get back in charge.

Fresno, don’t elect officials who will open the door once again to sprawl. Look at who some of these developers are supporting and ask yourself “why”. Ask yourself why will some of them try and smear what has happened in the City over the last 8 years. Outward growth of the City or “sprawl” is a massive Ponzi scheme that benefits developers and robs the City, if not done in controlled growth. The developers claim these developments on the City fringe cause economic growth but actually, once the sales tax the City gets for the home sale of a fringe development is gone, the taxpayers are on the hook for the supply of water, roads, fire and police to these developments for the REST OF HISTORY – long after the developer has pocketed the profits and moved on to the next sprawl project.

When developers and cities work as partners, both can greatly profit together – but don’t be fooled by the ones who are willing to hurt their city for their own personal gain. These are the people, along with the govt officials who caved to their influence, that have put the knife in the heart of Fresno’s economy for 50 years. Fresno, you are too valuable to sell your soul to profiteers who will say or do or give any amount of money to candidates or smear anybody necessary to put themselves back in control of the City of Fresno.

Mr. Swearengin is correct. Development on the fringe hurts the city. It sucks out public money and leaves the economically disadvantaged behind.

Incidentally, the following people and entitled have made contributions to Henry Perea:

  • GV Holdings, Inc.
  • Granville Chief Executive Officer
  • Vice President of McCaffrey Homes
  • Lance-Kashian and Company
  • McCaffrey Homes Chief Executive Officer

None of them appear to have donated to Brand.

Needless to say, Mayor Swearengin endorsed Brand.

On the other hand, the Fresno Bee, which also supports downtown development, sustainable transportation, and all those other fun things did endorse Perea. They said the following about Brand:

Brand’s political instincts are largely timid and reactive. For example, he did not lead the charge to address water discoloration and health-safety issues in the northeast Fresno neighborhoods that he represents. Instead he waited until citizen whistleblowers brought the longtime problem to light.

In fact, my personal experience with him matches this. Way back in 2011, there was a proposal to invest in Hotel Fresno:

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and City Council President Lee Brand are headed for a fight over the fate of the nearly century-old Hotel Fresno building. She wants to spend taxpayer money on what she calls a risk-free project that will spark downtown. He thinks she is pushing taxpayers into a disaster. Swearengin’s administration on Thursday will ask the City Council to approve a loan of nearly $860,000 in City Hall-controlled federal housing money to help jump-start the rehabilitation of the Hotel Fresno.

Brand said the Hotel Fresno loan documents are based on faulty revenue and cost estimates, which almost inevitably will lead to a failed project. He said it makes no difference that the city’s shrinking general fund, which goes largely to public safety, is not on the hook.
Hotel Fresno

Brand won that fight, and five years later, Hotel Fresno sits as sad and abandoned as ever. However, I did email him, and he replied in extensive detail with his reasoning behind the vote. Essentially, he had seen the series of Fresno investments which failed, and was worried this was next.

And to be fair, Fresno has had a long history of “sure-fire” investments which failed spectacularly.

This same type of thoughtfulness is reflected in the Fresno Bee’s voter guide, where the candidates could provide answers to questions.

Compare the level of detail between the two:

This is true of all their replies. However, more detail doesn’t always mean better. The BRT question is an example of where neither candidate comes out well:

What is your opinion of the proposed bus rapid transit system? Right now, routes are proposed for Blackstone, Kings Canyon and Shaw avenues. Is it a good idea? Is it viable? If not, how should it be changed?

Henry Perea: The decision on BRT has been made, my job as mayor will be to build it on time and within budget. BRT is an important link in implementation of the new general plan and provides a viable means of transportation for our residents.

Mr. Perea doesn’t come out as someone who loves transit here. “The decision has been made” makes it sound like he will “deal with it” rather than support it.

On the other hand, Mr. Brand’s “cautious” approach is partially why Fresno will no longer get a BRT system:

Lee Brand: I did not support the original BRT proposal at over $50 million. It was over priced and didn’t deliver an efficient plan. I did support a revised version that came back a few months later with a significant reduction in price and a revised transportation model. The new model was modeled after Stockton which uses smaller more cost effective buses. The routes were modified to include Shaw Avenue. Shaw Avenue has many prime destinations including the Save Mart arena, the Maya Theatre complex, Fresno State University, Fashion Fair Mall, and Fig Garden Village Shopping Center.

The Development Code re-zones most of the transit corridors to residential and mixed use categories. Transformation from predominantly commercial zoning to residential zoning will be difficult.

