A trio of break-ins at a downtown Fresno bicycle shop within a span of less than two weeks is focusing the attention of merchants and the city on perceptions of security in an area where millions of dollars are being spent on revitalization.
A thief captured on video but not by police smashed windows at Fulton Cycle Works on Fulton Street north of Tuolumne Street on three separate occasions in mid- to late February, stealing two bikes worth several hundred dollars and causing thousands of dollars in damage to the doors and windows. Now, shop co-owner Darren Johnson is installing bars in the store’s windows and taking other steps to improve security for his store and his inventory.
Johnson’s shop is about a half-block north of the Fulton Mall, where the city is pouring $20 million into a 14-month construction project to restore traffic to a six-block stretch after more than 50 years as a pedestrian-only shopping district.
Like Mayor Ashley Swearengin, for whom the mall renovation represents a legacy achievement, Johnson said he believes a reinvigorated Fulton Street will be a safer Fulton Street. And after some initial soul searching in the wake of the burglaries, he is intent on sticking around in the neighborhood.
“I went back and forth in my mind a thousand times: Stay open? Close completely? Move out of downtown?” said Johnson. “Downtown is where we want to be, period.”
Fulton Cycle Works has been in its storefront in the historic Warnors Center for the Performing Arts on Fulton north of Tuolumne Street for about 14 months.
Johnson launched the business in a tiny space on the Fulton Mall about four years ago, and had no problems with crime. Later, the shop relocated to the Iron Bird Lofts at Fulton and Divisadero streets – where the store suffered its biggest theft loss. “That was two bikes, about $8,000,” Johnson said. “There was no damage to the building there. In this case, it’s actually costing more because of the building damage.”
The first of the latest robberies came in the wee hours of Feb. 14. The second, by the same man, was a week later. He also struck a third time about two days later.
This is the thing I stress to people: this is not a downtown thing. It’s a bike shop thing.
Darren Johnson, Fulton Cycle Works co-owner
“After the first one, I thought, ‘OK, now we’ve got ours over with for the year,” Johnson said. “This is the thing I stress to people: this is not a downtown thing. It’s a bike shop thing. Every single bike shop in town, whether it’s here or River Park or Fig Garden or wherever, they’ve all been hit.”
But operating in a historic building presents challenges. Older doors and windows were glazed in ordinary glass; after each of the burglaries, the broken sections have been replaced with tougher laminated glass that prevented the thief from getting into the building on the third break-in.
“And before we were hit three times, there were no bars inside or outside the windows, no roll-up barriers; it just wasn’t allowed,” Johnson added, anticipating a question about a business owner’s responsibility to safeguard his or her own premises. “After we got hit, the mayor sent somebody down and we talked it over.”
The result: an exception to the strict rules for historic buildings. “We could put bars up, but they have to be artistic,” Johnson said. His solution: fabricating decorative bars from a stack of old bicycle frames.
The city’s role
Swearengin said it behooves the city to work with merchants on such issues. “Obviously we want to be flexible in working with tenants and letting them do the things they need to do,” she said. “Darren is an early adopter. People like him … are taking a risk with everything they’ve got in a place that’s not yet viable.”
The mayor added that major components already are in place to promote security for businesses on the Fulton Mall and downtown. Fresno police officers patrol the area on bicycles during the day, and private security guards funded by the Downtown Fresno Partnership through special assessments on property owners also keep tabs throughout the day and at night. Fulton Cycle Works sits about a half-block north of the Fulton Mall, but since the first break-in, the private security patrols have been extended to include that stretch of Fulton Street.
“The missing ingredient that’s been missing on Fulton is people,” Swearengin said. “It’s still so very vacant on the ground floors. There is so much area where there’s no activity, no eyes on the street, and it creates that feeling that it must not be a safe place.” Filling those vacancies and attracting business and customers back to the area, she added, not only combats what she believes is an exaggerated public perception about safety on the mall, but also “is the biggest deterrent to crime.”
“As it stands today, it’s a breeding ground for things we don’t want to happen,” Swearengin said.
Still, an examination of the Fresno Police Department’s crime map, based on calls for service, shows that theft on the Fulton Mall and its immediate environs is not out of line with what other commercial areas experience in the city.
Johnson said he has no quarrel with the city’s efforts, and counts himself as a backer of the downtown revitalization efforts. His biggest concern is over how long it took for police to respond to the three break-ins at his shop.
“Every time this has happened, with the exception of the last time, I was the first guy on the scene, and that’s from getting a call from the alarm company, getting woken up at home, driving down here (from central Fresno),” he said.
