Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rail fares are worth it for the safety benefits alone

This past weekend, I attended a college football game at the LA Coliseum with family to watch USC beat UCLA by an enormous margin. With a kickoff at 7:15pm, the game didn't end until around 10:30pm. That means we did not hit the highway to leave LA until 11:30pm, for the 4 hour drive back to Fresno.

During that drive, a realization hit me like a wall. A wall of fog. Bad fog. Those who think it gets foggy in San Francisco or London have no idea what it's like to experience the Central Valley's Tule fog, which can decrease visibility to zero.

The visibility in Tule fog is often less than 1/8th of a mile, about 600 feet, but can be less than 10 feet. Visibility can vary rapidly in any area, with sudden decreases to near zero in only a few feet. It is situations like these that often lead to multi-car accidents where one car follows another into a fog bank.

It's hard to understand what zero visibility means until you've actually been in it. And what's worse, these aren't brief patches. The thick fog can cover the entire valley, essentially the length of 99.

In our case, it meant driving on a highway, with already reduced visibility due to it being night, that was like a racing video-game from 1984.

This red line is as far as we could see. I know, because we could only see a single white lane-dividing line at a time.


In practice, it meant looking into this.


I tried to take a picture, but it turns out that it was very hard to do so. During a gap in the fog, I was able to take this picture.


That's right, that's a lighter patch of fog, as you can actually see other cars. Two of them anyway. You'll note the car in the left lane is tapping its brakes, as there is a car in front of it which we can't see.

It's easier to take pictures during the day. Here are some I took back in January of this year at around 6am showing how poor the visibility can be even when the sun is out. Again, imagine the pitch darkness of the agricultural valley at 3am.

Under an overpass, see the other car?


Signs are useless, where's the exit?


This is why California places traffic signals on both sides of an intersection. The far-side light is simply not visible. I also learned why California places streetlights at highway exits. Without them, it would have been impossible to know at what point the exit began.


We got home last weekend at 3:30am. The 4 hour drive wasn't terribly long, but it was nerve-wracking, and potentially fatal. We passed these sections of the highway:

In February 2002, two people were killed in an 80-plus car pile-up on State Route 99 between Kingsburg and Selma. The visibility at the time of the accident was zero. On the morning of November 3, 2007, heavy tule fog caused a massive pile-up that included 108 passenger vehicles and 18 big rig trucks on Northbound State Route 99 between Fowler and Fresno. Visibility was about 200 feet at the time of the accident. There were two fatalities and 39 injuries in the crash.

And that's all south of Fresno. North of Fresno, 99 still has grade crossing, where smaller roads must cross the entire freeway without a traffic signal or overpass. Left turns are allowed as well, in all directions. When visibility is 10 feet, there's nothing you can do but hope for the best when embarking upon the suicide mission known as crossing the street (freeway)....at an angel!


Wouldn't there be nice if there was a safer option....that, as a bonus, could have gotten us home by 1am? Something like....high speed rail, which is not delayed by fog? It would have turned 8 hours of highway time into 3 hours.

A frequent argument by critics of high speed rail (and other rail) projects is that when accounting for a family of four (or more), it's cheaper to drive. That makes sense. Gas, and maintenance, are fixed costs. Adding another passenger or two adds an insignificant amount to your cost of gas for a trip. If those additional passengers are friends that will chip in, your costs actually go down. With rail, as with all transit, each additional passenger pays the full cost of the fare.

Someone doing the most basic of math, may come up with the following:

Fresno-LA = 220 miles
At 22 mpg, 10 gallons.
At $4.00 a gallon, $40.00 each way.

Throw in some maintenance (nobody ever calculates the true amount) and the person will call it an even $50 (each way).

So this math would show that rail can compete with a car in price for such a trip for a single person. Amtrak currently charges $33 for the Fresno to LA trip on most days. But make it a family of 4, and the car cost is still ~$50, while the fares will be well over $100.

So, yes, Mr. Critic. You can pile your family into the minivan and save some money.

But at what cost? Is saving $50 worth an added 2.5 hours of travel time (each way) AND the risk of driving your family into the backside of a truck?

We look at statistics such as "30,000 Americans killed in road accidents every year" and sort of shrug it off because naturally, we're amazing drivers.