The transformation in zoning and use along Blackstone will require a substantial investment in infrastructure. The City does not have the financial resources to pay for the needed infrastructure. There are a few potential solutions. The best alternative is for the City to obtain state and federal funds to pay for the infrastructure. Another alternative is for property owners to form Infrastructure Assessment Districts.

BRT will not work without a business plan to incentivize new development along the transit corridors. The Economic Expansion Act does offer policies to incentivize development along Blackstone.

There’s a lot of good detail here, and he is certainly correct that Blackstone needs more than a new bus for revitalization. However, it speaks to what the Bee called “timid and reactive.” Brand chose to ignore years of public workshops, designs by experts, and a decade of planning and instead apply his own sense of “efficiency.” The result is a bus painted a different color, one that will not provide the confidence needed to spur investment in a transit corridor.


My conclusion here is that as Mayor, Lee Brand would be a cautious conservative. Someone who would frequently say no, in an interest to minimize risk to Fresno. However, while risk avoidance is certainly attractive, it doesn’t make sense in an economy that needs a strong kick-starting, and an investment environment that has low interest rates and high unemployment. Business as usual has created a city with way too many problems, many of which are closely linked. Concentrated poverty is linked to gang activity. Concentrated poverty is also linked to poor land use which strains the public budget and leaves entire sections of the city behind. Sure, saying “no” might be the right decision sometimes, but it can just as easily be the wrong decision which leaves the city spinning its wheels.

On the other hand, I am concerned that Perea would most likely be a “yes” kind of guy, and this also swings both ways. He seems like someone who would say yes not just to important projects, but also to the big-name developers who come to his door with cash. And again, this would be counter productive. Allowing sprawling subdivisions because the developer is throwing in some “mitigation” sure looks good at the press conference – but it creates decades of negative consequences, and sucks money from initiatives he claims to be focused on. We’ve also seen attacks on the general plan, attacks which required a lot of spine by the Swearengin administration to reject. Most recently, that was the Smart and Final saga, but I am also reminded me of when a North Fresno developer attempted to build on the regional bicycle trail right of way to expand his restaurant.

When confronted with this (hilariously awful) poster, I am worried that Perea would say “yes.” After all, it sure looks great for Fresno!

As I said when I started this column, neither of the two candidates would be a disaster for Fresno. But neither fill me with confidence. I just hope this blog will be able to report on 4 years of good news, rather than the bad.

9 Replies to “Fresno Mayoral Election – What will it mean for sprawl?”

  1. Gosh James it seems like I was waiting a looong time for your next blog lol. Good to hear from ya. This is a very interesting and indepth look at the advantages and disadvantages to each candidate. I like some ideas of both candidates, unfortunately we can only pick one. I've made my decision.

  2. Jeeeze here we go with the IKEA thing again smh. Never will come, just like Southwest will never come. Anyways, yes Lee won, I was actually surprised that he did. He can be a little too conservative at times but he DOES show support to the city so I think either way we will be in good hands leading this city in a positive direction.

    1. I do think there should be an Ikea in the valley, but it is not exactly some kind of wonderland. They have few employees, because it is a "pick up your own materials" outfit, and in terms on land use, theyre not urban at all. They also tend to be located by shipping areas, so theyd be on a parcel by 99 and the UP rail line, but that could be in a random place such as south of Kingsburg

    1. Most retail locations are based around drawing a circle and seeing how many people that make x income or more live within that circle. The Ikea circle is large, so by including Bakersfield and Fresno I could see them picking a location one day (but not any time soon).

      Fresno could have 5 million people and not get a Nordstrom because the circle wouldnt include enough people making $120,000+

    2. Exaaaacfly. I follow. And that's the same rationale as to why walnut creek can have a nords and a Neiman Marcus. Because eventhough it's a small city, the median income there is 150k and greater.

    3. what those studies dont really dig deep into though is account cost of living. san jose has median income of 100K. but people who make 100K in san jose can't even afford their own homes there. people making much less in fresno actually have a light at the end of a tunnel to own a home. some even decent homes as making a middle class income in fresno is a lot better than making an upper middle class income of 100K in san jose unless you dont mind living in the bad parts of san jose or only be able to afford a fixer upper 500K 800 sq ft house or a 400K townhome/condo.

      I guess I know because my brother is in tech in san jose and he makes 100K. its difficult for him to save because rent is crazy. rent in some cases is as much if not higher than a mortgage, but a mortgage he can never have because he can never save because the rent is so high he has little savings left over. while im over here and my husband and i both make 50k a year totaling just near 100K anually and we have much better living situations. we have a nice beautiful house in the nice part of town and have plenty of disposable income left. thats what these studies dont take in consideration and probably never will.

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