Fresno breaks ground on Fulton Street restoration

In March 1964, Fresno city leaders broke ground on a project to close a six-block stretch of Fulton Street and convert it into an open-air, pedestrian-only mall.

On Thursday, a new generation of city leaders broke ground on a project to undo that 52-year experiment, converting the Fulton Mall back into a traffic-bearing street through downtown Fresno. The golden-sledgehammer ceremony even took place at the same spot, the intersection of Fulton and Merced streets, and attracted several hundred cheering onlookers.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Vince Mammano of the Federal Highway Administration and other speakers described the event as a “historic” turning point for downtown Fresno.

“After decades of controversy and unresolved debate, we are standing here again, with a clear path forward,” Swearengin said of the $20 million project that she and other backers hope will revitalize downtown. “We can envision cafes, entertainment venues, lofts and locally owned businesses filling up scores of once-empty spaces.”

Thursday’s ceremony came hours after the Fresno City Council approved measures aimed at helping Fulton Mall businesses cope with upheaval from 14 months of construction that will start within weeks: providing parking validation coupons for two hours of free parking at four nearby city parking garages, waiving business license taxes, and waiving or reducing planning and development permit fees. About 110 businesses operate on the mall from Inyo Street near Chukchansi Park to Tuolumne Street.

“The potential for some businesses not surviving is there. It’s impossible not to recognize that reality,” Councilman Oliver Baines said. “This is not about giving businesses money. This is about giving them a couple of tools that hopefully will keep their clientele coming  because we’re tearing up the street.”

Raul De Alba, whose family opened Jalisco Jewelers on the mall in 1989, said his initial concerns over the disruption of foot traffic to his store were eventually eased by the city’s relief measures. “They’re going to try their best to not have us closed any days. We’re going to be open for business, they’re going to accommodate that,” De Alba said. “We’re optimistic that it’s only going to get better.”

The city’s contract with American Paving Co. requires that access remain open with walkways to every business along the mall, said Dan Zack, the city’s assistant development director. In addition to the parking vouchers and fee relief, Zack said the Downtown Fresno Partnership is taking on an aggressive social media campaign to let the public know that the mall remains open for business during the construction.

Craig Scharton, a former council member who opened Peeve’s Public House on the Fulton Mall about 2 1/2 years ago, has been a strong backer of the Fulton Street reconstruction. “It’s a challenge getting people onto this mall,” he said. “Just giving people directions is like a 20-minute ordeal. Having a street is going to make that so much easier.”

But he is realistic about the hardships that the construction will pose for his and other businesses.

“There’s going to be big fences out in front of these businesses, and the trees are going to come down. It’s going to look a little bleak and desolate for a while,” Scharton said. “That’s when we’re really going to need the community to rally.”

Thursday’s groundbreaking was near the north end of the mall, but the first stage of serious work will start in about three weeks at the south end, between Tulare and Inyo streets, Public Works Director Scott Mozier said. The second stage is between Fresno and Tuolumne streets, and the third phase is between Fresno and Tulare streets. In each segment, the plan is to work from east to west: rebuilding sidewalks along the east side of Fulton, then putting in the curbs, gutters and pavement in the middle, and then tackling the sidewalk work on the west side, Mozier said. The process will also include relocating artwork and fountains, and replacing trees.

Scharton and De Alba said the free two-hour parking validation will be important for businesses during the work. “That will mean a lot for people to come to our stores, and to see the construction and what’s going on,” De Alba said. Scharton added that Fulton businesses hope the city will make the free two-hour parking a permanent feature at both Fulton Street parking meters and in the nearby parking garages.

“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,” Scharton said. “After that, it’s going to be fun to be here and be part of the new project. Hopefully we’ll survive it.”

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