But there's nothing an amazing driver can do when visibility ends at the front of the car's hood. Even driving cautiously (we were going 35mph on the 70mph freeway) means little if someone doing 50mph slams into the back of your car. Freeway accidents aren't exactly uncommon, and the 99 is well patronized even at 3am.

It takes just a minute of driving in the worst of the Tule fog to convince any rational person that we need options when it comes to transportation because the status quo may not always be the best thing. So next time someone complains that the price of a ticket may be more than the cost of driving, ask them how much they value the lives of their family.

Bonus picture:
(The point was the score, not the ironic ads)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Expo line to miss 2011 opening

I've been following construction progress on the Exposition Light Rail line in Los Angeles for a couple of reasons. One, is because it's one of the most exciting transit extension projects happening in this country, hitting a very dense, under-served, and populated area that deserves fast rail access. Two, is because my sister goes to USC, and the line will serve the campus at multiple points, offering students a quick and cheap ride to downtown This will allow students to comfortably live further from campus...never mind the enormous benefits to faculty and staff who will see better commuting options.

Unfortunately, if you get you news only from press releases and other official sources, you won't be aware of the constant delays the line keeps suffering.

 The expo rail line (in aqua) will eventually reach Santa Monica. Phase 1, below, is now scheduled to open in 2012.


Back in September, I wrote a post discussing the continuous delays suffered by the line. In that post, I mentioned rumors that the line would miss the "Fall 2011" opening date that had, at that point, been assumed to have been the final delay. The line was originally due to open in Summer 2010.

Well, the line will no longer open in 2011, and may even miss all of January 2012.

Last month, rain fell in LA, and apparently, this caught the contractors by surprise. Station designs had shown woefully inappropriate shelters for riders, but apparently the underground electronics were also unprepared as well. It almost seems like nobody told the contractors and designers that yes, it does rain in LA. Multiple times a year actually. According to reports, a whole bunch of cables and electronic boxes had to be dug up and replaced.

If a competent contractor had been handling construction, this setback could have been handled and still allowed a 2011 opening. But as has been proven time and time again, that is far from the case.

It is now November 25, 2011. Due to federal regulation, Metro, once absolutely all construction is done, must run between 4-6 weeks of what is called "pre-revenue" testing. That is, the trains must be run as they would under normal service. Same daily hours, same time between trains, and same stops, with dwell time for fake riders. This testing was set to begin in August, for a late October opening. And then September, to hit November. And then October, for an early December opening. And then November, to just get it in time for the 2011 banner.

But now it's too late.

With continued contractor delays, Metro has no incentive to rush, because even a late December opening would be highly improbable, never-mind the extra work and pay needed for the holiday scheduling.

As such, it is now a 2012 opening, and probably a late February one at that. What's another month or two amongst friends? You see, it became clear a very long time ago that the Los Angeles authorities don't see transit extensions as integral parts of the commute and the economy. A highway project would be rushed to open ahead of schedule. After all, jobs are on the line, and people need access ASAP.

But rail? It's just a fun train ride. It's not like real people have real money on the line when it comes to getting to work on time.

So what's another month or two of delays? After all, 2010 and 2011 have gone by, and no scathing criticism has been written by the media. Who cares if the first riders aren't allowed on until Valentine's day?

So if you happen to be one of those people who made plans assuming the rail line would open on time, like maybe renting an apartment by the line to commute to work, or opening a business catering to customers, or taking a job in an area you thought you'd be able to reach cheaply...

Well, I hope your plans were highly flexible. Metro obviously assumes they are.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Retail on Thanksgiving

When I was in Boston last week, I read a Globe article on how various national retailers scheduled their Black Friday opening this year at midnight...and then quickly had to change plans when someone told them doing so in Massachusetts would be illegal.

You see, in Massachusetts, working on Thanksgiving (and I believe Christmas) is generally not allowed (there are exceptions for restaurants and such). So opening at midnight would require workers to clock in on Thanksgiving to set up, and that is illegal. They've all moved their opening times forward to around 1am, store depending.

While many scoffed at these blue laws interfering with the private market place, I applaud this particular regulation. Quite frankly, the US has a horrible work culture when it comes to giving people time off, and a huge portion of this is how retail workers and all their support staff (cleaners etc) are generally invisible to huge portions of the population.

