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Fulton Street is back, so is the hope and grumbling of downtown’s future

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Downtown Fresno

Fulton Street is back, so is the hope and grumbling of downtown’s future

Fulton Street returned after 53 years as pedestrian mall experiment. There’s a mystique of hope and holdover uncertainty for downtown’s future.

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The Fulton Mall experiment is officially over.

The new experiment: See if it’s possible to restore six blocks of Fulton Street to something approaching its former splendor as Fresno’s “Main Street.”

Community leaders and thousands of well-wishers gathered Saturday in Downtown to celebrate the reopening of Fulton between Inyo and Tuolumne streets to vehicular traffic.

“Good afternoon and welcome to the grand reopening of Fulton Street,” Mayor Lee Brand told an enthusiastic crowd at the intersection of Fulton and Mariposa Street. “This is an historic day for Fresno. It is also ‘back to the future’ for me.

“Back in 1964, the city had the grand opening for Fulton Mall. I was only 15 years old and one of the many people who showed up that day to see this interesting new vision for Downtown Fresno.

“It’s 53 years later. Fulton Street and I are both older and wiser – and ready to go ‘back to the future’ to start a bold new beginning for the heart of our Downtown.

“You’ve heard it said that every great city has a great downtown. Today, we can proudly say Fresno is a great city.”

According to a City Hall news release, the 19-month construction project used 3,357 tons of concrete, produced 140,000 square feet of new sidewalks, created 200 new parallel parking spaces and installed more than 200 new LED street lights and pedestrian lights.

All 32 of the mall’s art pieces have been restored and replaced on Fulton Street. There are more trees along the six blocks than before. Sixteen fountains were reconstructed. There’s new landscaping and a new irrigation system.

American Paving was the project’s main contractor. The City Council in December 2015 approved the $22.4 million construction contract.

One more detail of note: Uncountable miles of clip files at The Bee are now obsolete, of interest only to historians and drudges.

I exaggerate, but only a bit.

Clip files are envelopes full of stories clipped over the course of years from a newspaper. The envelopes are filed by subject and date.

Clip files are a pre-Digital Revolution information system. They’re priceless.

A considerable number of The Bee’s clip files deal with the evolution of Fresno’s political and economic landscape from 1945 to 1965, the go-go decades after World War II. Long story short, those files tell the tale of how Fresno’s leaders came to the conclusion in the late 1950s and early 1960s that the best thing for Downtown Fresno was to tear up Fulton Street between Inyo and Tuolumne and turn the six blocks into a pedestrian mall.

Urban architect Victor Gruen came up with the idea. Fulton Mall opened on Sept. 1, 1964. Don’t let anyone kid you – the mall was in trouble from the get-go.

As The Bee’s clip files attest, the mall’s designers were never able to explain to the public how the mall was supposed to turn Downtown into a bonanza. That’s because they had no clue themselves. It was all flim-flam at the highest reaches of Fresno society.

Thanks to former Mayor Ashley Swearengin and a City Council that included Brand, the mall is gone.

Brand on Saturday said Fulton Corridor is on its way to recovery.

“Since the day the council voted to open Fulton Street in 2014, we’ve seen over $100 million invested in our Downtown – Fulton is open for business!” Brand said. “We’ve seen young professionals coming to Downtown to live, work and play because there’s more to do. And even more is on the way – because Fulton is open for business!

“Just look at the excitement surrounding us today and you can imagine what Downtown Fresno might look like in five years: Live entertainment, parades, block parties, baseball games and soccer matches bringing thousands Downtown. (And) more housing, more retail, more restaurants.

“A downtown on the rise means a city on the move. We are ready for everything our future promises.”

Actually, the Gruen team promised those same things some 60 years ago. And, to be honest, it’s not clear to me how the return of two-way vehicular traffic by itself will transform the six-block stretch. But I don’t want to spoil the party atmosphere, so I’ll move on.

Brand wasn’t the only official to speak.

Swearengin hit the nail on the head when she said of the long struggle to approve and fund the reopening of Fulton: “We found a path forward. We can take on difficult projects.” May we never lose that hard-earned confidence.

Craig Scharton (interim chief executive at Downtown Fresno Partnership), Oliver Baines (District 3 council member) and Jim Costa (local Congressman) also spoke.

I admit that I didn’t catch every word from the speaker’s podium. I stood in front of the old Payless shoe store, directly across from the Helm Building. A short distance away was a man with a low-rider bicycle. He had a boom box on the back of the bicycle. The tunes of Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels and The Young Rascals overwhelmed the politicians’ chattering.

I didn’t mind. I’m pretty sure most of the people in my area didn’t mind.

I walked to the parking lot at Inyo and Broadway, west of Chukchansi Park. This was the staging area for dozens of restored cars from the mid-20th century. The cars would parade the length of reborn Fulton.

A man named Richard stood on the parking lot curb with me. He said he was born in 1945. He grew up in Easton. He said he used to drag Fulton in his high school days at Washington Union.

“That must have been fun – cruisin’ that beautiful street,” I said.

“No,” Richard said. “I mean drag. As in racing.”

Richard had some interesting stories.

The old cars eventually made their way out of the parking lot. They headed east on Inyo and slowly turned north on Fulton. Both sides of Fulton were packed.

It was a fun day.

I began my walk home. My route took me past the spiral garage on the northwest corner of Inyo and Van Ness. I spotted District 2 Council Member Steve Brandau near the garage.

“Hey, George – we want a positive story,” Brandau shouted. “None of that ‘black helicopter’ stuff.”

We both laughed. I thought to myself: Black helicopter stuff is tame compared to what Victor Gruen sold us.

I headed north on Van Ness. I could hear all the cheering and the music and the roaring of gasoline-powered engines coming from Fulton.

I passed a woman sitting in front of The Californian apartment complex. She was holding court, with a handful of men as her audience. She was not happy.

“If I wanted to be surrounded by noise,” she grumbled, “I’d live in New York.”

Fulton is back.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver and advisor to The Collegian, the student newspaper of Fresno State.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Dan Waterhouse

    October 23, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    George, hate to say it but I think Fresnans have been sold another dose of snake oil. Where do I start? Let’s start with Darius Assemi. He recently said a critical mass of 4,800 housing units are required to reach “critical mass” for downtown to be sustaining. Right now there are fewer than 500. The Hotel Fresno project is headed nowhere at this point in time. The 15-story residential tower next to the Housing Authority didn’t get a key piece of its funding a few weeks ago. Neither did the Hotel Fresno project.

    Bill McEwen wrote in GV Wire a few days ago that Brand is not committed to downtown. His focus is public safety and jobs. Neither is the city council. As Bill points out in his piece, council members now want the kind of TLC downtown received in their districts.

    Fulton is being touted as “the” entertainment district in town. That designation has inflamed feelings in the Tower. Tower business owners and residents have been vocal in their opinion that their area has been sacrificed on the altar of downtown revitalization. Can I say, neighborhood wars?

    Gentrification is another concern. Rents are going up and there are worries long time residents and businesses will be priced out of the area eventually. Fresno already has a shortage of affordable housing without adding more demand for it.

    I’ve lived here 63 years. I’ve heard every sales pitch for fixing downtown. None of them have worked. Am I cynical? Hell yes!

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