Nearly fifty years after the Fulton Mall opened to national acclaim, Fresno City Council voted late Thursday night to approve a plan to replace the historic pedestrian zone with a two-way street. The 5-2 vote was the latest step in an effort that backers hope will revitalize downtown Fresno and the city's historic main street.
While it's not the first time a proposal to remove the mall has come before the council, Thursday's vote carried more significance. For unlike past attempts in the 1990's and early 2000's, the current proposal is backed by nearly $16 million in federal transportation funding.
Council member Lee Brand told his colleagues and the packed gallery at City Hall that voting to open the mall to traffic is a bold step that will be looked at positively in the future. "We simply cannot do business the same way we've always done," said Brand.
The $20 million project, which also would include support from Measure C and private property owners calls for the six block long mall to be replaced with two lanes vehicle traffic and around 190 new parking spaces. A wide sidewalk on one side of the street is intended to provide a place for outdoor dining and new locations for many of the mall's renowned sculptures and fountains.
Supporters claim the project will give mall retail storefronts increased visibility from passing motorists. Former city official and current Fulton Mall business owner Craig Scharton told the council that vehicle access is essential to maintain a thriving business downtown. "We are compelled to provide access for people," said Scharton.
The vote is a major victory for Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who has made downtown revitalization one of her core issues since she took office in 2008. After reading from a 1988 Los Angeles Times article about the mall's demise, Swearengin sought to distance the current effort from past revitalization attempts that have failed. "Tonight is time to part company with the fear of failure, it's hung over our city for decades."
While the mall's fortunes as a retail and office center have declined since the late 1960's, even after half a century, it remains a controversial topic throughout the city. While many downtown property and business owners voiced support for the re-introduction of traffic, critics raised concerns ranging from gentrification to loss of the mall's original landscape design. Local artist Dixie Salazar said allowing a street to be carved through the mall would destroy what is essentially a work by an acclaimed artist, landscape designer Garrett Eckbo. "The mall was created as an art piece as a whole," says Salazar. "We need to give it a chance to succeed as it is."
Salazar and other mall supporters said that downtown's decline has more to do with the exodus of middle class office workers and retail stores to north Fresno than the pedestrian only design of the mall. "The mall didn't fail. Fresno failed the mall," said Salazar.
Others like Al Smith of the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce said that while the mall's landscaping and fountains are beautiful, they haven't proven to be a boost for businesses. "As we say in the entertainment business, something can be an artists success but a box office failure," said Smith.
While Thursday's vote allows the city to move forward with additional planning for construction, significant hurdles remain. The federal government's environmental review process has yet to be finalized, design documents need to be completed, and the council must still award a construction contract. A legal challenge from mall supporters is also possible. Council member Paul Caprioglio, who voted against the plan asked City Manager Bruce Rudd how the city would pay for legal expenses in the event it is sued over the project. "Do we have a litigation fund as part of this budget," asked Caprioglio. "Which pot is going to pay? Because it's obvious there's going to be a lawsuit."