City Hall seeks Fresnans' opinions on Fulton Street

Officials will try to mend fences by seeking public input on outdoor art, other details.

The Fresno BeeFebruary 28, 2014 

Water from a fountain flows from a sculpture on the Fulton Mall on Feb. 5, 2014 in downtown Fresno.

MARK CROSSE — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

The Fresno City Council's historic vote Thursday night didn't shut the door on public influence on the fate of the Fulton corridor.

City officials and their consultants face many decisions before the six-block Fulton Mall is once again Fulton Street. Not the least of those is how to handle the mall's outdoor art, including the work of well-known sculptors.

"We will be proceeding quickly to talk to artists about how we're displaying the artwork in this new space," Downtown Revitalization Manager Elliott Balch said on Friday.

After a six-hour hearing that went into late Thursday night, the council approved a handful of actions that spells the end of Fresno's 50-year experiment with a pedestrian mall. The six-block walkway between Inyo and Tuolumne streets will be ripped out. It will be replaced by a streetscape featuring art, trees, a promenade and two lanes of asphalt perfect for slow-moving cars.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin pitched the idea after years of community input. The mall has not lived up to its promise, she said. The return of vehicular traffic is a key step in the revival of what was once Fresno's "main street," she said.

The council chamber on Thursday had plenty of mayoral critics. They included Council Members Paul Caprioglio and Sal Quintero, who voted against cars. Audience members wearing shirts with "Save The Mall" on the front expressed dismay. They said the mall needs repair, not bulldozers.

Friday dawned with city officials intent on mending this wound to the civic fabric. That means employing a familiar game plan: Get public buy-in by encouraging public participation.

The mall's nationally renowned artwork figures to be the best way. Balch said all of the sculptures and benches will be part of the new streetscape. He said they'll need cleaning and perhaps restoration. He said they'll need lighting and signage.

The public will have a say in all decisions, Balch said.

The design of Fulton Street in the beginning focused on big things such as location of the two car lanes. Balch said designers will soon dig into smaller details: "What kind of bench? What color of pole? These are the things that users of Fulton Street will really notice."

Public opinion will be sought, Balch said.

The idea for Fulton Mall traveled a long and difficult path more than a half-century ago in a Fresno much different from today. The mall carried many hopes for many years. It came as no surprise that Thursday's hearing was one for the ages.

People were standing three-deep in council chamber aisles. Council President Steve Brandau, seeing people leaning on the balcony railing, worried aloud that someone might take a 15-foot tumble.

Swearengin endured a tough 2013. Her defeat in the trash-outsourcing election was painful and embarrassing. But she was all smiles after the mall hearing. Mayors for decades vowed to do something dramatic to fix the Fulton Corridor. Expensive plans were written and shelved. Only she found the money and political muscle to get this far.

"This is a really big night," Swearengin said after the vote. "It's an important step for our city and our downtown."

Yet, a restored Fulton Street between Inyo and Tuolumne is not a sure thing. Caprioglio said he worries about big legal bills when mall supporters file the inevitable lawsuit.

And Swearengin's presence as mayor at a ribbon-cutting to reopen Fulton Street isn't a sure thing. A long courtroom fight could push the project's completion past January 2017, when she is termed out of office.

Maybe that's why Swearengin couldn't hide her impatience after the hearing.

"I look forward to getting more work done."

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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