Plan to open Fresno's Fulton Mall to cars supported by Planning Commission

The Fresno BeeFebruary 5, 2014 

The Fresno Planning Commission on Wednesday night delivered a big gift to Mayor Ashley Swearengin: grudging but unanimous support for opening Fulton Mall to cars.

The commissioners ended a four-hour hearing with a 6-0 vote to approve two staff recommendations connected to the mall's fate.

The commission is advising the City Council to certify an environmental report and designate the six-block-long mall as a street. It's currently designated open space/pedestrian mall.

The commission's action isn't binding but does add momentum to Swearengin's effort to open the nearly 50-year-old Fulton Corridor to vehicular traffic. She has said for more than two years that traffic will help boost downtown revitalization.

The commissioners said they would love to see the historic mall thrive on its own merits. But, they added, history shows this isn't likely. It's time to take a chance on something new, they said.

Two options, both featuring two-way traffic between Tuolumne and Inyo streets, will come to the council in a month or two. The commissioners said they prefer option one, which offers more parking and trees.

Commissioner Luisa Medina grilled staff on the disappearance of a third option — restoration of the mall to its original brilliance.

Staff said there are government grants in hand to bring back cars, but not for giving the mall a face-lift.

About 35 people gave the commission their thoughts.

Most wanted the six-block pedestrian walkway to remain as is, but with a refurbishing. They said the mall is popular with shoppers, walkers, business owners and children. They said the mall is a historic treasure.

Eldon Daetweiler said City Hall is moving too fast, creating a set of plans full of holes.

"Stop until we have the facts we need," he said.

Others said the mall should be opened to cars in an effort to revive downtown.

Mick Marderosian, a lawyer who owns a building at the Mall's north end, said cars on Fulton will spur the area's rebirth.

"This is a public facility that has been in decay for a long time," he said. "We cannot let this decay continue."

The cost of both options is unclear, but the work won't come cheap. Federal officials have approved a grant of nearly $16 million. Other promised sources of money have boosted the kitty to about $20 million. Some at City Hall think that won't be enough.

Everyone agrees on one point: Something's got to be done.

Local developer Tom Richards is gearing up to rehab his Bank of Italy building. Southern California developers bought the Pacific Southwest and Helm buildings with high hopes. Great things are always just around the bend for the former J.C. Penney building. Yet, the mall's high rises remain mostly promise.

From the Social Security office at the south end to Fresno Housing Authority headquarters at the north end, much of the mall is now a campus for government services. Major department stores and large-scale discounters see no reason to gamble on what was once Fresno's business main street.

Former downtown revitalization czar Craig Scharton opened a restaurant near the north tot lot, from which he sings the mall's potential with fervor. Still, that's modest bragging material for the downtown of California's fifth-largest city.

The idea of Fulton Mall was born in the late 1950s. It was the central piece in a much larger plan to rebuild downtown and nearby neighborhoods. The mall's opening on Sept. 1, 1964, attracted state and federal bigwigs.

There is the source of the current conflict.

The mall is the product of three men who are an honored part of the history of 20th-century urban development: architects Victor Gruen and Edgardo Contini and landscape architect Garrett Eckbo.

Mall supporters still believe the work of these three can deliver as promised. All that's needed is some loving care and an overdue change in City Hall development philosophy, they say.

Swearengin has repeatedly summed up her view of the mall in five words: "We tried. It didn't work."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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