Plans to update Blackstone will affect businesses along the thoroughfare, especially between Dakota Avenue and Highway 180. Photo by Ram Reyes.

published on August 19, 2020 - 2:09 PM
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When you ask business owner AJ Rassamni about what it takes to fix Blackstone Avenue, he’ll not only tell you about the politics and homelessness impacting his own business, but also the individual problems facing each of the businesses up and down the corridor.

The Fresno City Council voted unanimously to set aside $100,000 for an initial evaluation of how a special district designation might bring back to life the former Fresno artery. But a PBID is just one of the tools set forth for the street.

Property-based Business Improvement Districts (PBID) have been implemented in places such as Downtown Fresno and Hanford. An extra tax on property owners pays for marketing as well as maintenance.

A proposed enhanced infrastructure financing district (EIFD) also along Blackstone Avenue would localize property taxes to make improvements that lessen the cost of development. But even with multiple tools at the hands of politicians and developers to transform the street, there still lacks a unified vision. And with zoning changes and substantial improvements being proposed, business owners worry that they’re being left out of the loop.


Jumpstart Blackstone

Fresno City Councilman Nelson Esparza says the idea for the PBID came out of an already existing association Rassamni invited him to see.

Three years ago, when businesses along Blackstone Avenue had gone to the City of Fresno in search of help to clean up the street, one code enforcer suggested they form an association. Since then, the Central Blackstone Area Merchant’s Association, lead by Rassamni, brought together 70 member businesses on Blackstone Avenue namely between Ashlan and Shields avenues.

The effects of homelessness has made doing business hard, says Rassamni, who owns Great American Car Wash at 3854 N. Blackstone Ave. When he tells people about his business, they tell him they don’t like going to that part of town, he says. Before the association got together to pool their resources, his business would get broken into 10 times a month, he said. Before Covid hit, the Association would meet once a week. Members call police for one another when they see people sleeping on the street. They teamed with Blue Sky Wellness Center, a mental health and addiction recovery facility, to refer homeless people for services. Members of the recovery group would go out and clean up the street, said Jessica Underwood, administrator of the facility on East Saginaw Way.


Marketing game

On top of street maintenance, a PBID would also bring marketing to the street by way of unified signage, events and advertising. It would be up to business owners to assess themselves and decide how to spend that money.

The Fresno City Council will soon be taking bids for the PBID evaluation.

“This is all about property owners getting together and deciding what they want and if they’re willing to tax themselves to get it,” said Keith Bergthold, executive director of Fresno Metro Ministries. He and Morel Bagunu, general manager of Manchester Center, plan to throw their names in the hat for the bid. For the past year, they’ve been in talks with a Phoenix-based consulting group who has executed multiple PBIDs. Bergthold has proposed a PBID for the area for a number of years.

“If we get the infrastructure right, the PBID could pay for keeping it safe and clean everyday,” said Bergthold.

Beyond marketing, getting mixed-use development on Blackstone Avenue requires battling a low-rent structure with high construction costs, says Bergthold, whose organization has advocated Blackstone development for the past few years under the project name Better Blackstone. Bergthold also used to be a city planner for the City of Fresno.

“The PBID really dresses up what the area is going to look like,” said Bagunu. “It could be wayside signs, monument signs, marketing events, maybe extra security that’s patrolling the area — those are all ancillary things that need to happen to maintain a great area.”


Infill time

Fresno’s most recent General Plan, adopted under then-Mayor Ashley Swearengin, favored infill development. Now the site of numerous automotive repair shops and car dealerships, Blackstone’s new vision calls for mixed-use retail with residential apartments on top.

The rezoning has created a demand for certain business types. Changes to zoning in the General Plan limited what can be done with properties. Plans favor mixed-use with street-facing facades, rather than set-back buildings far from view.

Unless a business type has been grandfathered in, single-story buildings such as car washes, car dealerships or automotive repair have been zoned out. Alam Yasin, owner of Speed Max Used Cars, says he can’t afford to expand or even move if he wanted to because of the spike in rents rezoning has created for car dealerships.

“Car lots should be anywhere on Blackstone, this is what Blackstone is famous for,” said Yasin.

For Rassamni who has been trying to sell his business for the past couple of years, the only offers he’s had are for car dealerships. And the city won’t allow that because his property can only remain a car wash or be sold for mixed-use development. He’ll never recoup what he paid into his business because of the zoning changes, he said.

The infrastructure exists to accommodate mixed-use growth, but work to change the street will be expensive. Bergthold says it will take capital projects underwritten by the city and with state grant money to share enough costs to make projects feasible.

“Maybe the first 10 projects aren’t market feasible, but the next 10 are. That would create that critical mass,” said Bergthold.


Smart mobility

The City Council last year approved Fresno Metro Ministries’ Southern Blackstone Avenue Smart Mobility Strategy. The Strategy would shrink Blackstone Avenue between Highway 180 and Dakota Avenue to four lanes and reduce the speed limit to 30 mph. The project is estimated to cost $50 million. Financing for the project has not yet been secured, but Esparza says the first thing the EIFD could do is fund it.

The idea of an EIFD was created in California after Redevelopment Agencies expired under then-Governor Jerry Brown. It creates a fund from property taxes as land values increase. Esparza said it would not create any new taxes, but some estimates say it could disburse $300 million over 50 years. The EIFD has to be finalized.

What advocates envision and what developers see as feasible is not yet unified.

Hotel owner Jay Patel likes the idea of beautifying Blackstone Avenue so long as it maintains safety. Shrinking to four lanes would not only congest traffic, he feels, but also increase prostitution. He feels that making money available to beautify outdated facades along Blackstone would encourage walkability.

“If the business looks beautiful then tourists would want to walk, but if it’s not an inviting place, what’s the point of widening the sidewalks?” Patel said.

Some business owners feel that affordable housing developments also run contrary to the vision set forth to beatify the area


Skepticism remains

Rassamni is skeptical that the vision for Blackstone Avenue stays consistent. As city staff changes, so does the Blackstone strategy.

It wasn’t too long ago that police worked closely with code enforcement as well as the merchant association to clean up the street. Code enforcement regularly canvassed the area to see what business owners needed, Rassamni said. Because of this, the section of Blackstone between Shields and Ashlan avenues was the cleanest of the entire corridor.

Last week, Patel received a written warning from Fresno PD saying that they had received too many calls for service regarding prostitution and homelessness at his hotel, Clarion Pointe. The letter states that if Patel doesn’t correct the issue at his property, he’ll be cited. As recently as earlier this year, Patel said police had been very helpful in responding to business’ concern.

Bergthold said a PBID would give property owners the avenue and funding through which to correct these concerns.

“This has to be driven by property owners along the corridor segment and if they see the vision and they want to tax themselves to create the marketing, the organizing, the clean-and-safe environment and the signage and the activities, that’s what would really help the corridor,” Bergthold said.

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