The math behind Fresno’s smart growth plan

Over the past two months, John Beckman of the Building Industry Association of the Greater Valley and I have engaged in a debate via Mike Fitzgerald’s blog on the merits of varying growth patterns as they pertain to the Central Valley. It’s been a spirited discussion, to say the least. Today I present to you the latest installment of our ongoing banter

Fresno adopted a smart-growth alternative for their 2035 General Plan Update (Photo by Joe Moore via Flickr Creative Commons)

It seems that Mr. Beckman and I have reached a point where we are quibbling over smaller, technical details that detract from the broader issues of growth and development. So, let me try and bring the conversation back to a level where everyone can understand the importance of smart growth versus sprawl. Mr. Beckman brought up several points in his latest retort, but for this post I would like to focus on the issue that started this dialogue in the first place: the merits of smart growth in California. Specifically, our neighbors to the south, Fresno.

Yes, smart growth pays off in Fresno

If you recall, Mr. Beckman and I seem to disagree on the correct way to interpret a study of smart growth scenarios in Fresno presented in a Smart Growth America (SGA) report. Mr. Beckman feels that the Fresno study as it appears in the SGA report is misleading as some analysis appears to be left out. But instead of further defending SGA’s report– which was really just a literature review of the different land use studies conducted around the country— I am going straight to the source: The actual 2035 General Plan Update scenarios put together by Fresno, which were the basis for what SGA included in their report. Mr. Beckman felt that there needed to be more “mathematical analysis” on the issue, so I am happy to oblige.

Last year, Fresno put together a handful of different scenarios of how their city might grow over the next 25 years. These scenarios were then scored by an urban planning firm for their costs and benefits. You can find the analysis of Fresno’s 2035 General Plan Update scenarios here. Below are the comparisons between Fresno’s most ambitious “Smart Growth” plan—Alternative A—and the “Business as usual” alternative, which reflects a conventional suburban growth trajectory. Here is how the two stack up.

Business as Usual Alternative A (smart growth)
Total new units 79,000 79,000
New Land Consumption 46.6 sq miles 21.7 sq miles
      In acres 29,806 13,909
Units per acre 2.65 5.68

As you can see, both scenarios include the same number of units (79,000). There is no need to muse about how many units each scenario may or may not have, as Mr. Beckman has previously done. The difference is that Alternative A puts these 79,000 units in just 21 square miles (13,909 acres), while “Business as Usual” spreads these units out over 46 miles (29,806 acres). Even without going into the financials, you can see that Alternative A is the most efficient use of land. But of course there are financial considerations, let’s take a look:

Costs Business as Usual Alternative A (smart growth)  Revenue Business as Usual Alternative A (smart growth)
Total infrastructure costs to 2035 $1.64 billion $1.27 billion Total revenue to 2035 $4.76 billion $4.62 billion
Infrastructure costs/acre $55,022 $91,307 Revenue per acre $159,699 $332,159
Infrastructure costs/unit $20,759 $16,075 Revenue per unit $60,253 $58,481

Here, I have broken down the costs and revenues by 2035 associated with both alternatives on a cumulative, per unit and per acre basis. If you recall, Mr. Beckman felt that the numbers presented by SGA may be skewed because the report used acres to measure revenue and units to measure costs. In my calculations, I have included both to compare across all metrics. This should assuage any concerns that the numbers are being skewed. As you can see, Alternative A brings in more revenue per acre and costs less per unit than “Business as Usual”. However, Alternative A appears to bring in slightly less revenue per unit while costing more per acre. These are somewhat confusing numbers, but all you need to really know is this: what is the net financial benefit for the two alternatives? After subtracting costs from revenues for each alternative, the results are clear:

Business as Usual Alternative A (smart growth)
TOTAL NET REVENUE $3.12 billion $3.35 billion
NET REVENUE PER ACRE $104,677 $240,852
NET REVENUE PER UNIT $39,494 $42,406

We have a clear winner here. The more efficient Alternative A brings in more revenue per unit and per acre overall than the Business as Usual alternative. (note: I did not include operating and maintenance costs which were calculated separately from upfront infrastructure costs in the study. However, Alternative A had lower costs in this regard as well, so the results would be largely the same).

Aside from revenues, Alternative A also performs better on other externalities associated with land use patterns. The alternatives were also scored on water consumption, energy use, savings to residents, and vehicle miles traveled, with Alternative A besting all other scenarios in these categories as well. Not only does smart growth make more financial sense for Fresno, but it will also have a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of the city’s residents.

It’s also worth noting that Alternative A has already been adopted into Fresno’s General Plan Update with strong support from a broad range of community stakeholders, from pastors to farmers to health advocates to developers across all socioeconomic classes. At a city council meeting to discuss the GPU on April 5th, 2012, 80 speakers voiced their support for Alternative A, with only seven speaking in opposition. One of the only dissenters were Mr. Beckman’s counterparts to the south—the Building Industry Association of Fresno-Madera Counties— who actually presented their own plan—Alternative E— reflecting their continued preference for traditional development patterns. Of course, their alternative did not gain support as the Fresno City Council chose to adopt the smart growth alternative.

So there you have it: mathematical proof of the efficiency of smart growth in a Central Valley city, ushered in with strong support from community stakeholders.

Tags: , ,

Categories: Community Commentary, Smart Growth

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia created SCL in March of 2012. Garcia is a Stockton native with a background in urban policy and planning, holding a Bachelor's Degree from UCLA as well as a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He currently serves as the Policy Director at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. David was also COO at Ten Space, a real estate development firm focused exclusively on Downtown Stockton, and continues to advise on their projects. Prior to that, he worked three years as a researcher/analyst for a Congressional research agency in Washington, DC. The views expressed on this site are entirely of the author's

3 Comments on “The math behind Fresno’s smart growth plan”

  1. Jon Seisa
    August 13, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    Good for sister city Fresno. The neglected Central Valley cities need all the help they can get. Well, I can certainly see how compact design is far more cost-effective and has lower maintenance costs. So this Alternative A plan is very reasonable and pragmatic.

    Now if only Fresno can get off the high poverty list. Did you see this? “California Poverty: Three Metro Areas In Central Valley Rank Among The Poorest In The Nation”:

    I’m so glad Stockton dodged this dreaded bullet. But let’s not tarry… apparently, good quality education and its availability is the answer to thwart poverty and lure corporate relocation and employment to an area where a required higher educated workforce can be readily tapped and utilized.

    The article cites: “The valley’s poverty rate is high even though its agricultural productivity is soaring. California is home to a $35 billion agricultural industry and Fresno County produces more than $5.6 billion in agricultural products. One in four people in the county lived under the poverty line in 2011.” When I read this I wondered, why doesn’t the state mandatorize financially benefiting valley agri-businesses to adopt a tax deductible or tax credit plan to allot a small percent of earned revenue towards educational endowments for higher education and educational expansion in the region to help combat poverty and stimulate an educated workforce that will ultimately lead to other mutual community benefits and an improved higher standard of living? It would be a win-win situation for all concern. Just 0.005% alone on the dollar would rake in an annual $28 million endowment for education on $5.6 billion.

  2. August 20, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

    It sure looks obvious to me…. Smart Growth Plan seems the way to go. I don’t understand the argument.


  1. The sprawl punch-up continues - August 14, 2013

    […] Garcia presents “mathematical proof of the efficiency of smart growth in a Central Valley […]

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