Many say: Let the free market decide. If people think it's unfair to have to clock in at 10pm on Thanksgiving, then the market will take care of that. If the employee doesn't like it, they can quit. (Because obviously the employee doesn't need money and is doing it for fun.)

And we need to consider how the market can be quite ignorant about the world outside their bubble.

Let me put it like this: Have you ever heard or read someone comment on how there's no reason someone should be out at 3am? The person making such comment obviously assumes that 24 hour fast food places are staffed with robots, and that hospitals do not operate past visiting hours. Or when a large city discusses the operating hours of their transit? Some quickly come in and say we shouldn't spend tax money supporting "partiers" riding a 2am train....when it ignores the thousands and thousands of people who work and bars and clubs and such and just want to get home. Another example would be an article I highlighted last month about a Fresno neighborhood suspicious of people on bikes at "odd" hours. These people live comfortable lives where work is done at 5pm, and one never works on a holiday.

If only we could all be so lucky.

So yes, I support regulation like this, even if it is a bit heavy handed. I have found myself on the wrong type of this kind of law, when I was in Switzerland, in a canton that restricts retail hours heavily. From Saturday at 5pm until Monday at noon, the only retail location open, besides restaurants, was the train station market. This ruined some plans, but only because I didn't do advance reaserch on the subject.

Unfortunately, it takes this kind of regulation to clobber people over the head and remind them that those last minutes shopping trips at 5pm on Thanksgiving include ruining someones holiday.

So dear readers, enjoy your Thanksgiving, and please try avoid doing any type of shopping on turkey day. The executives setting the hours probably haven't been in the office since last Friday, but their decision, and your patronage, means hundreds of thousands of people are stuck in retail hell on the one day a year this country is supposed to be coming together to celebrate. And that's just not very nice.

(I am now back in Fresno, so this blog shall hopefully be updated more frequently again)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Boston times

My week in Boston is coming to a close. It's been a good time, and I've taken a few pictures I'll be sharing next week.

Will be in NYC tomorrow, for the first time since 2009. I went early November 2009 for a concert. Shall be my first time in Queens as well, but will mostly be in Manhattan I'd think.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dying mall cancels outdoor market due to popularity, parking concerns

This new development is quite frankly, baffling.

Say you owned a mall built in the 1950's, that had seen better days. Much better days. Say almost all your national brand retailers had left years ago, and the entire second floor was now being leased to government agencies and other office uses. Say your biggest anchor, one of only two, went bankrupt and liquidated in 2009, and nobody has expressed serious interest in the location yet. And your other anchor, is Sears, a brand that has fallen on tough times.

In fact, your mall is in so much trouble, someone even took it upon themselves to visit it only to write about how it is a dying mall. And that was even written before Gottschalks died. (Lots of pictures of the mall in that link).


I'm sure as the owner, the idea of turning things around, and getting people to come by would be appealing right?

Then say a group of organizers approached you, and asked to set up a market in one of your vastly underused parking lots, just one day a week. The deal would be beneficial. They'd have space at a well know landmark, and you'd get exposure and even BUZZ(!) something that has been lacking in your mall for decades. And for both parties, the costs would be minimal. It's like a fancy new mall expansion, but built with aluminum poles and canvas canopies.

Win, win, win.

So the new market starts.

And it's a success. People keep coming. Your parking lot is filling up for the first time since you opened over 50 years ago. Your mall is being referred to as a place to go to, and not to lock your doors as you drive by. Trendy blogs are telling their readers to check it out.

Indeed it's so successful, you kick them out after five weeks.

Wait, what?

The owner of Fresno's newest farmers market, Manchester Marketplace, announced today he is shutting down due to a disagreement with Manchester Mall representatives.

Paul Gilchrist, who opened the market five weeks ago in the mall's parking, said in an email that the popularity of his market didn't sit well with Manchester Mall.

"I have been told there were too many cars in the parking lot, there were too many vendors and the outside vendors are getting more business than the inside vendors," Gilchrist said in an email.
Manchester Mall market closed after 5 weeks

That's right. Too many cars. Too many sales. Too popular.

At a mall.


Let's see why it doesn't make sense.

