By Robert Turner
The future of Fresno’s historic Fulton Mall hangs in the balance. Whether it remains as a car-free corridor, a welcoming place to pedestrians, strollers, and bicycles, or is returned to its former habit as driveable street with curbs and parking meters will soon be decided by the City Council. It is hoped that the Council will choose to take guidance from the will of the citizens of this city, most of whom, I have come to believe, value urban parks and pedestrian ways, and treasure the artwork that adorns and is the Fulton Mall.
The voices arrayed against the mall and in favor of cars are well-organized and currently hold the reins of power. On the other hand, they share a lack of vision of what downtown Fresno is capable of becoming. By opening up our imaginations to embrace bold new ideas, we can see the enormous potential held by the most valuable locations in the center of the city, especially those alongside the mall. Connect with this vision and you too will have a confident optimism in the future of Fresno to become an economic and technological powerhouse of the state.
First, let us get straight that returning cars to Fulton is not the economic driver needed to revitalize the mall and downtown. What Fulton Mall needs to be successful is a destination that takes advantage of its unique pedestrian character—a destination that will synergistically provide the impetus that lets the pedestrian corridor finally live up to its full potential.
My proposal is to keep the mall free of cars, while building alongside it a fabulous multi-level, multiuse megastructure that will be that needed destination. What I call the “Fulton Green” project will bring people to the mall not only from throughout the city but also from across the state, while also putting Fresno on the national map as a leader in modern urban planning. I will return to that idea later, but first we must examine the argument that our Fulton Mall is a failure that has driven our downtown, like other downtowns with pedestrian malls across the country, to decay.
Critics are correct in stating that many, if not most, of the pedestrian malls in the United States have failed to create the lively and economically viable environments that were promised when they were first built. Because of this, our mayor and many downtown business leaders believe cars will restore the economic prospects of the former main street of our city. However, if cars are the solution, then why are the streets on either side of the mall, where cars now are allowed to drive and park, no more vital than the mall is today? Some of these streets, like Broadway to the northwest and Fulton Street southeast of Chukchansi Park, are virtually dead, with boarded-up abandoned buildings, despite the presence of drivers and parking on these blocks.
That cars can cure the depression of downtown is a false hope. People flock to Fashion Fair and River Park, not because they can drive down the center of the malls to check out the shops. No, they bring their cars in close to the edge and park for free, then walk in and enjoy the walkable centers, ambling by storefronts that open only to the inside of the complex.
Rather than wiping out the valuable architectural resource that is the Fulton Mall, a better step in the right direction would be to turn all of downtown’s multistory parking garages into free parking lots in order to balance out the competition between the downtown and the suburban shopping malls. Remove all of the parking meters on the city’s streets and restrict parking by time instead—one hour, two hours or four hours. Right now, people can leave their car in a spot all day if they return to put more coins in the meter, not particularly helpful to the businesses close by.
But focusing on parking and access by cars is missing the point altogether. The push to turn the mall into a street is retrogressive and counter to the trends evident in many successful cities across the country, but especially in Europe, where residents have long valued their walkable centers. As Fresno moves toward encouraging infill development, and the transformation of corridors along bus rapid transit routes into high-density walkable communities, it just seems counterproductive to spend millions on a project that is meant to encourage more people to drive into the center of the city.
One can cite numerous examples in this country of successful malls that are an asset to their city. Several are associated with nearby college campuses, such as Ithaca Commons near Cornell University, Ped Mall in downtown Iowa City, State Street in Madison, Wisc., Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vt., and Pearl Street in Boulder, Colo. Charlottesville, Va.’s Main Street Mall is anchored at one end by the Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater that holds 3,500 people for concerts and city events. That mall has an active nightlife that draws thousands of college students in the evening.
As described by landscape architect Andy Meessmann, “The space may become a giant open air bar, with food vendors and live music that filters out of venues. After a night of indulgence and entertainment, the streets are swept and the space is once again bustling with daytime normalcy.”
He goes on to say, “For countless towns, the pedestrian mall has been converted back to automobile use and labeled a planning and design blunder. However, their success in the American college town is unmatched. In virtually every college town, somewhere at the edge of campus and downtown, there is a transition away from the school environment that often goes unnoticed. The best college towns can create, capture and enhance this experience in the form of a pedestrian mall.”
Other successful pedestrian malls in the United States include Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road Mall, Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, San Diego’s Horton Plaza, the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, the River Walk in San Antonio and Oklahoma City’s East California Avenue, alongside the Bricktown Canal. Then there are the hybrid transit malls like Denver’s 16th Street, Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall and Memphis’ Main Street transit corridors. In our own neighbor city Clovis, farmers’ markets, antique fairs and sporting events like bike races and the annual pole vaulting competition turn Old Town’s Pollasky Street and several of the side streets into a highly successful pedestrian-only venue on a frequent basis throughout the year.
