The three men standing on Fulton Street near the Dancing Waters fountain on a recent afternoon definitely weren’t from Fresno.
I could tell by the way they dressed, by the way they glanced around, as if in unfamiliar surroundings, and by the way all three clutched the same pamphlet.
So I walked up, introduced myself and quickly found out my deductions were correct. The three men – let’s call them Tony, Omar and Luis – were Bay Area businessmen on a day trip to California’s fifth-largest city to check out investment opportunities in our burgeoning downtown.
This was the first time any of them had been here, and they had just left the offices of the Downtown Fresno Partnership. (Hence the pamphlets.)
While that visit answered some of their questions, Tony, Omar and Luis were eager to hear the straight, unvarnished truth about downtown Fresno and the long-anticipated reopening of Fulton Street.
Good thing they ran into me because straight, unvarnished truth is a house speciality.
We must’ve stood there talking for a good 15 minutes.
“It looks really great down here,” Tony remarked after we exchanged pleasantries, “but how come there are so many vacant storefronts?”
“Well,” I replied, “you have to understand that this part of Fresno, downtown Fresno, has been dead to large swaths of the city for decades. If you live on the north side, where the money is, there hasn’t been much reason to come down here. Not unless you have to pay a parking ticket or report for jury duty.
“But I see quite a few people walking around,” Luis interjected.
“Because it’s lunchtime on a Wednesday, prime time for office workers,” I said. “Come back after 5, or on a weekend, and downtown will be practically deserted.”
“So what is the city doing to inject life down here?” Omar asked.
“Just opening the street is a good start,” I replied. “You know Chris Isaak, the singer? I’ll never forget an interview he did a few years ago where he gushed about Fresno. Why? Because we have so much parking. Any store he goes to, he can park 20 feet from the front door. It’s kind of sad, but I think a lot of Fresnans share that mentality.”
“What about attracting new businesses?” Tony interjected.
“I think the city has done a lot,” I answered. “First of all, Fresno may have been the last city in America to permit mixed uses in multistory buildings. That’s a huge step. Also, restaurants on Fulton Street can now offer sidewalk and even rooftop dining without going through a bunch of hassle and red tape. And biggest of all, no more conditional-use permits for alcohol licenses.”
“Wow!” Omar replied. “No more conditional-use permits? That’s huge.”
“It is,” I said. “But that’s the overall aim, to create a nighttime entertainment district so that people can eat, drink, dance and have fun.”
“Have all these sculptures and fountains always been here?” Tony asked. “It’s quite a collection.”
“They’ve been here since shortly after Fulton Mall opened in 1964,” I answered. “But it’s been a long, long time since they looked like this. About a quarter of the money for the Fulton Street Restoration Project went to restoring and relocating the art.”
“We noticed quite a few newer-looking apartments in other parts of downtown,” Luis said. “Is there anything in the works to bring more residents down here?”
“Definitely,” I answered. “Two of Fresno’s best-known developers (Mehmet Noyen and Terance Frazier) are all set to go on a five-story residential and commercial complex just feet from where we’re standing. Construction is supposed to begin in May, and there are other projects in the works.”
Tony, Omar and Luis shared a glance after hearing this, but the questions kept coming.
“What about all these old, vacant high-rises?” one asked. “What’s being done to restore them?”
“Well, not all the high-rises are vacant,” I replied. “For example, the T.W. Patterson Building right up the street is fully occupied, and the Pacific Southwest Building, the one with the sloping red roof and ginormous antenna, will be at 75 percent occupancy soon once three more floors are restored.
“But, yeah, there are a few others that still need a lot of work. It’ll probably be awhile, likely until some revitalization has already taken place, before someone invests in those.”
“Why did they make (Fulton Street) so narrow?” Luis asked.
“It’s kind of an optical illusion,” I said. “The asphalt lanes are 9 feet wide, which is narrower than typical streets, but the concrete gutters are extra wide. It’s a trick planners use when they want to calm traffic. The mid-block pedestrian crossings and wide jut-outs at intersections also serve that purpose.”
“I’ve noticed the sidewalks on one side are wider than the other,” Tony said. “Why is that?”
“It was an effort to save as many of the existing trees as possible,” I answered. “By aligning to one side, the landscape architects were able to save 17 mature Chinese elms and three Canary Island pines. Of course, about 150 trees had to be removed. But more than 200 new ones have been planted.”
“All this stuff is interesting,” Omar said, “but do you think it’s going to work? Are all these efforts going to pay off in a revitalized downtown?”
“That’s the $20 million question,” I replied. “No one can say for sure what’s going to happen once the street opens and the free-market economy takes over. But the path has been laid out, and I know for a fact there’s been a lot of interest from both local and out-of-town investors like yourselves. People are interested, and they want in before rents and property values go up.
“I would say opening Fulton Street isn’t a cure-all. But it’s an important step in a process that began in earnest 15 years ago when the stadium opened. High-speed rail and the city’s Bus Rapid Transit project are also part of the equation.”
Just about then, the parking meter expired, and with a zealous attendant lurking nearby it was time to end our talk.
“Boy, I’m glad we ran into you,” Omar said as we shook hands.
Me as well.
Fulton Street Party
When: Oct. 21
Schedule of events: 3 p.m., City of Fresno ribbon cutting and ceremony; 4 to 7 p.m., Draggin' the Main car cruise; 4 to 10 p.m., Pop-up businesses, beer gardens at Mariposa and Kern plazas; food trucks at Fulton & Inyo; live music at Mariposa and Kern plazas
Details and full lineup of music acts: downtownfresno.org/fulton-street-party