Competition? Uh, it's a mall. Retailers selling identical products set up next to each other on purpose, because quantity attracts people. Were people spending money outside? Yes. But many of those people would never have come to the mall anyway. They can shop outside, then say "oh sears, I need something there" and then "oh lets stop by the food court" and so on.

That's how malls work.

Parking? It's a 1950's suburban mall. It's made of parking.

Incompatible with mall image?

Here, let me list the national retailers that the mall has managed to retain:
Payless Shoes
Z Fashion
Radio Shack

That's it. Even the Red Robin finally ran away last year.

Quite frankly, it's more insane than baffling. It's like some people are so scared of change they will actually tell money to leave.

From TasteFresno, a sample of the market. And yes, there are probably more people pictures below than inside the mall at any given point (excluding the Sears store, which does good business).

All images by James Collier

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pedestrian mall at night

I'm not in Fresno this week. But I am somewhere with a pedestrian mall that not all are happy with. Indeed, sometimes people suggest letting the cars in. Many times, these are folks that don't actually visit the area, and probably wouldn't if that was changed.

Sounds familiar right?

Yet even on a cold and rainy evening, the place was bursting with life. I decided to remain under the shelter of the Macy's sidewalk ceiling while waiting for a friend. Many however did not bother to use the sidewalk, even though it offered more protection from the weather.

Would be nice to see this in Fresno.

Not pictured: The festive holiday noises.




Sunday, November 13, 2011

Globe's horrifying series on how drunk drivers get off so easily

The woman who brazenly bragged to Plymouth police that “my OUI that I have is going to get thrown out, and [my lawyer] will take care of this one, too,’’ during her arrest for drunken driving only a month after she allegedly hit a truck with more than twice the legal amount of alcohol in her bloodstream.

And she was right: Not guilty on the first. Not guilty on the second.

For the past three Sunday's, the Boston Globe has written an incredibly interesting and depressing series of articles on how drunk drivers are treated in Massachusetts. It reveals how the laws mean nothing, when judge's habitually declare drunk drivers innocent, just because, and how having money means you will get off, every single time.

This series will depress you. Or quite frankly, make you extremely angry. It did to me.

Here are some selections from the shocking series of articles. I recommend you check out the entire series. If I had quoted every example used....well, I would have just pasted the entire article.

From the first article:
For drunk drivers, a habit of judicial leniency
October 30, 2011
First Article

This article focuses on judge's that refuse to give guilty verdicts on drunk driving cases. It also looks at improper behavior by judges that have gone back and forth between defending drunk drivers as a lawyer, and then ruling on DUI cases.

The case appeared airtight. The driver, by just about every measure, was drunk. As a police officer watched, he sped down Southampton’s College Highway at 2:30 one morning, twice drifting over the center lines. The 26-year-old railroad worker’s speech was slurred, his eyes were bloodshot, he smelled of booze, the officer said. He couldn’t walk heel-to-toe in a straight line and flunked four of five roadside sobriety tests. Back at the station, when the driver blew into the breathalyzer machine, the result was .13

“I’m going to give you a break,’’ Goggins said during a bench trial in February, and then rendered his verdict: not guilty.
The judges’ acquittal rate now exceeds 80 percent across Massachusetts, the Globe’s detailed review of thousands of court documents shows, meaning at least four out of five alleged drunk drivers who place their fate in the hands of a judge are walking out of court free of the burden - and penalties - of a guilty verdict.

Free, like one acquitted driver who barreled the wrong way onto a Route 1 ramp - and slammed into an oncoming car, sending both drivers to the hospital.
Judges in Suffolk County, for example, are acquitting drunken driving defendants 88 percent of the time in bench trials. Plymouth County judges are ruling against prosecutors 86 percent of the time.

It's ok, because everybody does it.

Raymond J. Zukowski, police chief of the tiny western town of Montague, agreed. “I think sometimes the judges possibly feel the penalties are too stiff,’’ he said. “It’s a lot of money out of [the defendant’s] pocket for something we all did in our day.’’

And what about judges unwilling to declare people victim because they also drive drunk?

Judge James J. McGovern was charged with OUI in Scituate in 1995 and was acquitted at a bench trial. He was appointed a judge in 1999, left the bench three years later, and returned in 2006. He disclosed his OUI arrest on his judicial questionnaire in 1999 but not when he was reappointed.

