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Fulton Mall groundbreaking raises hopes of revitalizing downtown Fresno

It was 1964 when Gov. Edmund G. Brown hailed the newly built Fulton Street pedestrian mall in downtown Fresno as a successful effort to fend off the problems caused by “a period of uncontrolled suburban growth.”

His speech promised a bright future for downtown Fresno.

At that time, downtown was teeming with clothing stores, jewelry shops and major retailers. It was a regional shopping hub that included Montgomery Ward, Woolworth’s, Gottschalks and J.C. Penney.

The pedestrian mall had a good, albeit brief, run in the life of a nearly 150-year old city. But as the 1970s unfolded and Fresno’s population surged northward along with its retailers, fewer were willing to drive downtown for shopping and eating out.

Urban malls nationwide fell into disfavor – of the nearly 200 built, 89 percent have been removed, said a report for the Downtown Fresno Partnership by regional planner Cole Judge.

And now it’s Fulton Mall’s turn, with a $20 million project to put two-way traffic back on Fulton, a step that business owners believe could turn around the district’s misfortunes. A groundbreaking for the project is scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday.

Any hope for keeping the pedestrian mall intact is fading. A Fresno County Superior Court judge ruled last week in favor of the city moving ahead with the roadway project. An appeal is promised by those who want the mall to remain.

It’s unlikely there will be a brick and mortar retail renaissance on Fulton, but there is a strategy.

“What we’ve learned in downtown revitalization is that the best thing is to have a complete street,” said Craig Scharton, a Fulton Mall business owner and downtown association board member who is a former Fresno City Council member. “You want to have slow-moving, two-way traffic with on-street parking and wide sidewalks.”

The development plan for Fulton is for restaurants, coffee shops, small, unique retail and entertainment venues combined with business offices and government operations, Scharton says.

And, those worried about the mall’s famed artwork will see it again. The city plans to store the roughly three dozen art pieces as the new road is being built, said Mark Standriff, city spokesman.

The canopy shade trees on the east side of the street will remain and fountains will be restored, too.

Those who saw the introduction of the pedestrian mall in 1964 have high hopes for what a two-way street will mean for the future.

The building owner

Attorney Mick Marderosian recalls downtown Fresno being the heartbeat of the city and surrounding areas. He attended the Fulton Mall opening in 1964 with his mother. They lived about 10 miles south of downtown, but his early years revolved around downtown and the mall, much as it does today.

Estimates of the crowd that late summer evening put attendance at 25,000, and Marderosian said that number seems about right.

“I remember there was quite a festive feel to it, and this was a big step, because downtown was such an exciting part of our city,” he said. “You just knew that something big was occurring and it was important.”

His teenage years brought him to the Fulton Mall for various jobs. It was also where he took saxophone lessons and shopped for Christmas.

As a Roosevelt High School student, his first job was working at the Walter Smith clothing store. He also worked at the nearby Harry Coffee’s clothing store. He also worked at the Wilson Theater.

Then the 1970s came and the decline began, he said.

But Marderosian never strayed from downtown and he never lost hope, even as he watched retailing deteriorate on Fulton Mall.

He stayed downtown, working in the district attorney’s office in the mid-1970s and then buying an office building at auction on Fulton Mall for his law offices in 1985. It was the same building where he had bought reeds for his saxophone.

Marderosian thinks some potential clients perceived he was less important than other lawyers who moved north, but that only strengthened his resolve.

“That really connected me even more, to say ‘I’m going to fight for this area, it’s important,’ ” he said.

The new Fulton traffic pattern makes him optimistic about downtown’s future.

“I know there are people who don’t want to see (the mall) removed,” Marderosian said. “But anyone who’s here every day thinks there has to be something better than this for our city.”

He said young business people want to be downtown.

“The complete turnaround of our inner city is going to occur within the next 10 years,” Marderosian said. “This is the first step.”

The regional planner

Harold Tokmakian, now 88, attended the opening for Fulton Mall and sat in the front row. Shortly after, he was named Fresno County’s planning director.

Remaking downtown into a pedestrian thoroughfare with a tram was expected to save businesses as developers made plans to push northward, he said.

The Fulton Mall was also known as the Victor Gruen plan, named for the Austrian immigrant architect who designed the pedestrian mall with Garret Eckbo, a California architect.