On the third occasion, the private security from the downtown partnership arrived first and apparently scared off the thief before he could get through the window, Johnson added. “Maybe if response times were faster, …” he mused. “But I know the police have a million other things to do. There were no shots fired here.”
Merchants help themselves
Aaron Blair, president and CEO of the Downtown Fresno Partnership, said that for the past five years Fulton Mall property owners paid an assessment that included funds for private security patrols.
The Fulton Mall is one of three zones within downtown Fresno’s property-based improvement district (or PBID), each zone assessed at different levels for varying degrees of services beyond what the city provides, including marketing and promotion, landscaping, security, litter removal and organizing special events.
With the latest five-year renewal of the assessment district, Blair said, the Downtown Fresno Partnership expanded the assessments for security starting this year to include areas adjacent to the Fulton Mall, including the area of Fulton Street north to Calaveras Street that includes Fulton Cycle Works and the Warnors Center.
But the district receives its quarterly payouts of proceeds from the assessments about two to three months after the quarter ends. “So in January and February, we’re trying to make our dollars stretch until the next assessment comes in March,” Blair said. After the first break-in at Johnson’s cycle shop, “we went ahead and extended the patrols to his block, hoping to nip this in the bud and try to catch the guy.”
The partnership’s ultimate goal “is to provide 24-7 security patrols for those zones,” Blair added. “We do have Fresno PD’s bike police during the day, so the need isn’t as extreme during that time.”
For nighttime security, Blair said most of the Fulton Mall merchants have either steel roll-down doors or bars for their doors and windows. And, he added, the organization was willing to hold a fundraiser for Johnson after the break-ins to help with putting in impact glass or bars or roll-up gates.
We can’t pay for each individual business’s security, but we can help them take the measures they need to protect their business.
Aaron Blair, Downtown Fresno Partnership president / CEO
Johnson and other Fulton merchants understand that merchants have the responsibility for their businesses’ security, Blair said. “Any business anywhere, not just here in downtown but up in River Park or anywhere, should have a security system.”
In addition to laminated glass and plans for decorative bars, Johnson said he is doing what he can to make it difficult for would-be thieves. “I’m locking all the bikes together now,” he said. “Every single bike in here is locked to something else” to prevent someone from smashing a window and taking whatever bike is nearest. “The bigger the tangle, the better it is for me.”
Blair, Johnson and Swearengin agree that in large part, the Fulton Mall suffers from a bad reputation that has been decades in the making.
“I think Darren’s (bike shop) break-ins are one of the only times something like that’s happened since I’ve been here,” said Blair. “I hear comments from people about ‘all the vagrants’ on the mall, but there aren’t that many. There are far more vagrants when you walk along the street in San Francisco, but there are so many other people that they don’t stand out as much.”
But unless there is a downtown event that attracts a crowd to the Fulton Mall, “there’s a lack of people, and a lack of people makes people uncomfortable,” he added. “If there’s nobody down there and you see one person shouting at himself, that’s what stands out in your mind.”
Swearengin said downtown activities like Fresno Grizzlies baseball games at Chukchansi Park and the recent FresYes festival that drew crowds to Tioga Sequoia Brewing Co. south of the Fulton Mall are helping to bust such misconceptions. “The perception (that downtown is unsafe) is very much an issue,” she said. “But it is changing rapidly, and it’s only going to accelerate” as more businesses and residences become established in the district.
Johnson knows from his security camera footage that on two of the three break-ins, the thief had been hanging out in front of the store for a long time. “He was laying in the doorway like a homeless guy sleeping,” he said. “Every time a car would go by, he’d just curl up like he was sleeping, but after that he’d be up and looking in through the window.”
Johnson said he believes the development of residential projects like Granville Homes’ 85-unit The Lede apartments and others in the neighborhoods north of the Fulton Mall are crucial to the long-term success of businesses like his by dissuading opportunistic thieves.
“I think it might even be better here than it would be in some of these other shopping centers where everything closes down at night,” he said. “Here you’re getting more people walking their dogs at night or jogging and stuff … with a built-in population that’s kind of looking out for things.”
“We’ve got to get past the ghost town down here,” Johnson said. “Every time there’s an event down here, whether it’s ArtHop or a performance at Frank’s Place (next door to the bike shop in the Warnors building), there are people around here until who knows what time, and it cuts the chances of getting broken into by a lot.
“And that’s a community thing, not a city government thing,” he said.