McGovern presided over 11 OUI trials in 2009 and 2010 in Bristol County, according to records from the district attorney’s office there. He found all 11 defendants not guilty.

The second article:

A judicial haven for accused drunk drivers
Globe Staff / November 6, 2011
Second article

If there is an epicenter for that judicial leniency, it is Plymouth County.

No county for which data are available holds a greater proportion of bench trials in drunken driving cases. And two judges there have been veritable magnets for savvy defense lawyers, with acquittal rates of more than 90 percent.
- Judge Thomas S. Barrett presided over the bench trials of at least 210 OUI defendants in Plymouth County between 2005 and 2010, more trials than any judge in the county during that time, according to the DA’s data. He found 12 guilty and 198 of them not guilty - an acquittal rate of 94 percent.

This second article is also full of shocking case examples that must be read in full.

This weeks article:
Court mismatch makes OUI justice elusive
Globe Spotlight Team / November 13, 2011
Third Article

The lawyers are making huge amounts of money, as so can afford cheap expert witnesses and other tools. The prosecutors cannot. Further, the lawyers pick and choose which judges they want...the ones they know rule "not guilty" almost every time.

An in many cases, the judges are their longtime friends and partners.

He’d had a few beers, he said, and hadn’t eaten since noon. Now it was 1 a.m. When he blew into a breathalyzer, it registered .25, more than three times the legal limit.

Jones got the breath-test result thrown out of court. Then he masterfully recast his client’s feeble performance for police as a by-product of fatigue, not beer. The judge’s verdict: not guilty.

A lawyer, on getting dangerous drunk drivers off scott free, and justifying it:
“I’m sort of like an OUI nerd; I love this stuff,’’ Jones told his audience of fellow attorneys, joking, “I wouldn’t do it for nothing - I wouldn’t even do it for a reduced fee - but I really like doing it.’’
If he gets a break, you know, who’s hurt?’’ said Jones, an affable 55-year-old. “Most people learn their lesson just by their arrest.’’
A number of other local OUI specialists maintain flashy websites. Joseph Waldbaum’s is bursting with exuberant testimonials that play up how much evidence was stacked against clients he successfully defended, like the accused three-time offender who crashed his snow plow into a house: He had a vodka bottle on the dashboard and his 5-year-old in the front seat. He called Waldbaum “a panther in the courtroom.’’

And here's a huge problem...many of the legislatures are or have been lawyers. There's huge amount of money riding on lawyers getting $10,000 to get a client off. And some are habitual drunk drivers themselves.

Massachusetts is one of two states where refusing to take a breath test is not evidence that can be used in court. Other states, like California, will take blood if the driver refuses.

Melanie’s Law was supposed to make refusing the test unpalatable by inflicting severe driver’s license penalties on those who refuse. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and House Judiciary Chairman Eugene L. O’Flaherty - both, at the time, among the state’s most powerful defense attorneys - strongly opposed several provisions of the bill that Governor Mitt Romney and Senate leaders sought, arguing they threatened the constitutional rights of defendants.


O’Flaherty opposed such sanctions.

“You have a constitutional right to not cooperate with law enforcement,’’ he said Friday. “You have a right against self-incrimination.’’

So the bitterly fought final compromise opened a loophole: A driver who refuses the test gets his license back if he is acquitted. Unless prosecutors can make a special case he is a danger.

In a way, it was a double win for defense lawyers.

Stiffer punishment means more people hire a lawyer to fight the charge. And taking the sting out of refusing the breath test makes it that much easier to win in court.

“It caught people’s attention that there were OUI defense attorneys in the House who were essentially doing everything they could to gut the thing,’’ said Haley, who wrote Romney’s version of the bill. “There is still an incentive for drunk drivers, particularly serial drunk drivers . . . to refuse a breathalyzer. And it’s a huge incentive.’’

Salvatore F. DiMasi, by the way, is now serving 8 years in prison for fraud.

And it seems like fraud is a daily occurrence in Massachusetts. Here is one of the "experts" the attorneys call up. The prosecutors rarely use experts because they lack the funds and time.

