During the 12 months since Fulton Street reopened, the most encouraging piece of anecdotal evidence regarding downtown Fresno came to me in a most unlikely place: a bagel shop north of Herndon Avenue.
It was there, on a Saturday morning in March, that I overheard two dudes in their early 20s discuss a mutual friend who had recently rented an apartment on Van Ness Avenue near Bitwise Industries.
Based on long-held perceptions, namely that downtown Fresno is dirty, unsafe, overrun with homeless and devoid of life after 5 p.m., it’s easy to assume these two buddies were talking smack about their friend’s questionable lifestyle choice.
Except the tone of their conversation didn’t sound like that at all.
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“I like hanging out down there,” said one, who was wearing a Clovis West High sweatshirt.
“That would be my dream pad,” replied the other.
Where’s the needle-scratching-across-a-record-player sound effect when you need it? Never did I expect downtown Fresno would be considered a cool or hip place to live by north Fresno millennials.
As I wrote on Twitter that very day, it’s a sign the pendulum is starting to swing. The question now is, how far and how soon?
Last Oct. 21, more than 10,000 people stormed downtown Fresno to celebrate the Fulton Mall’s transformation into Fulton Street. There were speeches, a parade, live music and pop-up businesses occupying most of the vacant storefronts.
It felt like a pent-up celebration, one that left us hopeful and optimistic about the future of our long-beleaguered urban core.
Twelve months later, despite a few hiccups and speed bumps, the feeling remains. Downtown Fresno, and especially the Fulton Street corridor, has a long way to go but is undoubtedly a more lively and vibrant place to be.
“When you look down the street now it looks like an actual big-city downtown,” said Craig Scharton, a downtown revitalization expert and former Fresno City Councilmember. “And there are always people on the sidewalk.”
The increase in foot traffic and ease of parking (just don’t get me started on those antiquated coin-operated meters) is responsible for the most tangible difference: more places to eat and hang out.
With two new restaurants and a decorative building facade, “Renoir Corner” at Fulton and Mariposa has undergone the most noticeable transformation. They’ll soon be joined by a sidewalk version of La Boulangerie across the street outside the historic Pacific Southwest Building.
There are more new restaurants and places to grub up the street, including the recently opened Cookies N Things owned by longtime downtown resident Joshaya Joshua.
“You have to create something for people to come,” said Joshua, who doesn’t use white or refined sugars in her cookies and granola. “The energy down here is really good, and everyone is optimistic.”
Not every venture is successful. The Parsley Garden Cafe closed and has been replaced by Chelita’s Taqueria. Casa de Tamales gave it a go in the T.W. Patterson Building before shutting its doors. So did Tree of Life Cafe on nearby Kern Street.
Another longtime eatery, Los Panchos, updated its exterior and remodeled its bar area, though the promise of sidewalk dining remains stuck in red tape.
What’s missing? Fulton Street was envisioned as a nighttime entertainment district, and so far there are no new bars, nightclubs or venues that offer live music. Even the restaurants that stay open “late” close at 9 p.m.
“We need a music club down here,” Scharton said. “We need someone who can offend people my age. Just someone doing something interesting.”
There’s no lack of demand, according to real estate agent Veronica Stumpf, just a shortage of ready-to-move-in units.
Using databases, public property records and her own personal knowledge, Stumpf estimated that approximately 382,000 square feet of building space has been sold along Fulton Street during the past year for more than $13 million. (The purchase of the Guarantee Savings Building and adjacent parking structure by the State Center Community College District is by far the largest single transaction.)
In addition, more than 40,000 square feet of commercial and retail space has been leased.
“There’s a high demand for smaller properties, 5,000 up to 20,000 square feet, however the inventory is very small,” said Stumpf, who specializes in downtown Fresno real estate.
“That can be kind of frustrating because right now I feel is a great time to take advantage of that high demand. But a lot of property owners, sometimes they want to wait two or three years to see if the values go up.”
Another positive, at least for now, is the condition of Fulton Street’s public art. (About 25 percent of the $20 million federal grant that funded the project went toward restoring and relocating the sculptures and fountains.) While they still look good, a long-term maintenance contract for the sculptures has yet to be signed.
This is something the city cannot afford to let slip.
Replacing those coin-operated parking meters with meters that accept credit cards or smart-phone payments is another necessary step. So are public restrooms (Mariposa Plaza would be a perfect location) and the need for more events besides ArtHop and Fulton Live.
And, yes, all those vacant multi-story buildings still need an injection of new life.
Plenty of heavy lifting remains before downtown Fresno can truly be considered revitalized. But judging by the number of people who turn out for the FresYes Fest and Taco Truck Throwdown, not to mention my little anecdote at the bagel shop, the perceptions are changing.
People here do want to eat, live and party downtown. We just have to keep giving them reasons.
“I think it’s transforming a lot quicker than a lot of other cities have experienced,” Downtown Fresno Partnership President/CEO Jimmy Cerracchio said. “For people here it might seem it’s taking a long time, but these things don’t happen overnight. They take years of hard work and investment.”
One year down and many more to go.