The key to the success of every outdoor pedestrian mall is that they have destination points that draw people to the area throughout the day and into the night. For the college town, it is the campus nearby. For others, it is an arena or a theater complex, an ice skating rink, a riverfront, or a promenade along a canal. Nearby shops and restaurants open in the daytime, while night clubs and bistros draw people in at night. By itself, a pedestrian mall can never be a successful destination if the area is blighted to begin with.
The Fulton Mall never fully succeeded because the downtown was already dying when it was built. The construction of McDonald’s on Blackstone near Shields and of Manchester Center signaled the shift of commerce away from downtown toward the new neighborhoods in the north of the city. Today, Fresno’s Fulton Mall has Chukchansi Park nearby, but that space is alive only during the occasional games and rare concerts. The area currently lacks a popular destination that is active at all hours on every day. Adding cars to the Fulton Mall will just make it another typical street in a still blighted downtown. Adding a unique and magnetic development will make the mall something truly exceptional.
When I first walked the Fulton Mall a little over a year-and-a-half ago, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the historic buildings still left standing along the way, skyscrapers erected between 1914 and 1925, a time when beaux arts reigned supreme in American architecture and buildings were elaborately decorated on their front-facing walls with ornate glazed architectural terra cotta.
Peering through the windows, it was apparent that a couple of these beautiful old buildings had reached a sad, nearly condemnable condition; yet, still, I had hope, as I studied them that early spring day, that the city would be able to keep them intact until economic conditions improve enough to allow for their restoration and re-occupation. (I was pleased when I read a month later that the historic 1914 Helm Building was purchased by Sevak and Serko Khatchadourian, developers from Beverly Hills who also own the Pacific Southwest Building across the mall. But I also was saddened that, like Mayor Ashley Swearengin, they too support the restoration of vehicular traffic to the Fulton corridor.)
Looking at the sides of each building where the structure faces away from the main streetscape, one sees only a plain painted brick wall with windows, as if the builders expected someday another equally tall structure would be erected directly alongside their building, a new structure with its own decorated façade to form a flush continuity of style along the north-facing street wall. This never happened (or buildings were built and later torn down). These historic skyscrapers, too beautiful to demolish today, expressed to me not only a nostalgic look at a bygone time of different, in some ways more extravagant, aesthetic standards, but also the melancholy of lost promise and an uncompleted optimism and grandeur.
Then the thought naturally came, why not complete that promise and fulfill that vision of a tall wall of connected buildings along Fulton Street, but not as a completed line of ersatz beaux arts façades (which we can never afford today, in any case), but with an equally tall modernistic structure to fill in the gaps. Attach the structure to each brick side wall of the three historic buildings, then build up to that height and you have a single two-block-long architectural front on the southwest side of the most important stretch of the old main street, Fulton between Fresno and Tulare. That structure will be centered on Mariposa Street, bisected by the central axis that runs through the Courthouse and City Hall.
This two-block-long megacomplex, connecting the old Bank of Italy Building on the Tulare Street corner to the Mattei Building (Guarantee Savings) on Fresno Street, and wrapping itself around the Helm Building in the middle, will not be just another skyscraping office building, hotel or condominium complex. It will not be so simple as to serve only a single use. Nor will it be dense inside and limited in its access to just those who live, work or have business there.
No, what shall be built in this space is something worthy of the enormous potential of the location, an open multi-use public space serving as a platform for shops, apartments, offices, restaurants and entertainment establishments, all arranged in an airy three-dimensional shopping, work and living complex, like a shopping center with businesses and apartments in the mix, upended into the third dimension to produce what I like to call a “vertical streetscape,” and crowned with a public city park on top, a veritable island in the sky where anyone can go to admire the view and children can fly kites in the windy aerie.
A structure like this calls to mind Paolo Soleri’s arcologies or Richard Register’s ecological urban neighborhoods—automobile-free, three-dimensional urban fabrics that increase the density of land use while at the same time expanding the architectural space to make the downtown urban scene more spacious and airy due to the elimination of streets, curbs, parking and everything else associated with cars.
A large amount of the city may be contained on a very small acreage, but by utilizing the vertical space wisely, there is a sense of openness and space rather than the heaviness and density of a typical office building. And—very important for the success of such a complex—like with any shopping center mall, ordinary citizens are free to come and go without the security checkpoints ubiquitous in most of today’s skyscrapers.