New Hampshire toxicologist JoAnn Samson, who has testified scores of times in the state. She is Jones’s go-to breath-test expert, partly because she charges only $1,500.

Samson acknowledged that her physiology master’s thesis was on termites, and that her doctoral work was on a drug used to treat hookworm in dogs. Samson acknowledged that she did not belong to any professional toxicology organization, and that until a few years earlier she spent most of her time working as a lawyer. The three publications on a recent copy of her resume include a letter to the editor.

I'd like to thank the Globe for doing the kind of journalism we deserve to read every week.

Unfortunately, this rather depressing series of articles can make one lose huge amounts of respect for our legal system, our political system and our financial system, in which penalties are only for those without money or without connections.

The articles also touch on how officers who do their best to stop drunk drivers are discouraged because all their work is thrown out, almost every time.

An as for the question that "who gets hurt" when a drunk driver is set free? Well, the article lists multiple cases of drivers with multiple DUI's in their history...drunk driving events that can't be entered into the record because "they deserved a second chance".

And what's worse, these are only cases where the driver gets CAUGHT. How many times are these criminals hitting the streets and not being stopped?

The blatant disrespect for life is infuriating.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

San Joaquin (Amtrak) ridership continues to soar - is HSR to blame?

Amtrak has finally caught up with their monthly status reports, and their August and September numbers are now available.

What really popped out from these reports was the incredibly impressive numbers from the San Joaquin route, which services California's Central Valley and is where the first phase of High Speed Rail (HSR) is set to be constructed. To HSR detractors, this section of the state is known as "nowhere", a land of farms and vast distances, where transit is simply unfeasible.

The latest numbers don't break the record set in July, because that is typically the route's best month, but 2011 did feature the highest August and September on record....and by a large amount.

How does two months of over 18% year on year growth sound?

That's even more impressive when you consider the following:

 1)     Not a honeymoon. This route has been offered by Amtrak since 1974.
 2)     No increase in service or frequency. The route has offered 6 trains a day (each way) since 2002 and besides the most minor of adjustments, the same schedule.
 3)     No major ad campaign. Just business as usual
 4)     No economic boon. Quite the opposite, unemployment in the central valley continues to hold steady north of 16%, almost twice the national average.
 5)     No price drop. On the contrary, as the trains fill, the higher price buckets are seen more often.
 6)     2010 was better than 2009....which was better than 2008. This isn't an anomaly, or a percent increase hiding low numbers (ie, this is not a case where ridership doubled because 2 more people rode).

So what's going on? What on earth has caused an 18% surge in ridership?

Since we can put away all those standard explanations, like more service, better prices, or more jobs, that leaves us to dig for reasons that simply aren't as obvious.

And I'd argue that all the talk of High Speed Rail, which won't even open until 2020, is the reason.

You see, HSR has gotten a LOT of press this year. You'd be hard-pressed to find a week in which there wasn't at least one meaty article in the newspaper concerning rail. Be it news about costs, alignments, political grandstanding and so forth, there's always something to report on, and the people are eager to read about it.

And while not every article does it, I'd say the majority do mention the fact that Amtrak currently offers service in the valley, on an alignment that HSR will seek to use.

In other words, the San Joaquin has gotten a whole lot of indirect advertisements with all these articles talking about rail. And as any marketing person knows, constant impressions of your product leads to increased awareness. And if you offer an attractive product, increased awareness means sales.

In this case, an 18% increase in sales.

I'd also like to note that the other Amtrak line to experience good amounts of growth recently has been the Downeaster, linking Boston to its former colony of Maine. Again, the only real change has been lots of press about an upcoming expansion.

Would anyone else would like to propose a reasonable explanation?

Onto the numbers then.

Percent change over same month in 2010
San Joaquin = 18.7%
Capitol Corridor = 10.3%
Pacific Surfliner = 5.3%

San Joaquin = 19.2%
Capitol Corridor = 10.7%
Pacific Surfliner = 5.1%

And here is that in awkward chart format.

San Joaquin August 2009, 2010, and 2011

San Joaquin September 2009, 2010, and 2011

The Capitol Corridor has also seen big gains. Note that the percentage increase is small, but the total number of passengers added is very similar.

