It’s one of the most maligned stretches of road in Fresno, Blackstone Avenue. With a reputation for being dangerous, unwelcoming, and rundown. But city leaders say they have a plan to fix it, and it starts with a bus. However, not everyone is convinced the avenue can be improved.
It’s not hard to get a sense of what many people think of Blackstone Avenue.
Just ask one simple question of people in Fresno: Would you take a walk down Blackstone?
“No, because I don’t want to be considered as one of those little street walkers,”
“North of Shaw there is a possibility, but in general no,”
“In general walk down Blackstone? No.”
Today Blackstone is a 7.5-mile stretch of scorching hot pavement, thick with car exhaust and largely lined with stores that offer smog checks, cigarettes and liquor.
And after nightfall, the perception is that Blackstone is not a safe place to be.
But some in the city say transformation is just around the corner and it begins with rapid transit buses.
The idea is to dramatically increase the number and frequency of the buses that travel the corridor from downtown to the popular River Park Shopping Center.
The hope, as laid out in the city’s new general plan, is the bus line will draw private investment with mixed use commercial and retail buildings built right up to the street. A similar line will be built on Ventura Avenue and Kings Canyon Boulevard.
The man in charge of setting up the new bus system, called “The Q”, is Fresno’s transportation director Brian Marshall.
He envisions a system where a bus stops every ten minutes, unleashing an explosion of business investment, filling vacant buildings, and ushering in new more desirable tenants.
“Traditionally with bus service the formula is as much is invested about six times is returned. So our investment is $50-million. It is easy to anticipate along those two corridors $300-million in investment,” Marshall said.
Construction laying the ground work for the bus line could begin in the next few months.
Marshall knows that he is dreaming big, but still thinks Fresno is poised for explosive growth if the right infrastructure is in place.
“Fresno is such fertile ground for development. Where I think you live here for a while and you see a vacant building. I don’t see a vacant building. I see a new building at a reasonable cost,”
But Marshall is facing an uphill battle. Total ridership is down for the existing bus system. Also for many the buses have a negative image.
Both Nash DeSantiago and Sonia Robertson are waiting to board their bus at the Manchester Shopping center. They describe the buses this way.
“There are always crackheads and tweakers and they are trying to sneak up on you so you have to be alert,” DeSantiago said.
“They run late. There is not enough buses. They don’t run late in the evening. On the weekends you have to hurry up and get somewhere and come back or you are stuck,” Robertson said.
Brian Marshall, the transportation director, attributes the complaints to lack of investment and increased interest from riders straining the system.
He is confident that the new buses will not fall into the same trap that plagues Fresno’s city buses.
One of the project’s biggest backers is the Better Blackstone Association’s Sarah Sharpe.
“I really don’t think we can afford to let Blackstone go because it is in the heart of our city,” Sharpe said.
She is not blind to the image that Blackstone has. One earned over decades.
But she has a vision of a totally different Blackstone with mixed use commercial and residential buildings right against the sidewalk, shady trees and people walking from shop to shop.
She thinks it’s a destination people where will want to live. Especially for people who don’t want to drive a car.
“We have a diverse population and I think that we need to have diverse housing stock options. I think that is something we can provide on Blackstone,” Sharpe said.
A key part of the concept of the bus rapid transit system relies on people wanting to live and shop in along its lines.
And conversely, supporters like Sharpe say the bus is crucial to facilitating that growth.
The Association recently held a block party to get the input of community residents about what they want from Blackstone.
On the one hand is Chester Miszewicz, who sees the potential of bus rapid transit to bring about accelerated change.
“It is like when you live in a city and a sky scraper is being built. The foundation takes years. You might not see anything come above ground for a couple years, and then all of a sudden the building is being built and it is a dramatic change,”
On the other hand is Mona Martin.
She thinks the valley is too sprawling and car centric and adding more buses won’t change much.
“I would like to see a greater reliance on public transportation…but we are here in the valley. It is not an urban situation like a big city,”
Among the detractors is Fresno City Councilmember Clint Olivier.
“I think it is fantasy to believe that people are going to leave the BMW at home to hop on one of these things to go to work,” Olivier said.
The majority of Blackstone Avenue runs through his district.
He fought against the new general plan which is backed by Mayor Ashley Swearengin.
Olivier says Blackstone is an important commercial asset and that the market has spoken on what people want from Blackstone Avenue and that is not living in high rise apartments.
“The people who are pushing residential on Blackstone are using the force of the government to get that done. They are selling something that nobody wants to buy,” Olivier said.
Olivier does want Blackstone to grow and improve but would rather the city government provide essential services like police and take a step back, letting private interests develop the avenue, not city planners.
To top it off, Olivier says instead of promoting growth and development along the avenue, the new general plan actually limits economic opportunity with onerous regulations.
“They are paralyzed. They can’t grow. They can’t expand. They can’t tear down and start over. What is the point of even trying to do business on Blackstone now that it has been identified as this important transit corridor and they can’t even do what they want with their business,” Olivier said.
As for the buses, they are not projected to start running for another two years.
And advocates say big improvements on the avenue could take decades.
In the near term, construction of movable rapid transit bus platforms could begin by the end of the year.