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Tower District future at stake in clash over decades-old industrial tensions in Fresno

Tower District Specific Plan Implementation Committee meetings are held virtually and in person at the Tower Theatre Lounge.
Pablo Orihuela
Tower District Specific Plan Implementation Committee meetings are held virtually and in person at the Tower Theatre Lounge.

For more than two years, major businesses, environmentalists and community watchdogs have been quietly laying the groundwork for a plan that will shape development for decades to come in one of Fresno’s oldest and most beloved neighborhoods – the Tower District.

But along the southern fringe of the large Belmont Avenue neighborhood, a community group is pushing to create more health and safety protections for residents who coexist daily with large trucks carrying goods from nearby Producers Dairy and La Tapatia Tortilleria.

“What’s glaringly clear to us is that this part of the neighborhood has a disproportionate burden and lack of access to healthy food; increased air pollution,” said Kiel Lopez-Schmidt, executive director of the South Tower Community Land Trust.

The push from the South Tower Community Land Trust marks the second time in recent years that resident groups have organized to urge Fresno leaders to address long-standing zoning and land use plans that have placed homes in the way of heavy industrial uses.

Since a landmark Southwest Specific Plan was adopted in 2017 that eliminated industrial zoning near residential neighborhoods, industrial property owners have been advocating to rezone their property back to industrial uses.

First adopted in 1991, the Tower District Specific Plan serves as a policy roadmap for land use, infrastructure and the conservation and maintenance of neighborhoods and historic buildings in one of Fresno’s most walkable neighborhoods.

Following increased community demand, Tower residents have theopportunity to update the now 30-year-old plan.

The committee is currently about halfway through the process, and the Fresno City Council could take up the final vote as soon as December.

The Trust is pushing for new provisions that would eliminate industrial zoning on homes, limit industrial expansion, and improve pedestrian safety.

However, rezoning proposals have caught the attention of neighboring industries, who are concerned the updates may hurt their businesses.

Will Oliver, president and CEO of the Fresno Economic Development Corporation, said his group is also concerned that rezoning could hurt industrial businesses in the neighborhood.

“We are supporting them and conveying the reasons why rezoning their property could have a negative impact on their business in the future,” Oliver said. “We take those concerns to heart and wanted to provide support to them in this process, which is very intimidating and very worrisome for them. This is not something that they're accustomed to.”

A neighborhood on the edge of industrial expansion

The Belmont corridor has about two dozen homes built on land zoned for industrial use, including a small complex of homes built at the intersection of Franklin and Palm Avenue immediately neighboring Producers Dairy, and units neighboring the Dry Creek Canal on North Yosemite Avenue,according to the city’s ArcGIS map. The corridor also has the abandoned Central Valley Cheese factory.

“No existing house in this neighborhood or apartment should be zoned industrial,” Lopez-Schmidt said.

With industrial zoning, the homes can be razed to make way for additional industrial uses in the neighborhood. Residential zoning would eliminate this possibility, but would also make it harder – if not impossible – for the companies to expand in the area.

While the Trust stopped short of calling for the removal of major industrial employers in the area, like La Tapatia and Producers Dairy, they say the city needs to prevent future industrial expansion in the Tower District.

The group cites data from CalEnviroScreen 4.0, which shows that the Belmont Avenue corridor ranks as one of the most polluted in the state — in the 98th percentile.

Lopez-Schmidt noted these goals to Producers in a Feb.16 letter to them, which also highlighted a desire for increased accessibility of industrial streets and sidewalks, and a “community centered solution” for the Central Valley Cheese building.

Shehadey Family Foods owns Producers Dairy. Shehadey Family Foods Chief of Staff Aldi Ramirez, formerly a deputy city manager for the City of Fresno, said the company is taking into consideration comments from groups like South Tower.

“Producers Dairy is currently in the process of reviewing feedback from a wide range of sources to ensure a broad range of public feedback is taken into consideration and viable solutions are sought for both the residential areas and the industrial businesses,” Ramirez said in an email to Fresnoland.

“Producers Dairy is actively working to find solutions to promote and enhance the Tower District, address concerns that have been raised regarding industrial land uses, reduce traffic in residential areas, and beautify the area,” Ramirez added.

Producers’ Dairy has plans to expand that would close a section of H Street, and add a new parking lot for dairy trucks. Those plans are currently being evaluated by the city’s current planning division.

City Councilmember Miguel Arias — whose district represents much of the Tower District — said that it may not be practical for those businesses to continue their expansion given the possible environmental consequences.

“I think the days of those facilities expanding in the historic neighborhood are behind us,” Arias said, “because it’d be extremely difficult to pass environmental thresholds with any kind of expansion.”


The concerns from local industry

Officials from Producers Dairy and La Tapatia have urged the committee to resist rezoning calls and to consider the jobs and other benefits the companies can bring to the table.

