In historic vote, Fresno council agrees to reopen Fulton Mall to vehicles

The Fresno City Council on Thursday paved the way for the end of an era, voting 6-1 to award a construction contract to tear up the Fulton Mall and return traffic to the pedestrian thoroughfare for the first time since 1964.

It was another political victory for Mayor Ashley Swearengin, this time on one of her cornerstone projects, a major downtown change that could well stand as her most visible mayoral legacy. She marked the occasion – as she often does on such momentous times – by taking a picture of the voting board above the council dais. Only Council Member Paul Caprioglio voted no. Among his concerns was the cost of the project.

Even with this final council action, however, there are still looming questions.

The contract awarded to American Paving Co. – the lowest of three bidders for the project – was for $22.4 million. But the city only has $20 million for the project. In the next month, Swearengin said staffers will work to trim $2.4 million from the project so the cost lines up with the available cash – none of which will come from the city’s general fund.

“I am confident we can close the gap and it is prudent to proceed,” Swearengin told council members.

If it can’t, city officials said, there is a clause in the contract that allows it to be canceled and, if the city chooses, go out for new bids.

There are also two looming legal actions from project opponents, one in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, the other in the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno. Fresno attorney Sara Hedgpeth-Harris, who represents the Downtown Fresno Coalition, which wants to preserve the mall as it now – a pedestrian walkway dotted with art and water features – said she will immediately seek an injunction if there are moves to start construction.

In the meantime, the legal actions are still active, though the one in the state appellate court already has been rejected by a lower court. City officials say they are confident they will prevail on both lawsuits.

Thursday’s vote came after hours of public comment, both for and against the project. 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.

Supporters of reopening the mall to cars were conspicuous Thursday in their orange “I believe in downtown Fresno” T-shirts. Despite that, the commenters broke down about 50-50.

Several people who spoke in favor of the project had vested interests at stake. For instance, Derek Franks, general manager of the Fresno Grizzlies, Rick Roush, owner of the T.W. Patterson Building, and Craig Scharton, owner of Peeve’s Public House, all urged the council to move forward on the project. Chukchansi Park, the T.W. Patterson Building and Peeve’s are all on or adjacent to the mall, and the trio said Fulton’s restoration as a street is vital to the future of their respective businesses.

Property owner Bob Gurfield told the council he has had people interested in leasing one of his properties – if Fulton once again becomes a street.

“What we have now is not working,” said Liz Sanchez, owner of Casa de Tamales. “Changes are needed.”

Still, plenty of people spoke against the project.

Dixie Salazar, an artist based downtown, said it is not just the mall’s artwork and water works that are in the crosshairs, but the mall itself, which she called “a masterpiece of mid-century landscape architecture.” (City officials said all art works will be cleaned up, preserved and placed as close to their original spot as possible.)

Kiel Schmidt talked about the negative effect on existing businesses.

After hours of comment, Council President Oliver Baines pointed out that the decision to open Fulton Mall to traffic was made several months ago. It was, he said, a done deal. Thursday’s action was solely to award the construction contract. But showing how deeply emotional the issue was, about 90 percent of commenters talked either pro or con about opening the mall. Few addressed the actual contract.

Council Member Lee Brand said it was imperative to move forward with the project.

The six-block stretch has a 50 percent vacancy rate and rents for 50 cents a square foot. From a business viewpoint, he said, it is underperforming, and also is eating up more city resources than it can produce in tax revenue.

“This is a financial drain on the city’s general fund,” Brand said.

Opening the mall to traffic will increase property values, create construction jobs and possibly lure in national retailers. In sum, Brand said in a decade there is a high likelihood Fulton Street will be a net positive for the city.

Council Member Steve Brandau agreed. He said he walked the Fulton Mall and didn’t see much economic development.

“I just came to the conclusion that it’s not working,” he said.

Swearengin expects groundbreaking as early as February.