A vertical car-free streetscape, which I envision for this two-block stretch of Fulton between Fresno and Tulare will become the heart of downtown Fresno, occupying the central crossing place of the city’s two main axes. Such an interconnected and integrated complex will be a destination worthy of the extraordinary potential of this prime location, which is the most economically promising real estate in the city, being just a block away from the future high-speed rail station, also situated on the Mariposa Street axis. Not only will this megastructure provide a working, shopping and living environment for people who want to live a car-free lifestyle in the heart of downtown, but it will also draw users from across the city to its shops, restaurants and night clubs. They will come at all hours of the day and night, so long as there is an adequate mix of purposes for the commercial space.
Because people live in the structure, there will be all of the services necessary for neighborhood life, such as a grocery store, a bank or credit union, a laundry, a barber, a health club, perhaps a branch of the county library, and other such prosaic establishments. But with people coming from the entire metropolitan area, and even beyond, this will also be the best place to locate a unique shop or business that relies on customers and clients drawn from an area wider than just a neighborhood or city district. This vertical streetscape will have a diversity of commerce unequaled by any other shopping center in the city, or even the whole Valley.
Beyond that, visitors will come not just for the stores, services and entertainment, but to experience the space itself. The sky park alone, with its unparalleled views, is a unique draw. But the structure can also be designed to bring in visitors who want to see revolutionary architecture, with large interior plazas along the lines of the interior space of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, and promenades at multiple levels, festooned with hanging indoor plants. As urban design, Fulton Green will have no equal in this country, setting a new standard for big cities to emulate. Such a structure will put Fresno’s downtown on the national map.
It will also put the there in downtown Fresno. Now people will have a reason to go to the mall. The pedestrian axes of Fulton and Mariposa will be full of life, people and activity throughout the day. The car-free environment of the mall will complement and enhance the same car-free character of the Fulton Green megastructure. People will reside in this space, as well as on nearby streets like Broadway, where new complexes similar to downtown’s recently built Granville townhouses will allow residents to enjoy life without having to own a car. For those who require more than trains to transport them around the state, one of the parking lots beside the megastructure can be set up to house a car rental business providing for residents who otherwise have no need to own a car, and for visitors to Fresno who arrive by high-speed rail.
Keeping with Soleri and Register’s tradition of ecological architecture, the megastructure will utilize the latest in green building and maintenance technology, something made easier when designing a large complex in an integrated manner. This is why I call the project Fulton Green.
It is my hope that people will be inspired and thrilled by this vision for Fresno to want to contribute by elaborating on the ideas presented here. Let’s build some momentum for an ecological megastructure joining, preserving and enhancing the three beautiful buildings on the south side of Fulton Mall, while saving the historic mall itself from the blight of cars. Time is short. The ultimate fate of our Fulton Mall may well be determined by City Hall before March 2014.
As I am neither an architect nor an urban planner by profession, nor much of an artist either, my part in this effort at crowdsourcing will be to facilitate an architectural competition to create a more fleshed-out face for the Fulton Green project. In this city and up and down the state are new students and skilled professionals in the fields of green architecture, environmentally friendly landscaping and sustainable urban design, as well as many talented and capable artists, who can work out aspects of this idea in greater detail and render realistic imagery that will move so many more people than can be done with just the written word. Sometime in early 2015 I will begin to gather the resources and sponsors to hold such a competition.
A year-and-a-half ago I arrived in Fresno for the first time. Being without a car of my own, I quickly found the Fulton Mall. That first walk down the mall inspired this vision. I saw the seeds of grandeur and the enormous potential of this place. And the more I learned about what makes Fresno special—one of the largest cities in California, agricultural center, gateway for tourists, future hub on the high-speed rail system, growing tech community and a dedicated population that loves and believes in its city—the more this vision seemed not just reasonable, but inevitable.
Fresno will indeed have a lively and vital downtown, filled with residents who live and work and play within walking distances. These downtown residents will treasure their pedestrian mall park. Certainly, Fulton Green would work if it opened up onto a street, but such a complex begs to have a pedestrian plaza as its main entrance. The synergy that will develop from the combination of the Green and a restored and still car-free urban mall can be enough by itself to launch a new era of growth in Fresno’s downtown. Whoever builds such a complex will both kick-start and be in a position to capitalize on the inevitable downtown renaissance that is the destiny of our city.
It is because of the extraordinary potential of this two-block stretch between Fresno and Tulare that I want to keep the layout of the Fulton Mall as it is today, to preserve this option for the future, when a developer will come along who has the vision and guts to do something amazing and help make Fresno the great city it can be.
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.