A little more than 50 years after Fresno launched the grand experiment of turning its main street into a six-blocks-long pedestrian mall, it appears nothing now stands in the way of Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s plan to return Fulton Street to its place as the traffic-carrying heart of downtown.
Fresno officials say they’ve successfully bridged a $2.25 million gap between contractor bid and construction budget on the plan, which likely clears the way for work on the project to begin next month.
If all goes to plan, by March 2017 Fulton Mall will once again be Fulton Street.
“We have cleared all the hurdles for the Fulton reconstruction project to move forward,” Swearengin said in an interview. “We started this project on Day One of my administration knowing that it was perhaps one of the most complicated projects the city has ever done, and we will see groundbreaking in the next 30 days, so it’s a very exciting time.”
Still, some City Council members winced at some of the proposed cuts, which were detailed in a Thursday workshop by Deputy City Engineer Randall Morrison.
We have cleared all the hurdles for the Fulton reconstruction project to move forward.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
“The project as it was initially approved is now being cut back severely,” said Councilman Oliver Baines, whose district includes the mall.
But savings had to come from somewhere, officials said. American Paving Co. was the lowest of three bidders for the project at $22.4 million. The construction budget was $20.17 million. So the city took out its budget knife.
With the cuts in place and the project’s budget balanced, however, the contract with American Paving is expected to be signed Friday and construction is scheduled to start Feb. 22. Completion date: March 29, 2017. By that time, Swearengin will be gone from office, leaving it to her successor to christen one of her signature projects.
“I plan to have a front-row seat at the ribbon cutting, and I’ll be happy to turn over the keys and see the next mayor actually be the one to christen the new street,” Swearengin said.
The only seemingly possible snag is one lingering legal action, which is currently in the 5th District Court of Appeal. A federal judge on Wednesday sided with the city on another lawsuit related to the mall.
Debate over the merits of tearing up the Fulton Mall and reconstructing the six-block stretch of Fulton Street, however, has been going on for years, if not decades. In fact, it predates the original decision to close Fulton Street to cars, as the city even then debated the merits of the massive change to what was long known as Fresno’s main street.
On Thursday, council members cringed at project cuts that targeted some bells and whistles that would give the reinvented Fulton Street some character.
One, for instance, are so-called “wayfinder signs.” The savings is $265,000, but council members also said the signs would be vital to help visitors to Fresno find their way around, especially after the high-speed rail station opens nearby. Other proposals would cut back on decorative bicycle racks and trash cans. In total, those cuts were tiny in comparison with costs savings such as almost $200,000 on trees. The city isn’t cutting back, but will instead share costs with the high-speed rail project. The savings come from the rail authority picking up some of the tree costs.
It is a similar situation for a traffic signal at Fulton and Tuolumne streets. That savings is around $541,000.
A big savings – $1 million – is coming from “simplified” decorative street lighting.
Besides the construction budget, there is also $3.84 million in a separate pot known as construction management, consultants and contingency. Of that total, $2 million is the contingency, there to cover any unexpected expenses and cost overruns.
If there is money left in the contingency fund at the end of the construction, some of the extras like wayfinder signs might be added back in to the project, Morrison said.
Exemption for Nordstrom
On a different matter, the council voted 7-0 to amend the city’s Better Business Act to carve out an exemption for publicly traded companies with a minimum market capitalization of at least $1 billion who are seeking incentive-based subsidies from the city.
The narrowly targeted amendment is aimed directly at Nordstrom, a Seattle-based retailer that is looking at either Fresno or Visalia for a new e-commerce packaging and distribution center that could bring 1,000 jobs – and possibly more – to the winning city.
The Better Business Act, pushed by Councilman Lee Brand, requires companies and nonprofits to provide extensive financial information including tax returns, appraisals and other financial data when seeking $1 million or more in city help. It was originally approved in 2009 after the city found itself in financial trouble because of several issues, including guarantees for $20 million of defaulted bank loans to the Fresno Metropolitan Museum and Granite Park.
Brand said the act could have bogged the city down in running through its due diligence on Nordstrom, which he said is clearly a strong company.
Though it is focused now on Nordstrom, Brand said he hopes it might also apply to other companies in the future who might be considering locating in Fresno.