By Mike Rhodes
The next big thing to create an upheaval in the political/economic landscape of Fresno will be the struggle over downtown development, specifically around the Fulton Mall. Powerful interests want to return cars to the mall in what they believe will be a major contribution to the revitalization of downtown.
I got the pitch from Craig Scharton, director of the Downtown and Community Revitalization Department at City Hall. Scharton invited me to his home (near Glenn and McKenzie) and made me lunch, which largely came from his vegetable garden. After lunch, which was absolutely delicious (man can that guy cook!), he laid out for me why the Fulton Mall is a cornerstone of downtown redevelopment.
Scharton has to know that I’m one of the least likely people in this community to support a plan coming out of City Hall, backed by developers, the business sector and targeting one of the only pedestrian-friendly streets we have in Fresno. As far as I’m concerned, we need another street in Fresno packed with automobile traffic like we need another underutilized baseball stadium downtown.
From the start, I think Scharton deserves credit for opening a dialog on this issue with someone who is not going to be an easy convert. But, he has a compelling argument that goes something like this—most of the pedestrian malls in the United States, built in the 1960s and 1970s, have been converted to allow automobile traffic. It was those conversions, Scharton argues, that was key to the revitalization of the downtowns in those cities.
Fulton Street, in many ways, is the main street of downtown Fresno. Because of the tall buildings, central location and history, Fulton Street (between Inyo and Tuolumne) is the heart of downtown and must be healthy for the revitalization of downtown to succeed. The City of Fresno Web site puts it this way: “Until this part of Fulton is brought back to life on a 24-hour basis, Downtown Fresno will not feel fully revitalized. That’s why the Mall is the focus for all of the City’s downtown revitalization efforts.” Scharton explained to me in detail about the cost of rehabilitating the existing buildings on Fulton and that it can’t be done unless developers can rent the space for as much or more than it costs to refurbish the buildings. If the mall stays the way it is, there will be no restored buildings, because it cannot be done profitably.
But why, I asked, would bringing cars back to the Fulton Mall increase the value of the property? According to Scharton, the property values will increase because people will be able to get to and from the businesses easier. That will bring in new retailers that will be willing to pay more rent and that will have a snowball effect as more developers are willing to refurbish additional existing properties.
The development of the Fulton Mall into a new and vital business and retail zone is wrapped up in several other dynamics that are integral to downtown revitalization. Those concepts include what is already happening in uptown (north downtown Fresno) where many new buildings have been built recently that are mixed use. These buildings include retail stores on the first floor and residential above. The other major development that will have a huge impact in downtown Fresno is the high-speed rail (HSR) project. The main station for the HSR in the Central Valley will be on H Street and open onto Mariposa, close to the Fulton Mall.
It has not yet been determined if the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan will be implemented and, if it is, what Fulton Street would look like afterward. There are a lot of options on the table that include several variations of maintaining some aspects of a walkable downtown street—wide sidewalks, public art, etc.
As a frequent critic of city policy I have to say that I’m not convinced that City Hall’s plan for the Fulton Mall is the best thing for the city. After all, we have seen them throw tax dollars away on one boondoggle after another. I remember hearing that Grizzlies stadium (Chukchansi Park) was going to save downtown. Instead, as attendance has not reached expectations, the contract has been renegotiated and it has not been a revenue stream for the City of Fresno, let alone helped to revitalize downtown Fresno.
More recently, the mayor and powers that be in Fresno swore that if the voters did not approve Measure G (which would have privatized the city sanitation department), it would be some kind of financial Armageddon. Well, Measure G did not pass and Fresno has not filed bankruptcy. In fact, right after the election they found they had more money in the General Fund than they had anticipated.
I could mention many other instances where there is a huge disconnect between what we are told by City Hall and the truth. That makes lining up behind the destruction of the Fulton Mall feel somewhat like trying to kick the football that Lucy holds in front of Charlie Brown. They have priors of manipulating the facts and flat out lying to implement policy that will benefit them, their developer friends and other Republican fat cats in this community.
If the developers, business associations and other downtown interests that support the “conversion” of the Fulton Mall into a more upscale shopping and living district are successful, what would that look like? There is no doubt that many of the existing businesses would not be able to pay the increased rent. They would be forced to move. In their place will be some of the shops and restaurants that you are familiar with if you visit River Park or the Fashion Fair Mall. In short, a more upscale shopping experience. Some people would like that, but some people would be displaced.
You may be surprised to learn, if you have not been downtown for a while, that there are people currently using the Fulton Mall. If you go down there on any given day of the week, there are people strolling around, sitting on the benches and eating at the restaurants. These people are largely, but not entirely, less affluent Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and other people of color. That is who will be displaced if significant changes are made to the mall.
The City of Fresno has been dominated for so long by builders and developers who help elect City Council members that most of us don’t even think about how that dynamic affects us. The mantra of the developers has been to expand forever northward, building more suburbs, strip malls and shopping centers. That is how they earn their money and are able to buy politicians’ votes. Does anyone remember Operation Rezone? That is when the FBI came to town and broke up the developer/politician free-for-all (but only for a while). The result of that corruption, greed and urban sprawl has been a downtown core that was abandoned. Surrounding downtown are neighborhoods with some of the most concentrated poverty in the country.
Now we are being asked by some of those same developers and their politician friends to open up the mall to cars so they can make a profit at rehabilitating the buildings on the Fulton Mall. The result will be a gentrification that expels the less affluent business owners and invites corporate chain stores who will cater to the Yuppies expected to flood the area with the arrival of the high-speed rail.
If anyone has an alternative vision about how to revitalize downtown, they need to act before it is too late. City Hall has been working on its plan for several years now; they have a dedicated staff who will work hard to make it happen, they are lining up the funding and they have the support of the business community, builders and developers.
Unless there is an organized group that can articulate an argument for maintaining and improving the historic Fulton Mall, its public art, and uniqueness, it will soon be open to cars, trucks and buses. If that happens, we can take a look back in 10 years and see if City Hall was right or if we end up flat on our back after Lucy pulled away the football again at the last minute.