Fulton Mall merchants anxious, uncertain over construction

As crews get ready to start tearing up concrete on the Fulton Mall in downtown Fresno, some mall merchants are concerned that the city’s $20 million project to restore Fulton Street to carry automobile traffic will be a major disruption to their businesses during the 14 months of construction.

“Once the construction really begins, people are going to have difficulty coming in and out of the mall,” said Hak Williams (“but everyone calls me ‘John’ ”), surveying the mall from a folding chair in front of Fashion Flair, the store where he has worked for the past six years.

“They’re used to just parking their car and be able to walk to the store, but once construction (begins), they’ll have to go around, like an obstacle course.”

The prospect of torn-up sidewalks and jackhammers pounding out a beat in front of their stores is unsettling for business owners and workers. “It depends on the construction, how well they do it,” Williams said.

A few doors up the mall, Crystal Barragan voiced similar concerns for her mother’s business, Maggy’s Beauty Salon, which has been located on the Fulton Mall for 25 years.

“The thing is, a lot of people don’t know we have a back door” to use during the construction. Barragan said. “But they can’t park back there because it’s only by permit. … So sometimes they may not come here because of the parking, or because they won’t be able to come in through the front. I really don’t know. I hope it won’t be torn up for too long.”

The city has assured that its contractor will do everything possible to ensure continued access to every business and restaurant on the mall during the construction process, which will take place in several stages.

The first stage will take place at the south end of the mall, between Tulare and Inyo streets. Next will be the northern one-third of the mall, between Fresno and Tuolumne streets. The final stage is in the middle, between Fresno and Tulare streets.

Within each stage, work generally will start on the east side of the mall with reconstruction of the sidewalks, then move to the middle with the construction of the street, curbs and gutters, and finally to the sidewalk on the west side, said Scott Mozier, the city’s public works director.

Suzy Park, co-owner of Suzy Beauty Supply, said she didn’t know a lot about the construction project. “But the building owner says it will be OK, there will be no problem,” she said.

As a means of providing some relief to merchants, the city this month approved a set of measures that include providing validation coupons that merchants can give to their customers for two hours of free parking in several parking garages near the mall during the construction period. Also, the city is reducing or waiving business license taxes and development permit fees for businesses along the mall.

Free parking is something that cheered merchants such as Park and Barragan. “That will help,” said Barragan. “The one thing a lot of our clients do complain about is the parking. If they park behind us, either they get towed or they have to move. If they park in the CVS lot, they charge to park.”

Park also was relieved to learn about the parking vouchers. “Free parking is better; customers like it. Some customers, they complain about parking.”

Others remain nervous. Ashley Park, manager of Click To Fashion, said about half of her customers are people who come to the mall to visit law offices, immigration offices or government agencies located on Fulton, who browse and shop in her store or other businesses while they’re waiting for their appointments. If the mall is in disarray, “I don’t know if, when they’re building the road, if those people will stay here in the area,” she said.

A challenging period

Even ardent supporters of restoring traffic to the Fulton Mall, such as Peeve’s Public House owner Craig Scharton and Casa de Tamales owner Liz Sánchez, acknowledge that construction will be a challenging period for merchants.

“There’s going to be big fences out in front of these businesses, and the trees are going to come down,” Scharton said at the March 3 groundbreaking ceremony for the Fulton Street project. “We’re going to try to gut it out for the next 14 months, try to market like crazy and let everyone know we’re here. … Hopefully we’ll survive it.”

Sánchez opened her Mexican restaurant on Feb. 1 on the mall south of Tulare Street knowing full well that construction would be happening soon. “It’s a challenge, like anything else businesses face on a day to day part of their life,” she said. “There are always challenges. There could be some new restaurant that opens up right by me, or wherever.”

But she is counting on the city’s and contractor’s pledge “to make sure we all stay open for business all the time, whatever our business hours are,” and like the other merchants she is thankful for the parking vouchers and fee reductions that the city is providing for mall businesses.

There remains uncertainty among the merchants over the city’s proclaimed hope that having a street instead of a pedestrian mall between Inyo and Tuolumne streets will be a boon for businesses and future development.

“I kind of don’t really want the road,” said Barragan, “but I guess it’s whatever (the city) wants to do.” Barragan said her mother’s business was doing relatively well before the recession, when things got rough. “Now it’s picking up. We’ve been here so long that we have regular clients who just come; they already know we’re here so they just show up.”

Lynn Candolita, manager of the Fallas Paredes department store in the midsection of the mall between Fresno and Tulare streets, and Suzy Park question whether a street will improve what they describe as a chronic problem with shoplifting.

“Crime is a big problem on this part of the mall; hopefully having the street come through will help prevent that,” Candolita said.

Park, whose shop sells wigs, hair extensions and beauty supplies a few doors down from Fallas Paredes, said she is worried about a potential increase in shoplifting because one person can stay in a car parked on the street in front of the store while a second person may come in and grab an armload of merchandise before dashing back to the getaway car.

Williams said he believes the street will be be helpful, “at least temporarily, because people will be interested in seeing downtown.” He said drivers also will be able to drive down the street to see what stores are available, rather than having to park and walk down the mall.

“The city’s been talking about revitalization of downtown for many, many years, but they have done nothing all these years,” Williams added, pondering whether replacing the 50-year-old mall by a restored Fulton Street is too little, too late. “A little bit is better than nothing. This is a big city, but it’s neglected the downtown. It’s about time. … Actually, it’s way overdue.”

Sánchez said she is optimistic about the street transforming the area. “We’re banking on it,” she said. “We’re invested in it, that’s for sure. … We know the long-term payoff is not a year from now or two years from now. It’s three or four years out. But I think with any business, that’s an expectation for a return on investment.”

What the future holds

One concern merchants didn’t mention last week was the prospect that a successful revitalization might drive up rents in the district to a point where merchants who came to the mall for cheap leases could be priced out of business, or at least out of the area.

It’s enough of a concern for City Councilman Lee Brand, a real estate professional, to suggest that the city needs to do more to help businesses than offer free parking and discounted fees.

Earlier this month, when the City Council approved the parking and fee discounts, Brand said he believes the city needs to develop a program to provide relocation assistance to businesses that may become victims of rent increases if demand for retail or commercial space drives up rates.

Ashley Park said Click To Fashion moved to the mall about two years ago from the area of Blackstone and Shaw avenues precisely because of cheap rent. But, she said, customer traffic was the big tradeoff: “There are not enough people coming in.”

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