Construction crew work outside "The Hub," a community center where visitors to the Tesoro Viejo subdivision can get information about the homes and neighborhoods under construction, as well as learn about the lifestyle of the community. Photo by David Castellon.
In the year or so since Samantha Bauer was hired to do media relations for the Tesoro Viejo housing and business development, a lot has changed.
In that time, the 1,600 acres of farmland and rolling hills that comprise a large chunk of the mixed-use development in southeast Madera County has had a lot of the crops cleared. Workers have begun leveling parcels, building roads and bridges, installing sewer lines and other infrastructure and constructing a sewage-treatment plant that eventually will serve the 5,190 homes and additional businesses planned to be built.
The home stretch
In addition, workers are in the home stretch of constructing a visitors’ center — tentatively called “The Hub,” a combination Madera County fire station and sheriff’s sub station and a transitional kindergarten through eighth-grade school that will partially open on Aug. 15 and should be completed by year’s end.
“This area right here is the event lawn, where community events will happen,” said Bauer, though the area now is a lot of dirt and rock bordered by unfinished streets and sidewalks.
The Hub is slated to be finished ahead of a Sept 29 grand opening of the Center for Tesoro Viejo that Bauer described as a planned “big community celebration, festival” even though construction hasn’t yet started on any of the businesses that will comprise most of the three million square feet of space earmarked for non-residential construction.
Imagine big things
Amid all the dirt, dust and construction debris, it’s hard to imagine this place as the social center of a housing project the likes of which Madera County has never seen.
Harder to imagine is this mostly raw land one day being the center of a city about the size of Clovis, but that’s what county officials are imagining for Tesoro Viejo and at least two other large housing developments in the works around the Rio Mesa area of the county.
That plan actually dates back to 1995, when the Madera County Board of Supervisors adopted the Rio Mesa Area Plan for 15,000 acres of mostly farmland bordered by Highway 41 to the west, the San Joaquin River to the south and east up to Millerton Lake and Highway 145 to the north.
The plan created a sort of blueprint for where new developments might go and what types might occur in the years to come, and the ‘90s-era supervisors had some specific ideas in mind, most notably that each development would include a “job-housing balance,” said Matthew Treber, Madera County’s planning director.
Live, work and play
“Live, work and play” all in the same area was the basis for the plan, so any developments in the Area Plan boundaries would have to include natural spaces — parks, trails, preserves, small farms, etc. — and “the requirement is for every home going there, there is a job.”
“Basically, the whole idea is that we are not a bedroom community,” but instead people can live near where they work, whether it’s at one of the new commercial developments or at Valley Children’s Hospital, which opened in 1995 after being constructed off Highway 41 just west of the Rio Mesa Area Plan’s border.
“The idea is to keep vehicle travel down” while also increasing Madera County’s commercial tax base, Treber said.
Though the area plan has been in place more than two decades, developers have been slow to begin construction under the county’s blueprint.
Brent McCaffrey, whose family owns McCaffrey Homes, a major residential developer based in Fresno, partnered with members of the Lyles family that operates Fresno-based construction company Lyles Diversified, Inc. to launch the Tesoro Viejo development, acquiring the land off of Road 204 in 2004.
Most of the time since has involved planning and obtaining the various permits and governmental approvals that needed to be done before breaking ground a little more than a year ago.
Villages to come
McCaffrey said the plan is to sell parcels to various home builders, his family’s company among them, and expectations are for the first model homes of the first “village” of 800 homes to be ready for showing late this year, with the first residents moving into finished homes early next year.
Beyond that, current expectations are to build and have occupied annually about 300 homes, ranging from starter homes and apartments to “estate-style” properties, he said.
In addition, as the sites fill up, plans are to build a second school, K-12, at Tesoro Viejo that — along with the other school and town center — will be linked to the neighborhoods by about 15 miles of bike and walking trails.
Just the start
But Tesoro Viejo isn’t the only mixed-use development planned for the area.
Another, the North Shore at Millerton Lake, is expected to break ground in 12 to 18 months on a project slated to include 700 housing units and five to 10 acres of commercial space, Treber said.
Then there is what is shaping to be the most ambitious development, Riverstone, with a planned 6,578 residences and 150 acres of commercial building space planned to be constructed on 2,225 acres of land on the west side of Highway 41, nearly neighboring Children’s Hospital and also sitting outside of the Rio Mesa Area Plan boundaries, though the project also includes both housing and commercial elements.
Because the project broke ground in 2015, about 280 homes and a community center with a large pool and gym already are constructed, and last month the development group running the project announced it would begin clearing land west of Highway 41 and Avenue 12 so work can begin on building the first commercial spaces, which likely will include restaurants, at least one grocery store, retail — though big box stores seem unlikely, at least for now — and offices that could include one or more multi-story buildings, said Timothy Jones, a developer and principal for the partnership, Riverstone Development, LLC.
“We have been approached by engineering firms, dentists, doctors” interested in office space at Riverstone, he said, adding, “We have already been approached by Hyatt to do a hotel.”
As for sales of homes at Riverstone, they have been in the mid-level to high-end range so far, though at least one developer has indicated interest in building more modestly-priced homes, Jones said, adding that so far sales have progressed at a pace slightly better than expected, and he and his partners already are looking to expand.
“We do have 5,000 acres next to this that we are moving forward with entitlements. That would be 18,000 homes and about 600 acres of commercial.”
As for the location, Jones said the Highway 41 corridor just north of Fresno is prime for new residential and business development.
“The city of Fresno has been going northeast and northwest for over 100 years,” he explained. “It is absolutely clear the area is growing across the river into southeast Madera County, which is where we are at.”
“I think it’s a great fit for the area,” Linda Mitchell, a Fresno-based Realtor, said of the Riverstone development.
“Fresno has really outgrown its area. It’s very crowded at the shopping centers and the retail and the restaurants,” so Mitchell said she believes people coming from the Fresno area would be willing to make the short trip across the county line to new shopping and business locales, just as people from Madera likely might prefer to also go there instead of Fresno.
McCaffrey agreed, saying the area also has strong aesthetic appeal with its rolling hills.
“I think it has a romantic feel that people can have in the community when they come home and kick up their heels after a hard day’s work.”
Jobs in the mix
In addition, the proximity of Valley Children’s Hospital, with about 5,000 employees, and Community Medical Center’s planning to build a satellite hospital in the Rio Mesa area could generate a lot of future home seekers who don’t want to work far from home, said Jones, noting that about 90 percent of Children’s Hospital employees don’t live in Madera County.
“And so, we are going to provide homes for those people to live.
And some time in the future, which could be more than a decade from now, these separate subdivisions, with their various homes, businesses, parks and commercial districts, are likely to be incorporated into Madera County’s third city, Treber said, joining Madera and Chowchilla.