Within five miles of the Highway 41 interchange at Friant Road, quickest freeway access to Fresno’s largest and most popular shopping and entertainment area, a future city planned for more than 100,000 people rises from the dirt.
Five miles isn’t all that far – especially at 65 mph. From that set of on-ramps, it’s a shorter drive to the future city than to the homes of many Fresno residents and everyone living in Clovis.
Except instead of heading south on Highway 41, go north and cross the San Joaquin River into Madera County. On the left, set upon a bluff, sits the familiar shapes and hues of Valley Children’s Hospital.
Keep going as the two-lane freeway reduces to a single lane. (For reasons that can only be explained by Caltrans, the southbound direction remains two lanes.) Soon – unless it’s rush hour and traffic is backed up at the Avenue 12 signal light –you’ve arrived.
But where, exactly?
In 2019, this corner of Highway 41 and Avenue 12 may not seem like much: some pistachio trees, the semi-famous flag barn and a line of residential rooftops to the west. Take a good look, because it won’t be rural for long. Plans call for a large commercial center on one side of 41 and a hospital on the other.
And, of course, there will be houses. Lots and lots of houses. Home construction and sales are well underway at nearby Riverstone, a 2,000-acre development with county approvals for 6,578 “dwelling units.” (Principal owner/developer Tim Jones also owns 5,000 acres of adjacent land whose almond trees, he said, could eventually make way for more houses.)
A couple miles north on the east side of 41 and tucked against Little Table Mountain lies Tesoro Viejo, Spanish for “old treasure.” Its 1,600 acres have been approved for 5,190 homes.
Not ‘another bedroom community’
About 450 houses have been sold so far at Riverstone and 73 at Tesoro Viejo, which already has a school (Hillside Elementary) plus a cafe and fire/sheriff’s substation in its fledgling “town center.” Together, these “master-planned communities” along with other proposed developments with names like Gunner Ranch West, North Shore at Millerton and TraVigne form what Madera County officials project will be a city of 120,000 people.
“The assumption was this was just going to be another bedroom community,” said county supervisor Brett Frazier, a Riverstone resident. “But when you drive through it you see it’s something different. In the next 20 years, it’ll truly be a new city.”
What separates a bedroom community from an actual city? Jobs, mainly. People who live in bedroom communities drive someplace else for work because their place of residence lacks industry or commercial businesses.
At present, the largest employer in this part of Madera County is Valley Children’s Hospital, home to 3,570 staff members and 644 doctors. After that probably comes the Golden Valley School District and Vulcan Materials, which won county approval for a controversial 671-acre gravel extraction operation at Highways 41 and 145.
In short, nowhere near enough jobs to support 120,000 people. Meaning the success of these developments and the future city hinges on being able to attract businesses whose workers earn enough to afford those nice new homes.
County officials are confident those jobs will come. They point to the millions of square feet set aside by Riverstone and Tesoro Viejo for commercial centers and business parks. They also bring up job-housing requirements contained within the Rio Mesa Area Plan, the 1995 document created to guide development in this area.
Selling a lifestyle
“You still need the companies to say, ‘Yes, that’s where we want to go,’” Frazier said. “But what you see from driving around Riverstone and Tesoro Viejo is that a lot of those things are planned. ‘After this number of houses, then we put in this.’
“It wasn’t a condition from us to Tesoro Viejo that you need to have your town center in first. They did that on their own because it’s the kind of lifestyle they’re selling.”
The lifestyle Tesoro Viejo and Riverstone are selling is “live, work and play” all in the same area. Which is an attractive pitch to 2019 homebuyers.
Tesoro Viejo and Riverstone certainly contain nice houses. They also have attractive amenities such as clubhouses with sparkling pools, neighborhood parks and extensive trail systems for walking and biking. Residents pay a monthly HOA fee ($125 at Riverstone) for these amenities and security.
But only market forces can dictate if commercial centers open or businesses locate. For evidence I offer up Harlan Ranch, a 1,500-house subdivision in northeast Clovis where residents have to drive five miles for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
In other words, there are no guarantees.
However, certain assurances can be made. A new city of 120,000 further congests Highway 41, which will only exacerbate our region’s terrible air pollution. All those extra people will also tax our water supply since both projects rely on surface deliveries from the San Joaquin River watershed. (Tesoro Viejo is completely dependent on surface water, while Riverstone needs surface water to comply with county groundwater balance ordinances as well as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.)
It also is interesting that leapfrog development is sprouting just north of the Fresno city limits at a time when Fresno has finally halted its decades-long sprawl to concentrate on infill and improving older neighborhoods. Clovis, meanwhile, continues to grow and expand.
‘You’re out of the city’
Why would someone move to a new development in rural (for now) Madera County?
That’s a question I posed to Matt Pacini on a recent evening at one of Riverstone’s neighborhood parks, within easy walking distance of the house he and his wife purchased 1½ years ago.
“Probably because moving from Kerman to Fresno was too scary,” Pacini replied with a chuckle.
“Plus our kids go to St. Anthony’s (School) in Fresno. It’s five minutes from River Park and 10 minutes from their school. It’s like you’re out of the city but not that far away.”
Close to Fresno without actually being in Fresno … or even Fresno County.
At some point, the future city will need a name. Rio Mesa would be a logical choice. Or maybe New Madera, considering the population would nearly double (Old) Madera.
Or perhaps it never becomes a city at all. Perhaps southeast Madera County remains a bunch of housing tracts, different but similar, whose residents take Highway 41 every day for work and any time they want to eat at a nice restaurant.
In other words, a new bedroom community for Fresno.
Only time (and the economy) will tell.
Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series of columns by Marek Warszawski examining new growth in southern Madera County.
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee