California Forum

California’s new Austin may be rising on the San Joaquin River. Locals, cooperate

The future site of The Lodge at Riverstone, the first of several resort-style clubhouses coming to the 2,000-acre master-planned community in southeast Madera County.
The future site of The Lodge at Riverstone, the first of several resort-style clubhouses coming to the 2,000-acre master-planned community in southeast Madera County.

Could the San Joaquin River, long a dividing line in central California, unite a region in pursuit of a better future?

In Madera County, across the river from Fresno, a new unincorporated city of planned communities is under construction. Within a generation, it could swell to more than 100,000 people. On the Fresno side, the county and the city of Clovis are expanding. Together, the new Madera town, Fresno, and Clovis could constitute a tri-cities area.

If those cities cohere by mid-century – a big if – greater Fresno could become California’s answer to Austin, an inland metropolis capable of spreading coastal prosperity to its dusty interior.

Madera, the county on Fresno’s northwestern flank, is saying via development that it doesn’t want to be small, poor and isolated anymore. All of greater Fresno should embrace that message.

Of course, such a transformation would require planning of the sort that Fresno’s leaders talk about, but rarely do: new regional governance and funding for transportation, economic development, water management, recreation and air quality. That in turn would mean collaboration among local governments more accustomed to suing their neighbors.

Unfortunately, the very structure of California, and its land-use planning, work against turning Fresno into a region, much less a powerhouse. Here, local jurisdictions are weak and have little power to raise their own revenues, so they compete, often using questionable subsidies, in the chase for development and the accompanying taxes. The game is: support development that provides revenue for your city and spread costs to your neighbors – in traffic, water and air quality.

Madera and Fresno counties, and Fresno city, have sued to block each other’s development, but with that litigation mostly over, there’s opportunity. Collaboration should include more resilient water infrastructure and tax-sharing to improve the river itself and construct a regional transportation network. Local governments also need regional planning expertise.

The new river city ought to inspire these efforts. Madera, the county on Fresno’s northwestern flank, is saying via development that it doesn’t want to be small, poor and isolated anymore. All of greater Fresno should embrace that message.

Madera County is pitching its new developments as a huge step forward for central California: master-planned communities with trails and schools and job centers and water recharge facilities wrapped in, providing the density and smaller lots of urban living. The signature project, now under construction, is Riverstone Development, with commercial space and 6,600 homes across six themed districts, along Highway 41.

Much could go wrong. If the new river city doesn’t produce promised jobs and inspire better transit, expansion could fuel sprawl, add to air pollution, and turn 41 – a favored route to Yosemite – into a traffic nightmare.

And help would be needed. The state’s climate change regime must prioritize infill in central Fresno, so the urban core isn’t weakened, and Fresno’s many undocumented immigrants need legal status to economically advance themselves and the region.

Fresno also badly needs the momentum and investment from high-speed rail (which includes a new bridge connecting Madera and Fresno) to boost its downtown revival and to make it an affordable crossroads between the world-class economies of L.A. and the Bay Area.

Don’t bet the farm on a grand Fresno regional project. But if Madera’s new development inspires progress in that direction, the state would have reason to celebrate – and perhaps a new river city. Call it Future Town, CA.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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