The Kearney Palms Shopping Center on Fresno Street just west of Highway 99 is often held up as the shining example of the potential future of Southwest Fresno. The grocery store and surround retailers thrive. But the historical legacy of institutional racism has held much of the rest of the neighborhood back. The neighborhood suffers from some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the state, and heavy pollution from industrial developments.
But city leaders say change is just around the corner. Work is now underway on Southwest Fresno Specific Plan to change the city’s approach on everything from land use to infrastructure, and open up the development potential of the neighborhood.
Still, the area has long been neglected by the city. That is a fact that is not lost on the people who call it home,
especially not the roughly two dozen people who attended a recent meeting with city planners about what they want to see improved.
“They have been lied to so much. And they are tired of it,” said Jennie Ramirez.
“They have seen that even though they get involved, they haven’t seen a real change,” according to Leoncio Vaquez.
And lifelong west Fresno resident Kathrine Crozier said “You would think after 73 years something should change,”
Crozier said she has watched as revitalization effort after revitalization effort has come and gone, only to see other parts of the city thrive and grow.
“It is not that I feel, I know, that this city has not thought enough of West Fresno to keep it up and do improvements like they do in other parts of the city,” Crozier said.
But at the same time, all three expressed a completely different sentiment that maybe that doesn’t have to continue. Jennie Ramirez says this time it might be different.
“I will keep coming. We have to make a difference. Because the children are our future. We have to help them. We have to let them know the changes that are coming because they are the ones that are going to be taking over pretty soon,” Ramirez said.
The vision of transformation in their community is not hard for many residents to see:
They want sidewalks and street lights, small and big box retailer stores, safe and abundant park space, fewer blighted homes and more new single and multifamily units. Basically, they said they want what they can see just a few miles north.
These are small requests that could clear the way to a new Southwest Fresno in just a few short years said Fresno City Council President Oliver Baines, who represents the area.
“So in southwest Fresno, if you look behind me, you see all kinds of plans and none of those plans get implemented and you wonder how that happens,” Baines said.
Baines is spearheading the effort to build a Southwest Fresno Specific Plan which he says will finally, once and for all, lay the ground work from which a new community can grow.
“The difference with this process is that we are going to codify this plan. So this plan will be full adopted by the Fresno City Council. It will become part of the overall planning of this city. It will come complete with an environmental planning reports. Which, as you know, is a great asset to developers and investors,” Baines said.
But making decades-long promises is a hard sell, as is finding the will to change city land use policy. Current rules have led to so much heavy industry setting up shop in the area, it has made portions of the neighborhood less desirable. And that has encouraged those with the means to move elsewhere, to do so.
Community advocates, like Leticia Corona with Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, think if the city acts now dramatic change is just around the corner.
“We are working on issues that are basic. They are not asking for more than that. Having the basics and the needs that should already be provided as a social service. Or already as a public servant or an elected official should already be working on,” Corona said.
It is also a question of where the city will have the political will to follow through and spend the money to make improvements.
Corona responds that the city does not have to go it alone. There are grants available from the state that are specifically targeted at improving poor and minority communities.
But even without new infrastructure improvements, local developers are eyeing the area.
Granville Homes owns roughly 400 acres in Southwest Fresno.
Jeff Roberts with Granville said there is economic growth opportunity but to really jump start it, the city will need to do its part.
“We have invested very heavily in the area. Not for today but for tomorrow. So we are anxious to see a good balance between parks and schools and infrastructure,” Roberts said.
Well-known local developer Terrance Fraiser said in an email that he is also eyeing the area and has already purchased significant land in the area.
But Roberts is unsure that Southwest Fresno will ever be the destination that North Fresno has become.
He says the area has tended to grow within itself, with native residents staying, making prioritizing their needs paramount.
Although advocates counter the area is the only option left for people of color and low income residents that are in the majority.
City Councilmember Baines acknowledges that the challenges are large but he believes that someday Southwest Fresno could a much more desirable home.
“There is no doubt in my mind about that. I know for sure. I am absolutely convinced that I can come back in a few years, after I am out of office, that I am going to drive around my neighborhood and be proud of it,” Baines said.
But even if the plan is drawn up and passed by the council, it is no guarantee that it will be able to reverse the decade’s long trend that made southwest Fresno what it is today.