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Months behind schedule, Fulton Street restoration is completed. Now comes the driving

'It's gorgeous. I love it!' former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin says of Fulton Street

Watch and listen as former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin describes the dramatic changes to Fulton Street as seen from drone video. After winning the fight to reopen the mall to traffic, proponents like Swearengin are looking forward to big things
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Watch and listen as former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin describes the dramatic changes to Fulton Street as seen from drone video. After winning the fight to reopen the mall to traffic, proponents like Swearengin are looking forward to big things

Nineteen months of construction – accompanied by consternation, anxiety and, in recent weeks, anticipation – will come to a formal end on Saturday as Fresno celebrates the complete reopening of Fulton Street to automobile traffic for the first time in more than 50 years.

A handful of dignitaries including Mayor Lee Brand, former Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, will be ferried to the intersection of Fulton and Mariposa Streets in a parade of classic cars for a 3 p.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony at the intersection of Fulton and Mariposa streets. After the requisite speeches, they will climb back into the cars and continue their cruise along Fulton Street – after which Fulton will host a classic car show and street party throughout the afternoon and evening.

A six-block stretch of Fulton Street between Tuolumne and Inyo streets was closed in March 1964 and converted to a pedestrian-only outdoor mall – an experiment in urban design that failed to keep the major retailers that once populated downtown from migrating northward during decades of suburban sprawl.

While the project is finishing under Brand’s mayorship, it was launched during Swearengin’s administration. She and others were convinced that a key to revitalizing downtown Fresno was to tear out Fulton Mall and restore vehicle traffic to Fulton Street. The city successfully applied for $20 million in federal and state grants to pay for the work, which began with a groundbreaking in March 2016.

“We argued about this for 50 years,” Swearengin said. “It was the great debate. For 50 years we just couldn’t figure out what we wanted to do.”

Construction that was supposed to take 14 months stretched into 19, and while sidewalks to businesses on either side of the street remained open, fences and barricades offered a daunting gauntlet to would-be customers as merchants wondered whether they could survive the disruption. Some didn’t, including Peeve’s Public House, which closed in June. Others, such as Casa de Tamales, decided to close up for a hiatus until the construction was closer to completion. Casa de Tamales owner Liz Sánchez shut the doors in May, but reopened on Friday, just in time for Saturday’s Fulton Street grand-reopening.

We argued about this for 50 years. It was the great debate. For 50 years we just couldn’t figure out what we wanted to do.

Former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin, on converting the Fulton Mall back into Fulton Street

The two-block section of Fulton between Fresno and Tulare streets is the final portion to open. The northernmost blocks between Fresno and Tuolumne streets opened Sept. 19, and barricades on the southern end from Tulare to Inyo streets came down Sept. 25.

Belief in the future

Despite the worries of merchants and restaurants on the mall over construction keeping customers away, Swearengin is convinced that reopening the street will be beneficial over the long run.

“We know from looking at, gosh, over 200 cities around the United States who had pedestrian malls in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, who took them out much faster than Fresno did … that in every case there was an instant response in property tax and sales tax and traffic coming back to those spaces,” she said this week.

“It’ll take a little while for these stores to get repopulated, but in the meantime there will be a lot of events going on and just getting people familiar with what it feels like to actually have an urban center,” Swearengin added. “We know there’s a market for this space, and sadly it’s just gone unrecognized for a traditional suburban growth pattern for so many decades in Fresno.”

One concern moving forward is what the renovation could mean to existing businesses on the mall if building owners decide that their properties are more valuable and opt to raise rents. Merchants fear that rents may rise to a point where entrepreneurs who came to the mall for cheap rents could be priced out of the area, even out of business.

Such gentrification concerns are significant enough that Brand, speaking as a city council member before the construction commenced, suggested that Fresno should develop a program to provide relocation assistance to businesses that may become victims of rent increases if demand for retail or commercial space on Fulton Street drives up rates beyond what they can afford.

Public art is back

Before the project began, there was considerable concern and anxiety about what would happen to the pieces of notable public art along the Fulton Mall. The collection includes bronze sculptures by artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Clement Renzi, James Lee Hansen, Bruno Growth and George Tsutakawa; sculpted clay pipes by Stanley C. Bitters; a granine sculpture by Gordon Newell; and the mall’s signature wood-and-fiberglass clock tower at the intersection of Fulton and Mariposa streets created by artist Jan de Swart. About $5 million of the $20 million budget for Fulton Street was designated for removing, restoring and reinstalling the artwork. Sixteen of the mall’s 21 original water features – pools and fountains – also are part of the new streetscape.

Clement Renzi’s bronze sculpture “The Visit,” depicting two women engaged in an intimate conversation on Fulton Street near Tuolumne Street, is one that Swearengin said she’s always found inspiring.

“To me there’s just so much happening between these women,” Swearengin said. “Most of the time when I look at it I think they’re enjoying their conversation with each other. They’re sharing a private moment.”

“That, to me, is the essence of Fresno right now: we women are plotting our takeover,” she added with a laugh.

Swearengin marveled at how the construction project has lived up to her expectations. “It’s absolutely gorgeous; it does not disappoint,” she said. “Now, experiencing the difference and feeling how close and compact and accessible the buildings are and how accessible the art is and that sort of thing, now you can really get a feel for what we were talking about for so many months and years.”

Fulton Street reopening

What: A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reopening of Fulton Street in downtown Fresno

When: 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Intersection of Fulton and Mariposa streets

Notables: Dignitaries expected to speak at the ceremony include Mayor Lee Brand, former Mayor Ashley Swearengin, City Councilman Oliver Baines, Rep. Jim Costa, Jalisco Jewelers owner Raul De Alba and downtown Fresno Partnership interim CEO Craig Scharton

More: After the ceremony a number of events and activities are planned by the Downtown Fresno Partnership, highlighted by “Draggin’ The Main,” a classic and custom car show that will cruise Fulton Street from 4-6 p.m. Also, more than a dozen “pop-up” stores and restaurants will take over storefronts on Fulton. See the list compiled by Bethany Clough, www.fresnobee.com/bethany-clough

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