The feds come to Fresno on Friday with an apology — 16 million of them.
Federal Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Mayor Ashley Swearengin will gather in the center of downtown's Fulton Mall shortly after lunch to trumpet the arrival of a $16 million federal grant designed to fix what was done to the city a half-century ago.
Swearengin wants to use the grant — $15,924,620, to be precise — to jump-start a return of cars to the six-block stretch between Tuolumne and Inyo streets that was once Fulton Street.
It's been a pedestrian mall since 1964. It has turned into an economic desert by all accounts. And it was largely built with federal money and encouragement.
"I don't know if we'll ever get an admission from the federal government that it shouldn't have gone in in the first place," Swearengin said with a smile Thursday afternoon. "But I think their support through this grant is a clear statement they know we're going in the right direction."
One of the worst-kept local secrets in recent memory was confirmed Thursday when the feds announced that Fresno was awarded a $16 million TIGER grant. The acronym stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.
Swearengin has wanted to see the return of cars to what she calls the Fulton corridor almost since she took office in January 2009. She says cars bring people, people bring vitality, and a reborn Fulton eventually means a reborn urban center.
Money, especially in a city still reeling from the Great Recession, was always the challenge. Now that she's hit the federal jackpot, Swearengin plans to toss in some money from Fresno County Measure C taxes and the state ($2 million each) to help fund her dream.
There are several options on the table, including nothing more than adding spit and polish to what's already on the mall. Swearengin favors two-way traffic for all six blocks, but with enough nooks and crannies to accommodate most of the public art that has given the mall some national renown.
Swearengin took her first serious political lumps over the past half-year, losing considerable face in June when her attempt to outsource the home trash service was rejected by voters. But she was the Swearengin of old on Thursday, proclaiming a new era for downtown if only motorists could again cruise past Fresno's version of skyscrapers.
No matter how you look at downtown revitalization, Swearengin said, "it's very clear you have to have some combination of cars and pedestrians and bicyclists. There has to be a multi-modal kind of environment for those buildings to survive."
But Council Member Sal Quintero best summed up the underlying theme to today's Foxx-Swearengin show.
"I have more questions than answers," he said.
For example, Quintero said, what about the maintenance of a Fulton corridor opened to cars? Suddenly the six blocks would have a thoroughfare getting heavy use in addition to greenery and artwork, he said.
He wonders what happens if the mall is ripped apart only to reveal a mess down below that jacks up the project's bill by $5 million or so.
And even if nothing is amiss beneath the concrete, he fears the cost overruns that are part of any remodeling job.
"I don't think ($20 million) is going to be enough to tear up the entire mall," Quintero said.
The entire $20 million is not a sure thing. The state grant and Measure C funds still need approvals in their respective bureaucracies. The good thing, administration officials say, is that none of the $20 million comes from the city's general fund.
The general fund is money spent at the discretion of elected officials. It goes largely to public safety and parks, and is treated with reverence by City Hall.
Council President Blong Xiong still worries about the city's pocketbook.
"I think something's going to be done" with the mall, Xiong said. But "even to keep it at status quo, it's going to cost us something."
Council Member Clint Olivier said he's going to dig into whether some of the money could be spent on places other than downtown.
Administration officials "have to bring forward a plan that's fair to the rest of the city," Olivier said.
These council members speak with an authority Swearengin must respect. The mayor, perhaps early next year, will pitch her preferred option for Fulton. The council makes the call.
Swearengin is already in campaign mode.
"I've committed to the public and to the City Council that, No. 1, downtown is a priority but, No. 2, we can't go into any debt in order to do major infrastructure projects and we can't compromise service levels in other parts of the city."
All of this will play out in the coming weeks and months. Swearengin's downtown revitalization team has been talking about grants and Fulton options for years, all to only modest public interest. The arrival of millions from Washington is focusing everyone's attention.
Today's speeches from Foxx and Swearengin figure to be something of an elegy as well as a call to action.
Fulton Mall as it was debated in the late 1950s and took shape in the early 1960s was never something as prosaic as a mall. It was always described as "the mall system."
Some of Fresno's leaders at the time were wringing their hands because people who had moved to the suburbs near Shields and Blackstone avenues wanted to shop close to home, not three miles to the south on fusty old Fulton Street. Architect Victor Gruen and his lieutenants created a grandiose plan that was to somehow turn all of downtown into something where only humanity's virtues would be found.
That's why federal and state urban renewal experts took such an interest in the Fresno experiment. In their eyes, the Valley's largest city was uncovering the secret to urban excellence.
The Fulton Mall system was the foundation of this greatness.
"As we remake (cities) into the wonderful environments they should be — as we change them from ugliness to beauty — we are really laying the foundation for what President Johnson called the Great Society," Urban Renewal Commissioner William Slayton said in Fresno on Sept. 1, 1964.
Slayton was in town to help dedicate Fulton Mall at its opening. Slayton told Fresno leaders he'd strolled the mall that afternoon. He'd seen a place full of people of all kinds enjoying urban life together.
"I hope the other 800 cities involved in urban renewal can learn from what Fresno has done," Slayton said.
And now, nearly 49 years to the day after Slayton's high praise, a top federal urban renewal official will come to the same mall and hand Fresno's mayor a hefty check that, in essence, says the mall (though not necessarily the idealism) was all a mistake.
If you go
What: U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Rep. Jim Costa and others announce the $16 million grant for Fulton Mall
Where: Mariposa Plaza at the Clock Tower
When: 1:15 p.m. Friday
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or email@example.com. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.