There's no doubt in the mind of noted urban designer Henry Beer about what the Fulton corridor needs -- cars.
Fresnans must look Fulton between Tuolumne and Inyo streets "straight in the eye," Beer said Tuesday at the annual State of Downtown breakfast.
The six-block pedestrian mall generates just a fraction of its economic potential. Fulton Mall, Beer said, needs civic-minded people of energy who love their downtown.
"The device that delivers nutrients to this kind of place is called a car," said Beer, a California native and an urban designer based in Boulder, Colo.
An estimated 450 people attended the two-hour event at the Pacific Southwest Building on the mall. Beer wasn't so blunt as to yell "rip out the mall!" But he noted that pedestrian malls throughout the nation have almost always been bitter disappointments.
Beer said downtown has untapped resources, not the least being Fulton's distinctive high-rises. Get to work on two fronts, he told the audience: Turn potential into reality while telling the world of your feats.
"This can be done," Beer said. "The pieces are all in place."
Beer was the center of attention, but he wasn't the main story Tuesday. State of Downtown breakfasts were started by Mayor Ashley Swearengin when she took office four years ago. They're evolving into a political tool of more import to the mayor's agenda than her annual spring State of the City luncheons.
Swearengin's State of the City addresses -- actually, those of any mayor -- seem 20 minutes too long and follow the same path: Thank the family, introduce City Hall bigwigs, brag on each city department, rally the troops for another 12 months' toil.
The State of Downtown show is more flexible due to its geographic focus. Two years ago, Swearengin took center stage and promised great things from a reform of downtown's building code.
A year ago, she stepped into the spotlight and sang the praises of the newly born Downtown Fresno Partnership, a nonprofit business improvement district.
Swearengin is playing the long game, preparing Fresnans for the big task on her to-do list -- accept the failure of Fulton Mall, then tear it out.
Her pitch: Fresno's financial future depends on a thriving downtown, and downtown lives or dies on the health of Fulton corridor. The corridor, once the city's main street, needs cars again.
Such a reversal of downtown strategy will require at least four City Council votes, and the mayor expects to seek that support in early 2014.
It figures to be a war, in part because powerful forces still believe mall architect Victor Gruen's nearly 50-year-old baby remains a beauty that will thrive if only it gets City Hall affection.
From start to finish, Tuesday's State of Downtown breakfast was a call to arms for Swearengin's final push.
She added force to the message by yielding the morning's starring role to Beer. He was introduced by Council Member Oliver Baines, who represents downtown and figures to be a key player on mall issues.
Beer, who grew up in Richmond north of Oakland, said he came to Fresno often as a youth to visit family. He came to town about a decade ago to do some consulting.
"This is a very complex and nuanced set of issues you're dealing with," Beer said.
So complex that he limited himself to observations and suggestions. To emphasize their value, Beer noted that his firm "designs places that people choose to go to." There was no need to add that Fulton Mall currently doesn't fit that bill.
Some of Beer's points were familiar. Fresno is gateway to the Sierra Nevada's recreational treasures. The Valley grows a lot of great food. Exploit those to-die-for advantages, he said.
But Beer leveraged his outsider's role with thoughts both perceptive and a tad dangerous for a town that cherishes political correctness.
-- Don't expect instant miracles. Debate, compromise, act, adapt. "You muddle through," Beer said, while "always moving forward."
-- Aim for the female audience. "If the moms and daughters come, you get everyone else for free," he said.
-- The Fulton corridor is doomed if viewed as vulgar. Those moms and daughters demand good manners. "You're not going to rewire that part of our brain," Beer said.
-- Finally, cars, cars, cars. "Cars animate a place," Beer said.
But there was more political back story to Tuesday's breakfast than just Beer's wit and wisdom.
Kate Borders, president of Downtown Fresno Partnership, got things rolling with a review of her group's efforts in 2012. An estimated 163,000 people came to the Partnership's events last year. Borders vowed to top that figure in 2013.
The message: Downtown Fresno Partnership, whose creation was not without some push-back from some business owners, is working.
Brent Weiner of Proctor's Jewelers, the Partnership's 2012 board chairman, handed leadership responsibilities to 2013 Chairman Rick Roush of Roush Investments. The Partnership already has gone on record in support of reopening Fulton to cars. (Note: The original version of this story incorrectly said the 2013 chairman is Rich Roush.)
The message: Downtown business interests, which pushed for the mall 50 years ago, have changed their mind.
Jake Soberal, a Fresno lawyer still in his 20s and board chairman of a new downtown advocacy group called Fresno Citizens for a Strong Economy, launched the group's "I Believe in Downtown Fresno" campaign. The effort aims to enlist at least 1,000 Fresnans over the next year in touting downtown's charms and potential.
The message: When the council chews on the Fulton corridor in a year, expect a council chamber full of young professionals who like their cars.
And Swearengin, proving that less is sometimes more in the world of speeches, served as the morning's exclamation point.
"You must join us in believing in your downtown," Swearengin said, speaking beyond the audience to all of the city. "It's not possible to believe in Fresno and not believe in your downtown."
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