Speaking to the Tower District Specific Plan Committee on Feb. 27, Ernesto Franco, Shehadey Family Foods logistics director, said the company is meeting state environmental requirements.

“All our on-road trucks are compliant with rules and regulations,” Franco said. “We are thoughtful and intentional about the business model and do the right thing for our people.”

Lauren Nikkel, director of business services at the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, also showed support for the local industries in the area. She said she hopes the committee will also consider the companies’ roles as significant employers and the nearby construction of high-speed rail.

“Discussions of the potential rezones of this property are worrisome today for La Tapatia and other business owners,” Nikkel told the committee members on Feb. 27.

La Tapatia employs 109 people, with 75 living within 10 miles of the Belmont facility, according to Yvette Cuellar, director of La Tapatia’s public relations and marketing.

Producers Dairy employs over 500 people in its Fresno division, according to Ramirez. About 300 of those employees live within 10 miles from the neighborhood, the company said.

‘Nobody is trying to tell La Tapatia to move’

The Trust has not called for the companies to relocate and advocates say they're committed to protecting the homes and neighborhoods while preserving the jobs of those employed at the factories.

Edgar Salazar, a member of the Trust, said the zoning change requests wouldn't put those people’s work at risk.

“Nobody is trying to tell La Tapatia to move,” said Edgar Salazar, a member of the South Tower Community Land Trust.

“Rezoning does not mean we want to kick out or we want to change or we want to tell La Tapatia to leave or to have all those employees lose their job,” Salazar said. “It’s actually the opposite. We're trying to work along with them to create a better community.”

Arias also said relocation is off the table.

“It is illegal for us to relocate them, and extremely expensive,” Arias said. “The estimated forced relocation of Producers and the businesses in that corridor are upwards of half a billion, which is just completely unrealistic for the city to be able to finance, and that doesn’t take into account the decades of legal wrangling we’d have to put up with.”

Nikkel asked that the committee “obtain property owner consent before the land use changes are proposed or adopted.”

“We know that La Tapatia and other businesses are open to speaking with the community committee and other ways to contribute to the enhancements along the Belmont Avenue corridor and the surrounding areas within the Tower District,” she added.

La Tapatia cited “contributing resources and products to local schools and community benefit organizations, such as the Poverello House, and sponsoring community events such as Fiesta De Los Ninos,” while Producers Dairy noted that they “participate in community events and (support) local efforts and initiatives through sponsorships and donations.”

Increased amenities and accessibility

In addition to critical zoning debates, Fresno residents like Brooke Payton also hope the committee’s work will lead to more accessibility and amenities for the community. Payton, who uses a walker, would like to see curb and sidewalk improvements for people with disabilities, particularly on neighborhood sidewalks with curb ramps that lead to nowhere, which has also been a key sticking point for the South Tower group.

“It’s important that they have a safe and comfortable sidewalk for them to maneuver on,” Payton told Fresnoland.

Curb cuts that lead to nowhere like the one pictured here in Fresno’s Tower District are among the issues that neighborhood groups hope to address through the Tower District Specific Plan update.
Pablo Orihuela
Curb cuts that lead to nowhere like the one pictured here in Fresno’s Tower District are among the issues that neighborhood groups hope to address through the Tower District Specific Plan update.

Payton has also been advocating for a Fresno County library branch to open closer to the Tower neighborhood to replacethe old Gillis Branch.

Who gets to decide what goes into the plan?

Fresno’s boards and commissions ultimately serve in a consulting role, according to the City of Fresno’s charter. The Tower District Specific Plan Implementation Committee helps by recording public input and recommending certain policies, but the Fresno City Council will have the final word on how the plan is implemented in a hearing that could happen as soon as this December.

Criticisms of the initial plan in 1991 were also aired during a committee meeting on Feb. 27 — including the lack of green areas in the neighborhood. Board member Michael Birdsong acknowledged the concerns, but also reminded the audience that the committee only has advisory powers compared to the city council.

“What we say matters,” Birdsong said. “But what we say won’t always happen.”

Arias represents much of the area and lives in the Tower District neighborhood. Though Arias and the rest of the city council aren’t a part of the process yet, he said he’s eager to see the committee’s recommendations.

How to get involved

The discussion over land use will continue at the committee’s next meeting currently scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 19.

Community members are encouraged to participate either in person at the Tower Theatre Lounge or virtuallythrough Zoom by registering online.

With the help of community input, it’ll be up to the committee to decide what the future of the Tower District looks like. Arias believes city residents should be motivated to participate in a process, especially now that the process is still at a point where community input takes priority.

“This is the public’s work. It’s their role to engage in this work,” Arias said. “We really want the community and the residents to determine their own future by engaging in this work without having elected officials weighing in on our preferences.”

This article first appeared on Fresnoland and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.