Tokmakian said Eckbo’s landscape architecture was “historically unique and significant” and that the pedestrian mall became known worldwide.

In Jeff Hardwick’s book “Mall Maker,” a biography of Gruen, Fresno’s pedestrian mall was noted as a major achievement.

In an interview Friday, Hardwick said Eckbo was particularly happy with Fresno’s project because it created “more playful public space.”

The book says that “Gruen bragged that the design had awakened the community spirit in the people of Fresno.”

However, Gruen’s greatest success, Hardwick said, was building suburban shopping malls. The irony was that Gruen “hated cars,” but his most successful developments were automobile-dependent, Hardwick said.

But the trade area for downtown, which once stretched from Fresno County into Kings, Madera and Tulare counties, began to shrink when “over time, each city became more competitive as they grew,” Tokmakian said.

In 1965, Tokmakian recalled one of Gruen’s chief designers speaking to businessmen in Fresno about the future with a warning. Edgardo Contini urged city officials to continue their focus on downtown, a commitment needing to last another 20 years to make revitalization successful.

But by the early 1970s, Fashion Fair was thriving and, even farther north, Saint Agnes Medical Center opened. Fresno’s residents were northward bound and wanted to shop near home.

“It became increasingly apparent that the downtown area was no longer a regional trade area,” Tokmakian said.

Big retailer

One of Fashion Fair’s first major tenants, Gottschalks, also had a store on the southern edge of Fulton Mall.

It was the company’s flagship store, Fresno’s hometown store and a bustling retail center since 1904, when the store opened.

Gottschalks Chief Executive Officer Joe Levy was a major player in the creation of Fulton Mall. He was on the podium with the governor.

His widow, Sharon Levy, Fresno County’s first woman supervisor, recalls how proud her husband was of the plan.

“Joe and others were totally immersed in the creation of the mall,” she said. “Joe believed it was an important move for downtown.”

The first five years of the pedestrian mall proved a success, according to Charles N. Clough’s book, “History of Fresno County in the 20th Century.”

Between 1964 and 1969, revenue for businesses on Fulton Mall rose almost 20 percent, from $44.7 million to nearly $53.3 million, the book said.

Revenue continued to increase even after Manchester Mall opened in 1966.

But in 1970, Fashion Fair opened. Gottschalks was among the first stores to open there. Its downtown store stayed open, too.

“I remember taking our children,” Sharon Levy said. “There was a little playground in front of Woolworth’s. We used to ride the tram back and forth and the children loved it.”

The clothing, shoes and jewelry stores and restaurants made Fulton Mall the place to be, she said.

The downtown store didn’t close until 1988, and when it did, said Levy, the old flagship store had become a loss leader.

“It was costing so much just to keep it open,” she said. “They just couldn’t justify it.”

For a brief time, Fulton Mall realized the retailers’ dreams, but the competition from other areas became too much to overcome for most businesses.

Sharon Levy said she’s not sure how her husband would feel about the demise of a project he helped champion.

“He would have mixed emotions,” she said. “His heart was in that downtown mall and all the things it was going to accomplish for the retailers in the mall.”

Small business

In 2014, Procter’s Jewelers, which had been at the Fresno Street corner of the Fulton Mall for 70 years, was damaged by an arson.

The store’s chairman and chief executive officer, Ron Weiner, 82, who attended the opening of Fulton Mall, is eager to return from another site now that it will open as a two-way street.

“We are going to start remodeling the building,” Weiner said. “We aren’t going to go rushing into it when the street’s torn up in front of us, but we will be ready to when the (street) is ready to go.”

The pedestrian mall was the answer for a few years, Weiner said. The hope of the business leaders of his generation was that it would last longer.

He recalls the tourist buses often carrying visitors from Japan in the first couple years after the pedestrian mall opened, but that didn’t last long.

“What I saw daily was that there were fewer and fewer people on the mall,” he said. “We watched it go downhill.”

With its generations of customers, Procter’s Jewelers continued to prosper, but the businesses around it came and went.

The biggest complaints from customers were parking and aggressive meter readers.

But like Marderosian, Weiner is hopeful.

“I’m looking at new generations, and they have different attitudes,” he said. “Both theirs and the developers’ attitudes will make a difference. I’m recharged again.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

Fulton Street groundbreaking

If you go:

4 p.m. Thursday, Merced Street and Fulton Mall

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