Three months after Fulton Street reopened, the hard work of revitalization remains

ArtHop along Fulton Street shows what the street's nighttime vibe could look like

Here is a glimpse at the life along downtown Fresno's Fulton Street during ArtHop on Jan. 4.
Up Next
Here is a glimpse at the life along downtown Fresno's Fulton Street during ArtHop on Jan. 4.

Sure didn’t feel that way at the time, but reopening a street through what used to be a pedestrian mall turned out to be the easy part.

Changing long-standing market forces and perceptions of downtown Fresno will take a good while longer.

Three months after the Fulton Mall became Fulton Street, and tens of thousands of the enthusiastic and curious turned out to witness the festivities, the urban core of California’s fifth-largest city remains virtually the same.

Not completely, of course. With cars and restored public art, Fulton Street feels more vibrant. It’s certainly more visually pleasing. I enjoy walking up and down the transformed six-block area, with its wide sidewalks and new sense of openness, much more than when it contained a dreary mall.

My favorite new view: Turning onto Kern Street from Van Ness Avenue and looking past the pulsating Dancing Waters fountain straight into Chukchansi Park.

Pleasant reminder that baseball (and soccer) season is right around the corner.

“It actually looks like a real city when you look down the street now,” said Leon Alchian, owner of Majestic Jewelry & Loan on Tulare Street.

Fulton and Kern
This eye-catching view of the Kern Street entrance to Chukchansi Park is now possible after the Fulton Mall was removed and the street reopened to car traffic. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Of course, we didn’t obtain and spend $20 million in federal transportation grants just to make the streetscape look nicer.

Fulton Street is intended to be the catalyst for a revitalized downtown Fresno, one with nighttime-oriented restaurants and bars leading to increased foot traffic. But so far – three months in – that vision remains fleeting.

What’s the holdup? Primarily, the same bugaboos that have hindered downtown Fresno for decades: market forces and negative perceptions.

What’s the holdup? Primarily, the same bugaboos that have hindered downtown Fresno for decades: market forces and negative perceptions.

The most glaring wart on Fulton Street are all the empty storefronts – 18 of them between Tuolumne and Inyo streets, to be precise – plus a few that are occupied but seldom open. That tally does not include at least six larger multistory buildings (i.e. Bank of Italy, J.C. Penny, Helm, Gottschalks) that sit empty or nearly so.

The problem, according to real estate broker Rob Boese, is not a lack of interest from tenants, but a dearth of move-in ready spaces.

The vast majority of those 18 empty storefronts require extensive renovations, especially if someone intends to open a restaurant or bar. So negotiations between landlord and prospective tenant turn into a dance of who’s going to pay to fix up the building, and what the ensuing rents will be. Fresno’s cumbersome process for construction permits serves as an extra deterrent. One building owner told me it took him seven months just to get city approval to improve his exterior facade.

Graffiti-tagged murals on plywood cover windows on the former Gottschalks building in downtown Fresno. Fulton Street currently has 18 vacant storefronts along with several larger buildings that sit empty or nearly so. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

“There’s a very limited inventory of spaces that are ready to go,” Boese said, “and owners are reluctant to invest in major renovations unless they’re fairly certain it’ll pay off.

“It’s a definite chicken-and-the-egg scenario.”

Fulton Street didn’t go from a major retail shopping hub to a motley assortment of government and law offices, low-cost clothing stores and botánicas overnight. Nor is it fair to expect things to reverse course in three months.

Regardless, even proponents like Downtown Fresno Partnership interim CEO Craig Scharton are growing frustrated by the slow pace of change.

“None of it is happening as quickly as we want,” Scharton said. “We’re already wasting (the momentum of the grand opening). That’s just eating me alive every day. We built up so much momentum, and between all parties we’re not hitting it as hard as we should be. I keep telling everyone, ‘We’ve got to step lively on this stuff.’ ”

Scharton wants City Hall to streamline the permitting process for outdoor dining – something he believes is vital to a nighttime entertainment district. He wants existing restaurants to expand their hours into the evening and weekends. And he wants property owners to invest in their buildings while being more reasonable in their demands for rent.

That’s the message Downtown Fresno Partnership members will hear at their Feb. 14 meeting.

Pedestrians cross Tulare Street in front of the illuminated T.W. Patterson Building in downtown Fresno following the grand reopening of Fulton Street on Oct. 21, 2017. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

“Property owners are going to be better off in the long run by attracting the right kind of tenants,” Scharton said. “Get them in now, fill this place up with fun, nighttime locally owned cool attractions, and then your rents and values will go up.

“But if you think (rents) are just going to go up now and you’re going to get top dollar, what you’re actually doing is slowing down revitalization and shooting yourself in the foot.”

Carlos and Blanca Partida, owners of the Parsley Garden Cafe at 1237 Fulton, said business picked up in the weeks after the street reopened but has since slowed. They tried opening on Friday nights and Saturdays, advertising the expanded hours on social media, but quickly abandoned that idea because so few people came through the doors.

Regardless, their absentee Bay Area landlord still jacked up the monthly rent by $100 in December.

“There’s no events and no new businesses,” Blanca Partida said. “So how do they expect people to come down here? I don’t know.”

No one said downtown Fresno revitalization would be easy. But now that the pieces are in place, we continue to make it harder on ourselves.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

Related stories from Fresno Bee