Downtown Fresno still a construction zone, but the future is open with possibility

The Tuolumne Street bridge may still have a “Road Closed” sign in front of it, but I didn’t care.

It looked perfectly fine to walk across.

“I’m not going to stop you, but the gate is probably closed on the other side,” warned a construction worker as a co-worker grooved a section of concrete with a disc grinder.

It wasn’t. Like everything else in downtown Fresno these days, the gate in question (actually a chain-link fence) was wide open with possibility.

Have you been downtown recently? Between the new bridge, built to accommodate High Speed Rail, the transformation of the Fulton Mall into Fulton Street and Bus Rapid Transit, the whole place is one giant construction project.

And like many giant construction projects, this one is experiencing delays. There’s a snafu with the Tuolumne Street bridge, which was supposed to open this month. And despite clear evidence of progress, Fulton Street won’t open to two-way traffic till October – five months behind the original time line.

Eventually, though, all the fences will be taken down, the bulldozers and earth movers transported elsewhere, the art pieces returned to their rightful places.

So what happens then?

Is Fulton Street, with its decorative green signs, sleek streetlights and promise of storefront parking, the tipping point for a new and revitalized downtown? Or will it be the same dysfunctional downtown, only with a new street?

There are plenty of signs that support the optimistic view, if you can make them out through the construction debris.

“With the street coming in, the entire landscape of downtown is changing,” said Jordan Gustafson, whom I met while she and her business partner toured a vacant storefront as a potential spot for a bodega they plan to open.

What’s a bodega? Google says it’s Spanish for “cellar.” But in New York City, where the 31-year-old lived for seven years after growing up on a Clovis farm, the word has come to describe a neighborhood mini-mart or liquor store.

“Your bodega guy is your bodega guy,” Gustafson explained. “There’s that connection to the community.”

Gustafson is among the growing number who work downtown but don’t head for the freeways at 5 p.m. She resides in a loft inside the Pacific Southwest Building and walks to her job at Bitwise Industries.

Although Gustafson loves living downtown, certain conveniences are lacking. Once CVS closes at 9 p.m. (“7 on Sundays”), there isn’t a place within walking distance to buy staples like toothpaste. Or beer.

“Right now downtown has needs,” Gustafson said. “I think about as a resident what I don’t have.”

That kind of entrepreneurial spirit is alive up and down Fulton Street with all number of people poking around and envisioning the future.

Charles Atikian is happy to show them. During the last two months, the general manager of the 16-floor Pacific Southwest Building, the 10-floor Helm Building and five other properties along Fulton Street said he has been giving tours “almost every day.”

“New business owners, old business owners, entrepreneurs who want to shift their businesses down here, they’re all interested,” Atikian said. “Everyone wants to get in on the ground floor.”

The City of Fresno is providing an extra nudge by offering waived or reduced fees to new business owners who set up shop on Fulton Street before the opening.

These incentives are also available to existing business owners who make improvements during the construction period. However, several I spoke to say that they are barely hanging on because their customers can’t get to them.

“Who knows what’s going to happen – I just hope the street brings more people,” said Jesus Diaz, owner of Casa Latina, a botánica selling religious candles, charms and other trinkets. “But in the meantime, everything looks bad.”

As Diaz spoke, a bulldozer operating outside his front door moved a load of dirt that sent a huge dust cloud inside the store.

“For the last three months I’ve been pulling money from my own pocket,” he added. “I’m going to shut down this place if things don’t change.”

A couple blocks away I asked Blanca Partida, owner of Parsley Garden Cafe, if she was looking forward to October when the construction finally goes away and customers can park right in front.

“We’ll see if we survive till October,” Partida replied. “But I don’t think that just opening the street is all they need to do. A lot of people from (north Fresno) still don’t want to come down here.”

The juxtaposition of future opportunity and current reality can be found up and down on what used to be America’s second-oldest pedestrian mall.

Change is most certainly taking place. We just can’t be absolutely certain where it will lead.

Craig Scharton has a pretty good sense. The interim president and CEO of the Downtown Fresno Partnership and former Fulton Mall business owner called Fulton Street “the key that unlocks the code” for all of downtown.

More than $100 million of new investments have poured into downtown Fresno since the announcement the street would reopen to traffic, according to city spokesman Mark Standriff.

Downtown is also home to more than 250 new apartments and lofts (with several hundred more in the planning stages) along with almost 40 new businesses, many of them breweries, restaurants and coffee shops.

Which may only be the beginning. Scharton envisions Fulton Street becoming its own entertainment district with restaurants, bars, nightclubs and coffee shops offering outdoor seating and live music.

Once enough of those places open, interest goes up and the foot traffic returns. That’s how Fresno’s heart starts beating again.

“When Fulton Street starts functioning like it should, then every other part of downtown starts functioning and the world starts spinning on its proper axis,” Scharton said.

“Revitalization won’t start until the day after the street opens. Everything else before this has either been preparation or treading water.”

For now, the wait continues. But soon enough downtown will have a new bridge, new traffic patterns and a new two-way street running through its center. Not for decades has the urban core of California’s fifth-largest city been so wide open to possibility.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

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