Moving ahead downtown

Revitalizing an area south of Chukchansi Park will have a top priority for the city of Fresno, now that the City Council has authorized property purchases to begin for a major residential and commercial development. That's good news.

The South Stadium project of the Forest City development company is an ambitious plan to add nearly 800 residential units and neighborhood retail shops to a compact area of downtown Fresno. The neighborhood, like much of downtown, is currently a mix of active businesses -- some thriving, some struggling -- and empty buildings.

The idea of replacing much of that with 665 loft-style apartments, 102 townhouses and 60,000 square feet of neighborhood retail space is a compelling one, offering a vision of a future downtown jammed with pedestrians enjoying walkways and plazas as they mingle and shop. It's a piece of a vibrant downtown that's missing now: activity after working hours.

The bill for this vision is steep. Forest City wants the city of Fresno to invest $99 million in the project. That's daunting, but there is a considerable upside for the city and its taxpayers. A downtown that hums with activity 24 hours a day would be a source of considerable new sales and property tax revenue for the city, and an attraction that would one day draw many thousands of nonresidents downtown for recreation, entertainment and dining.

The developer and the city have drawn criticism for the slow pace of the project, and for putting a number of existing business and their owners into a kind of limbo. Uncertainty about Forest City and its plans, as well as the city's commitment to the project, have left some property owners unable to sell, lease, expand or otherwise move ahead with their own plans.

That unfairness was directly addressed by a Forest City official in the context of Tuesday's decision to move ahead.

Kevin Ratner, president of Forest City Residential West, said that "We have heard complaints that the project was on hold and that it was holding up other property owners. Today, the council said go forward, talk to those people. I'm excited that we can get those conversations started."

We're pleased with that as well, and with Forest City's apparent commitment to work with existing property owners. In the past, local owners have sometimes been swept aside and their properties leveled, only to see the land sit idle for decades. We've had enough of that in downtown Fresno.

There is a place -- or should be -- for existing businesses in this grand new vision. They have rights that must be respected, and they also deserve our gratitude for sticking it out downtown when so many others have given up or been forced out. There is no reason that existing businesses can't be integrated into the new plans. That's been done successfully in many cities, and it often adds character to the final result -- an eclectic and pleasing mixture of the old and the new.

This can be an exciting time in downtown Fresno. We urge the city's Redevelopment Agency, City Hall, Forest City and the property owners to work hard together to make this project a reality. It isn't a silver bullet -- there is no such thing in downtown -- but it is an important piece of the larger effort.

There is much at stake, and a great deal to be gained. After many years of quiet desperation and slow decay, there is reason to believe that Fresno can once again have a vital and vibrant city center, an attraction for the entire region and an economic success.