An artist's rendering of the West Fresno Fresno City College satellite campus.
Written by Donald A. Promnitz
Covid-19 has done much to disrupt day-to-day life and commerce across the country, but it hasn’t put a stop to an ongoing, state-funded project to transform some of Fresno’s most underprivileged neighborhoods.
Transform Fresno, the cap-and-trade-funded initiative to create greening and environmentally friendly community construction projects, remains in full swing.
The Fresno City Council voted last year to enter into a financial agreement with the state to begin the Transformative Climate Communities initiative, receiving $66.5 million in cap-and-trade proceeds. Some of the most notable projects approved for the initiative include Fresno City College’s West Campus and a new, affordable housing project in Chinatown worth $24.6 million, which is being headed by the Fresno Housing Authority. Other projects include the building of parks, solar panel installations and job training.
Since the projects predominantly fall into construction, an essential industry, there haven’t been any significant delays. In fact, City Council President Miguel Arias expects the project to finish on schedule — and he’s counting on it. Since the City of Fresno signed the contract, he’s kept a clock in his office, counting down the five years they have to finish.
“I anticipate that we’ll remain in that five-year window with the vast majority of the projects,” Arias said.
However, the pandemic has shifted the way things are being done. To respect the guidelines on social distancing, community engagement projects have currently been put on hold, while Oversight Committee meetings are done by Zoom conference. In some ways, Arias says the changes have been advantageous. The Zoom meetings — for example — have allowed for greater community participation for people who may not have been able to drive to a meeting. The pace of the project has also been improved.
“We’ve actually made some additional progress in the initial approval process in the areas of engineering and design,” Arias said. “Because people are home, and you can get them to move on some of that work faster.”
For Jan Minami, executive director for the Chinatown Fresno Foundation, the construction of the housing project can’t come fast enough. After commerce was devastated by road closures to build the high-speed rail project, Covid-19 has doubled down on the adversity.
Last year, there was high optimism in the area with investors buying up several abandoned buildings to be repurposed. The Mono Street entrance into Chinatown also reopened. But now, the pandemic seems to have brought them back to square one.
Most of the businesses in Chinatown are barbershops and restaurants — two areas of commerce that are being hit particularly hard by Covid. The barbershops are completely closed, and while restaurants are able to do take out, they’ve been completely cut off from the lunch rush that makes up the most important portion of their customers.
But Chinatown, Minami said, is “really, really, really” resilient. And while it’s been bad, she remains hopeful about the district’s survival.
“Chinatown has been abandoned by everybody for years and years and years, and over the last couple of years — high-speed rail causing the problems it’s caused — we’ve gotten together and tried to deal with that as best we could,” Minami said. “And people are still there.”
Arias expects both the housing project and the West Fresno campus to be ready for groundbreaking by September. And while the state has given him more time in consideration of the circumstances, he intends on sticking to his original goal.
“So far, I have no alarms being triggered by any concern that we won’t be able to meet our five-year deadline,” Arias said. “And my clock is still here on my desk and it’s still counting.”