By Robert Turner
(Editor’s note: This series of articles was first published in the October–December Tehipite Topics, the local newsletter of the Sierra Club.)
On Sept. 5, the day the City of Fresno found out it would be getting $16 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to wreck our Fulton Mall and turn it into a street for cars, I heard Mayor Ashley Swearengin give an impassioned speech calling for all Fresnans to rally behind this one simple project. It will be the first domino in a series that will lead to the renaissance of downtown, she said. Bring cars back to Fulton Street and hope will be restored, businesses will return, developers will invest, one domino after another until the city is back on its feet. All because people in cars will be able to drive and park right in front of the stores and restaurants on the street.
It was a brilliant piece of political theater. I began to feel unpatriotic not jumping on the bandwagon, wanting instead to save this unique piece of Fresno’s artistic and cultural heritage. Ever since I became involved in the politics of Fresno city planning, I have resented the notion that if I believe in downtown Fresno, then I should also be supporting the reintroduction of cars into the Fulton corridor.
As former Fresno County Planning Director Hal Tokmakian makes clear in his article on page 13, the pedestrian mall did not kill downtown, and bringing cars back into this precious space will not set things right. I have to agree with Tokmakian, except for the fact that with so many people now believing that cars will make the difference, it might actually work, but only as a self-fulfilling prophecy!
The irony is that if Fresno does succeed in turning Fulton back into a street, along the most valuable real estate in the city, then 30 or 40 years down the way, the city will want to turn it back into a pedestrian mall, and then there will probably be a movement to re-create the lost design of Garrett Eckbo while they hunt around to gather up all of the original sculptures. Rumor has it that people are already lining up, so to speak, to bid on the sculptural art works should there be no room for them in the new plan.
For a city that has made such progress in moving toward sustainability and wise planning, it saddens me to hear the mayor state that Fresno is a “car culture” and so we must acquiesce in accepting that residents (at least those with lots of money to spend) will not come downtown to shop unless they can drive right to the front of a store. Well, I don’t accept it.
There is no shortage of good ideas for making something unique on the mall that will draw visitors from all over to come downtown. It can become an arts and entertainment district, or a center for international culture and food. There could be a museum of Hispanic culture or of San Joaquin Valley history. It can become an agricultural technology hub, tied in with Fresno’s nascent computer tech community. A college could be situated on the Mall, along with multiuse high rises.
Elsewhere in this edition, I describe my own vision for the mall as the ideal location to build one of the first vertically integrated publicly accessible complete high-rise urban environments in the country, a structure that can also include everything that has been suggested above. But let us never forget that our Mall is also an urban park for so many seniors who live close by, an oasis of greenery and calm in our busy downtown.
Robert Turner, a former Bay Area physics and geology teacher, is the editor of Tehipite Topics, the quarterly newsletter of the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club, and a member of the Downtown Fresno Coalition. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.