Fresno group sues City Hall to stop Fulton Mall project

The Fresno BeeMarch 28, 2014 

A group of preservationists is suing to stop City Hall from ripping up the Fulton Mall in downtown Fresno, saying the historic walkway should be restored and preserved.

The Downtown Fresno Coalition alleges the city botched an environmental impact report and betrayed its own general plan in a rushed effort to bring cars back to a six-block stretch of what was once Fulton Street.

City Hall "abused its discretion by failing to comply with many of the central and mandatory provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act," the coalition alleged in a lawsuit filed Friday in Superior Court.

The city's plan for vehicular traffic along the corridor "is plainly inconsistent with governing land use goals and policies contained in the city's general plan," the lawsuit said.

The coalition wants the court to decertify the environmental report and set aside changes to the general plan. The coalition's end-game is convincing city officials that the mall, once a national-renowned symbol of dynamic urban renewal, can still deliver as promised.

"We feel Fulton Mall is a unique and historic place," Coalition co-chairman Doug Richert said. "It's not only a place worth saving, it's a valuable place as well."

Swearengin has made a priority of rejuvenating Fulton between Tuolumne and Inyo streets.

"We understand and respect the preservationists' strong feelings about the Fulton Mall and will continue to do our best to work with them," Swearengin said. "I am hopeful that we could come to an agreement on how to proceed with one another."

Swearengin sees the return of cars to the Fulton Corridor as pivotal to reviving that area. The mall, opened in 1964, has struggled economically for decades. The benefits of a revived corridor will ripple throughout the urban core, she has said.

According to city officials, about 200 pedestrian malls were built in the U.S. from the late 1950s through the 1980s. Officials said many cities have reopened their malls to traffic.

The City Council took a major step toward doing the same thing on Feb. 27. Council members adopted the environmental impact report and applied for $1.8 million in Fresno County Measure C Transit-Oriented Development funds. The city had already received a nearly $16 million federal grant designated only for opening the corridor to cars.

The council was asked to choose between two options.

Option 1, Swearengin's choice, called for two-way vehicular traffic to what are now Fulton, Merced, Mariposa and Kern malls. Up to 190 on-street parking spaces would be created. Nearly three-quarters of the mall system's features -- sculptures, benches, fountains -- would be retained in the area. The corridor would have more trees than today.

Option 2 would take distinctive elements of Fulton Mall and rebuild them in five or six "vignettes" along the corridor. Option 1 doesn't have vignettes.

A third option, long discussed with the public, was no longer on the table. This would have retained the pedestrian mall and restored its features.

The council on a 5-2 vote went with option 1. Council members Paul Caprioglio and Sal Quintero voted no. Caprioglio worried about cost overruns. Quintero preferred to maintain the middle two blocks as a mall while opening both ends to cars.

Swearengin expects to return to the council early next year to hire a contractor.

The Coalition's lawsuit covers many of the concerns expressed by mall supporters on Feb. 27.

The city was in such a hurry to rip up the mall that it didn't fully evaluate the environmental effects of its plan, the lawsuit alleges.

The city did a terrible job of explaining how it would protect and preserve the mall's artwork and fountains, and failed to study the harm of losing a mall that also is an urban park, the lawsuit alleges.

The suit also alleges Fresno didn't make a serious attempt to see if the federal grant could be used to restore the mall.

The lawsuit uses legal language to sum up the coalition's main point: The mall is beloved by many and can work as envisioned a half-century ago.

"We're not arguing against change," Richert said. "Any 50-year-old structure is going to need some attention. What we're saying is uniqueness can be valuable."

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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