Marek Warszawski

Reopening of Fulton Street paves way for a new vision of downtown Fresno

Sitting on a bench along Fulton Street, Rod De La Rosa took in the altered streetscape while gesturing to crowded sidewalks. Then he smiled.

“I love it already,” the Madera resident said. “I’ve always loved cities, just the hustle and bustle. Just the feel you get from being in a vibrant downtown.”

Welcome to your new downtown, Fresno. Park the car and explore. Take it all the cool historical buildings and marvel at the restored sculptures and fountains. Be proud and pleasantly surprised.

That’s what a few thousand people did Saturday afternoon and evening during the Fulton Street grand reopening celebration – several times larger than the city of Fresno’s anticipated turnout of 500.

Which should give you an idea of the anticipation and pent-up demand.

What were all those people doing in downtown Fresno, a place cynics had long given up for dead?

They came out to see all the changes for themselves, to eat and drink, to listen to music, to watch cruisers roll past in classic cars, to listen to dignitaries make speeches and to frequent existing businesses as well as 13 “pop-ups” that for one day took over vacant storefronts.

The pop-ups ranged from coffee shops and wine-tasting bars to just about everything else you can think of.

Ideaworks, a local nonprofit, displayed some of its woodworking creations while raffling a beautiful wooden bar made from pallets.

Fresno Grizzlies marketing guru Sam Hansen came up with “Hella Ninja,” where people threw plastic throwing stars (real ones are illegal) at body targets after sampling rice beer made by Tioga-Sequoia, Japanese candy from Central Fish Co. and churros shaped like nunchucks.

“Where else can you do stuff like this?” Hansen asked.

I’ll venture a guess: nowhere.

It was quite an interesting scene on what used to be Fresno’s main commercial thoroughfare, which reopened to cars for the first time since 1964. And quite a juxtaposition.

On one hand, there were people and families – typically lower income, let’s be frank – who normally shop there. They could be seen looking around as if a little unsure what was taking place.

On the other there were people and families who never venture downtown or haven’t done so for years. Just like the regulars, they also walked around a little wide-eyed.

“I like the airiness and the feeling of openness,” said Anthony Lamas of Fresno, whose mother worked at Gottschalks during the Fulton Mall’s heyday. “The shops need work, but this is a good start.”

And, really, that’s all Fulton Street is at this moment: a start. The reset button has been pressed. Now let’s see what transpires.

How will the existing businesses and their clientele mesh with the new vision of a Fulton Entertainment District, full of restaurants, cafes and nightlife?

Can a wine bar exist next door to a botánica?

Those are questions we don’t yet have clear answers for. But for one day, at least, downtown Fresno felt like a place for all of Fresno. Not just one stratum of it.

Different walks of life, all occupying the same sidewalk. Imagine that.

“That’s what downtowns do better than anywhere else,” Downtown Fresno Partnership interim CEO Craig Scharton said. “Downtowns are not just for one type of people, they’re for everyone. You’ve got an investor sitting next to a homeless person. Every color, every age, every income level all mixed together.

“Maybe those people live separately, live in a different socioeconomic groups, but when you come downtown you get to be around everyone. That has a high social value.”

Which is something Fresno has been lacking. Hopefully, not anymore.

“Without that central gathering point, you just don’t get it naturally,” Scharton added. “Downtowns are one of the few things that pull people together, and we definitely need more of that.”

Fulton Street did not get paved without spilling a little blood. Several small businesses shut down during the 19-month construction period. All of them suffered, their customers unwilling to negotiate the bulldozers or the maze of fences.

Despite what Mayor Lee Brand stated from the podium, the city did not do enough to help the ones “that hung in there.”

And, of course, there will be those who scream “Gentrification!” at the first hint of change. It’s one of those trigger words. No one wants to see longstanding residents and businesses displaced in the name of making things middle-class bland.

But to compare downtown Fresno to San Francisco’s Mission District or West Oakland, places where rents and property values have skyrocketed, is laughable.

When I walk up and down Fulton Street, I see plenty of vacant storefronts and entire buildings that sit empty. Exactly who’s being displaced?

Some people would rather us be frightened of monsters in the window than accept downtown Fresno badly needed reinvestment dollars.

Let’s hope those dollars start rolling in. Let’s hope businesses want to open and relocate on Fulton Street. The return of cars, along with the anticipated increase in foot traffic, should help provide the impetus.

During his speech, Brand declared downtown Fresno to be “open for business.” Which may be true but doesn’t tell the whole story.

A more complete view: Downtown Fresno is open to all.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee