Written by Edward Smith
A vote to renew the mandate for Downtown Fresno’s Property-Based Improvement District comes at a time both tenants and property owners are anxious to see the area take off.
Downtown’s nightlife seems to be building momentum, but those invested in the area are still waiting for one key element — housing.
While numerous housing projects are slated for arrival, stakeholders are worried that momentum will drop off before the area can sustain itself.
Property owners in Downtown Fresno will vote January 2022 on whether to continue to tax themselves as part of the Property Based Improvement District to continue the mission of the Downtown Fresno Partnership.
Currently, the Partnership is made up of 165 members across 352 parcels.
Its mission is to attract business to the region in addition to keeping the area clean and safe.
When the Partnership began in 2011, its mission was to turn Downtown Fresno into a place where people want to live, work and play, said Jimmy Cerracchio, president of the Partnership.
Today, that mission hasn’t much changed, he said. What has changed is the approach. It took several years to build a reason for people to come Downtown outside of a baseball game or event at the Convention Center. The Brewery District created a destination and a way to keep people afterwards to spend money. But today, businesses still rely on events to bring in numbers, said Po Tsai, operating partner for The Modernist.
In terms of sustainability, Tsai says Downtown businesses can be solvent, but struggle with growth.
“From a solvency standpoint, it’s sustainable, but most businesses aren’t in business to stay in the same place,” Tsai said. “Sustainability from a growth perspective? I’d say we’re in the early innings.”
Property owners and business owners tend to agree — the largest missing piece of the puzzle is housing. In North Fresno or the Tower District, not only do businesses attract people from all over the city, but they also have residents in the area businesses can rely on throughout the week.
A slew of new projects are on the horizon for Downtown.
Developer Reza Assemi has broken ground on the Mural District Lofts at 1740 Van Ness Ave. The three-story complex will have 28 units with six affordable units. Assemi said in a previous interview that he felt Downtown lacked the kind of smaller units he envisioned for the project. Assemi was the first developer to bring significant housing to Downtown Fresno, beginning with the Pearl Building and following soon after with Iron Bird Lofts.
Beyond that, Assemi and developer Will Dyck plan to break ground on 37 units along Broadway Avenue under the name Dada Enterprises.
The project will bring high-density lofts and a few two-bedroom units across the street from Kepler Neighborhood School. They plan to break ground the first of the year. Dyck also purchased the former JC Penney building with plans for what he says will be the largest redevelopment in Downtown Fresno in recent years — transforming the vacated building into 104 units of housing under his company, Summa Development Group. He plans to break ground mid-2022 and the project will probably take 18 months, he said.
At 1510 N. Van Ness Ave., Lance Kashian & Co. is planning about 53 market rate units combined with 4,000 square feet of retail for a project they’re calling Uptown. They plan to break ground the first quarter of 2022, according to Tracy Kashian, vice president of marketing for Lance Kashian & Co.
The Fresno City Council approved the sale of the Berkeley Building on Fulton Street to Noyan Frazier Capital, which is also developing 54 units under the name The Park at South Stadium.
Building in an older area means costs are a bit higher, but residential rents have reached sustainability and most apartments are at occupancy, said Assemi.
Property and business owners both anxiously await the arrival of housing.
Tsai says businesses in the Brewery District still rely on events to bring people to the area.
And while there is momentum, Downtown investors need to be mindful that without organic growth in demand from housing, interest can fizzle out, he said.
It is expensive to develop Downtown because of outdated infrastructure, said Cerracchio. And it will take more residency Downtown to establish the nightlife that can justify those higher commercial rents.
Business owners bringing boutique retail need to know there will be guaranteed traffic rather than hoping for events.
Property owner Bob Gurfield says food is still the driving factor for Downtown Fresno. Gurfield owns the popular Renoir Building, which houses Chicken Shack and Toshiko Ramen & Sushi Bar. He says Downtown still lacks diverse retail.
Cerracchio said office tenants look at what food and retail options are available for workers. Once those are in place, office space can begin to fill up.
The other half of the Partnership’s mandate is keeping the area clean and safe.
Workers at the Partnership — called “ambassadors” — pick up trash in the area as well as notify property owners of broken fences or unsecure doors. They make calls for graffiti cleanup as well as unlocked dumpsters.
Cerracchio said it seems like the homeless population has increased since the pandemic. A point-in-time count of homeless people — normally conducted by Fresno Madera Continuum of Care in January — was canceled because of Covid. But a release in August 2020 found that in the city of Fresno, the number of unsheltered people climbed 522 to 1,674 people from 2019 to 2020, a 45.3% increase.
While safety is important, business and property owners still say it’s secondary to the goal of getting businesses to come Downtown.
Edward Fanucchi, partner with law firm Quinlan, Kershaw & Fanucchi, owns three parking lots as well as his Downtown firm. The property also serves the Italian Consulate. He says most of the safety concerns are “perceptions” rather than reality.
“The perception is it’s not safe,” said Fanucchi. He said he likes what the Partnership has done and “gives it an ‘A.’”
Gurfield said homeless and safety issues “have always been downtown problems and they shouldn’t dissuade people from going downtown.”
Tsai said safety issues are commonplace for any major metropolitan downtown.
Cerracchio said the demand for Downtown is there. The challenge is getting it moving quick enough to capture people’s enthusiasm.
“There’s a lot of support and a lot of momentum,” said Cerracchio. “Let’s push it over the hill so it keeps snowballing.”