Capitol Corridor August 2009, 2010, and 2011

Capitol Corridor September 2009, 2010, and 2011

A year (and two months) in review. Clear seasonal variance is visible.

And how these line stack up against the rest of the country.



Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A look at GVUrban's next two downtown projects

Note: I am currently in Boston so my upload schedule may be light in the next week.

Anyone who follows development in downtown Fresno knows one brand: GVUrban. This subsidiary of Granville homes has been one of only two serious developers to go out and build new housing and renovate existing buildings downtown. The other development team are the ones who are proposing to fix Hotel Fresno, and have a couple of other successful renovations.

I've talked about all of GVurban's projects that have or are set to debut this year, including Fulton Village, Van Ness Cottages, and Biz-werx. But these developers are far from done. While their website doesn't mention it, they have two more projects lined up for 2012.

One of these projects, which I talked about in September has gotten media attention because the proposal includes demolishing two old homes.

The other project has only been mentioned in passing. Last month, a downtown farmer's market had to change locations because their site was slated for development, but as far as I can tell, no one has talked about what the development is.

So here are the details on the two 2012 GVUrban projects.

Fulton and San Joaquin
This project recently broke ground and displaced a parking lot, home to a farmer's market. The location is basically GVUrban central.

As you can see in this map, they've concentrated their focus on a small area


Red = New project
Green= Project they built from scratch (mostly housing plus some store fronts)
Yellow= Renovated building for housing (and some storefronts)
Blue= Biz-werx (commercial renovated building)

Lets take a closer look at the red plot


Home to a farmers market. Unfortunately, if Fulton Village is any indication, those trees will be removed and replaced by stuff that provides no shade.


What they're going to build will be very similar in concept to the recently finished Fulton Village. While it will resemble Fulton Village more than the Iron Bird Lofts, there will be more live/work units, so the street will have more commercial uses. Like Fulton Village, instead of one long building, it will be set up as slightly detached two and three unit structures.

  • 3 stories
  • 2,939 sq. feet of ground floor commercial
  • 29 residential units, made up of:
  • 9 live/work units
  • 6 studio units
  • 12 townhouse units

Continue reading this lengthy post by clicking this button.

Monday, November 7, 2011

New Google Street View images for Fresno and Clovis

The Street View feature from Google Maps is a fantastic tool which I use many times a week. It lets you explore places you haven't been before, scout out locations before heading out to visit them (ie, exact location of a restaurant) and it lets you see changes that have been made to an area.

Since launching in May 2007 in select cities, Google has expanded their pictures to most of the US, most of Europe, an other countries around the world.

Here you can see that most of the US, Mexico and Canada have Street View images available, in blue. The blue circles are user submitted pictures in areas not yet covered by the cameras.


Besides visiting new areas, Google does return to streets already captured to get new images of the area. Unfortunately, Google does not announce when they will visit a city, or when new images will be posted.

But as a frequent user of Street View, I noticed that within the past two weeks, most of Fresno and Clovis have received new images, which appear to have been taken in late June and early July.

This is the third time Google has visited Fresno, and with some searching, you can find some roads that sill feature the oldest imagery.

Here I will present some of the new pictures, and how you can tell if your street has the new images or if it's still the older ones.

Oldest Imagery
The first time Google visited Fresno was in late 2007 or early 2008. These images made their internet debut on Tuesday, June 10, 2008. At that point, all the kinks hadn't been worked out, and the images weren't of very high quality. Most have been replaced, but you can still find side streets that haven't been revisted that still use the oldest type of image.

The picture is washed out, and not very clear.

This is what the oldest type of image looks like, here, in Clovis

And here is what a new picture of the area looks like. Note the difference in quality.

However, this second image isn't part of the new batch. Instead, it's from Google's second visit to Fresno, in late February 2009.

2009 Imagery

The 2009 images and the 2011 images are both of similar high quality. The real difference is that the new imagery is obviously better when it comes to locating businesses, bike lanes, new construction etc because it was taken this summer.

So how to tell if the images are from 2009 and 2001?

The easiest way is to make note of the season. The 2009 images were taken in mid-winter (February) while the 2011 images are from late June.

The clearest giveaway are the trees, although the sky is a good indicator as well (no clouds in the summer!)

