Fresno’s $20 million project to rip up downtown’s old pedestrian mall and restore traffic to Fulton Street is more than halfway finished.
Head to the southern end of Fulton, between Inyo and Kern streets, to catch a glimpse of what’s to come when construction is finished. A small piece of the road is open to pedestrians and bicyclists with its newly paved blacktop, wide sidewalks, and simple streetlights. It awaits new trees and landscaping.
Tuolumne Street on the northern end also is finished and open to traffic. Paving and sidewalk work continues along Fulton, from both ends, toward the center of the street at Mariposa Mall where the Pacific Southwest Building towers over the heart of the Fulton Street corridor.
Construction is on schedule despite unexpected discoveries of underground basements along with old Pacific Gas & Electric vaults and wet weather. The project is expected to be completed sometime in May, although the street’s mom-and-pop business owners, many who are hanging on by a thread, hope it’s sooner than that.
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I wish they would just get it done. It’s tough on business.
John Williams, owner of Fashion Flair
“I wish they would just get it done,” said John Williams, owner of Fashion Flair women’s clothing store. “It’s tough on business.”
Crews started cutting down trees, removing artwork and tearing up the concrete on Fulton Mall last March. Then fencing, with green cloth to catch construction debris, went up, closing access to various parts of the half-mile roadway, blocking views of businesses and creating a maze of pedestrian walkways to and from dress shops, boot stores and restaurants.
While access has been an issue, there have been “no major catastrophes” so far during construction, said Randall Morrison, Fresno’s deputy city engineer. “That’s a big deal.”
Small problems were solved quickly. A dozen unknown basements from buildings that once stood on Fulton were uncovered when the street and sidewalks were torn up, Morrison said. A basement, for example, was found near CVS on the north end of Fulton. Another basement was found in front of the Fresno Housing Authority building.
PG&E also had some old vaults in the way, on Kern Street, containing electrical lines that delivered power to downtown, Morrison said. The basements were filled in with slurry, a combination of cement and soil, and PG&E relocated the vaults.
The contractor, American Paving Co., was able to jump around the three “super blocks” or sections of Fulton Street to keep construction going when a problem came up or a design change waited approval, Morrison said. That’s why construction has hopped around, he said.
In the next two to three months, Fulton Mall’s fountains and artwork, which are undergoing restoration in Fresno and in Los Angeles, will trickle back to life and will be placed in their designated spots, mostly along the28-feet-wide sidewalks on the eastern side of Fulton that will serve as the promenade. The western side of the street is about 14 feet wide. Vehicles eventually will be able to parallel park at meters along Fulton.
Our plan is we’re not going to open to traffic until we’re done with the entire project.
Randall Morrison, Fresno deputy city engineer
Fencing will be taken down and the street will be opened to pedestrians as construction work is finished on various sections, Morrison said. “Our plan is we’re not going to open to traffic until we’re done with the entire project,” he said.
Listening to concerns
City leaders, the contractor and members of the Downtown Fresno Partnership have been meeting bi-weekly with Fulton Street property owners, office tenants and business owners to answer questions and hear concerns about construction.
The issues have included: parking, street closures and openings, access to storefronts, signage, and the construction timeline – mainly whether the street will open on time.
The meetings have allowed businesses to work with the contractor to move fencing or to place it in a way that makes it easier for pedestrians to find their way around, Morrison said. The green cloth that was hung on the fence early on was a problem and came down quickly when road demolition finished, he said. Businesses also worked with the contractor to hang store signs on fences.
It’s a way to “help contractors and the city be cognizant of the fact that these are real businesses,” said Craig Scharton, who serves as the Fulton District manager for the Downtown Fresno Partnership. Scharton is also chair of the Fulton Street Investors group and owned Peeve’s Public House, a restaurant and bar on Fulton that closed in October.
While Peeve’s closed and its neighbor, Root General, left for a bigger space, there has been less than 10 percent business turnover so far, Scharton said. A couple other businesses may have closed up shop, but it was due to building issues, not the street construction, he said.
For me, this store is everything. That’s why I’m still here waiting.
Yolanda Ortigoza, owner of Siempre Divina Boutique
Some have combined stores into one location. The owner of Tres Hermanos men’s clothing store had three stores on the street, and decided to close two and combine them into one space, said Aaron Blair, president and chief executive officer of the Downtown Fresno Partnership. A few businesses were on month-to-month leases and decided to close and do something else, he said.
Others, such as Siempre Divina Boutique and a few of the stores across the street, are closed temporarily until construction is finished. Owner Yolanda Ortigoza opened the boutique in August 2015 not knowing that the mall would be ripped up.
“I wanted to open my own store and I wanted to open it in a busy area and build it little by little,” Ortigoza said in Spanish. She was a farmworker before she was a store owner.
Business was good in the beginning, with Ortigoza making about $1,300 a day selling dresses, stiletto heels and statement necklaces. When the street work got closer to her shop, at Mariposa Mall, the customers stopped coming, she said.
Ortigoza hung on for as long as she could, then realized it was a “waste of time.” She closed her store in November and is covering the $2,000 monthly rent using money she had saved to someday open a second store.
“For me, this store is everything,” said Ortigoza, who supports opening the mall to traffic. “That’s why I’m still here waiting.”
Struggles and hope
Williams, at Fashion Flair, has been a business owner on Fulton for 28 years. He started with a women’s clothing store on the south end of the street, closed it and for the last several years has operated Fashion Flair, next to the Payless shoe store.
“The construction is killing our business,” Williams said from the front of his small dress shop, where he sits on a folding chair watching people walk by and the construction inch closer to his doorstep. “Some of us are just trying to stay open. It’s survival mode.”
Business is down more than 80 percent, he said. But Williams is hanging on, hoping the revitalization plans will change downtown Fresno for the better. “We’re struggling, but there’s that hope for the future.”
Few new businesses have opened on Fulton since early 2016. The most recent was Kids Cafe 2019, which opened in January, on Mariposa Mall just around the corner from Fashion Flair. Interest from office tenants and business owners is high, said Veronica Stumpf, a real estate broker with Stumpf and Co., but there is a wait-and-see attitude as the project rolls along.
There is excitement, but concern about the construction, said Stumpf, who has three listings on or near Fulton Street. Many are seeking a discount on the rent for the length of the construction, she said.
Stumpf shows an office space on Fulton, near Take 3 restaurant, to prospective tenants at least once a week, but there have been no takers yet. “I tell people, once you complete tenant improvements, the street with be complete and you can take advantage of affordable rent,” Stumpf said. “But it’s hard to think about the future when you’re seeing the fence in front of your storefront.”
On the flip side, it’s a good time to sell a building. Most property owners are holding on, but the building at 1030 Fulton St., with an optometrist office next to the Pacific Southwest Building, was listed for sale a few weeks ago, had an offer within the first day and is now in escrow, Stumpf said.
The downtown partnership, the business owners and city officials encourage people to continue shopping on Fulton or to stop by and see what’s going on.
“People hear construction and try to avoid the area because they don’t want to deal with the headache,” Morrison said. “But all these businesses that are staying open, staying afloat during construction, they need the help. Come down, see the progress and get excited.”