Here is a comparison between 2009 images and 2011 images. I chose this location because a sidewalk was built, so you can note the change.

Also pay attention to the weather and the trees, which indicate the seasons.


So how was I ever to know when the pictures were taken? Theaters!

Google's second visit is made obvious by the venture into River Park.


The 2011 visit can be dated with these marques downtown


While Google probably didn't revisit every street this summer, they probably did all the main ones.

If your street still features 2008 or 2009 pictures, check again in a few weeks. In Boston, the transition took over a month. While all the pictures are taken over the course of a few days, it takes a lot of time and energy to convert all of that into data we can see.

One thing that is unfortunate, is that at this point there's no way to see older images. As you'll note in my examples above, to get the same pictures in different 'times" I had to move to a slightly different portion of an intersection. That is, if Street A has 2011 images, and Street B has 2009 images, only at the intersection can you "travel though time" and compare them both. There is no other way at this point in time to compare a location using 2008, 2009 and 2011 pictures.

That is, unless Google has made a mistake. I highlight an example of time traveling on the same street below.

Here are some changes you can note that the 2011 imagery highlights.

Fulton Village, a complex I have talked about previously, nears the end of construction in July 2011.

Another downtown project, the Van Ness Townhomes

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the city of Fresno is destroying 54 homes to widen a road (Peach).

Due to a mistake in the uploading process, Google allows us to see the before and after. Can you believe this is the same street?



I think I'll be giving this stretch of Peach another complete post in the near future.

So there you go, fresh new imagery is available. Can you find yourself, or anything interesting of note? Unfortunately, my home still has imagery from 2008!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Quick review of Jazzhop and other downtown happening

As I mentioned in my last post, the first ever Jazzhop was held downtown this weekend.

I decided to attend, and so, here are my thoughts of the evening, along with pictures of recent developments downtown.

We started out by visiting GV Urban's Biz-Werx, which was part of ArtHop but not Jazzhop. This building officially reopened this week after an extensive remodel, taking an abandoned eyesore into a good looking, and potentially lively street corner. The plan is to rent out the first floor into many offices, art studios or similar type of spaces, and the basement to be rented out as storage space. You can tell the building is old, because nobody in Fresno builds basements anymore.

Project website

Main corridor, very sharp looking

Space is available

Outside, the sidewalk was made greener(and pink!), and lots of light

My favorite part about the GV projects downtown is all the light they give to the sidewalk. Downtown is way too dark, which makes it seem less safe and uninviting. Bright white lights make the area feel more alive and walking feel safer.


Also nearby, Fulton Village finally opened last month. I've posted pictures of these apartments under construction before, and now here it is finished and lit up at night. Again, the amount of light really helps the street.

But of course the title of this post is about Jazzhop, so how was that?

I had never attended Arthop, so I hadn't been to any of these galleries before. Most of them are tiny studios with different forms of art. All of it interesting to see, although none took too long to explore.

Jazzhop added music performers to the galleries, so you could look at the art and enjoy music, or come for the music, and enjoy the art in the background.

It's certainly a good concept, but it's far from perfect.

Like my thoughts on Fuse Fest, I thought there was a shocking lack of people. Supposedly, ArtHop has been going on for quite some time, and this was Jazzhops big premiere....and yet, there was no such thing as a crowd. It's hard to tally up the total amount of people, because there were so many venues, but I'd be shocked if more than 350 people made their way to see the art and listen to music. In a metro area of over a million people, that's pretty bad.

So why doesn't Fresno show up? I have no clue. The art was enjoyable, and the music even more so.

And it's all free.

Anyway, another problem with the event is that the venues aren't really close to each other, so "hopping" from one to another on foot isn't that practical. And some of them are hard to find. This is made worse by the limited time, as the event pretty much takes place from 6-8pm.

So after visiting some galleries downtown, we headed to the Tower district for dinner (at Mr. Sushi) and then went to Audie's Olympic, for some more free jazz music.

In terms of music, this was the best venue, as, you know, it's actually a music venues. We stayed for a couple of hours of free Jazz jamming.


I hope that the event ends up growing, because it makes for an enjoyable evening, and for the price of free, what's not to like? It's not like there's much else to do in on Thursday night. Perhaps that's the problem? People are just too used to staying home...?