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Remembering the downtown Fresno vision before breweries, Bitwise

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Remembering the downtown Fresno vision before breweries, Bitwise

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Change continues to define the new Downtown Fresno. But just for the heck of it, let’s briefly pay homage to a worthy change agent from the past.

I went for a walk through Downtown on Wednesday and bumped into a meeting of the Downtown Fresno Partnership board of directors. That actually took some doing because the board was meeting behind a closed door in a distant corner of Los Panchos Mexican Restaurant on what used to be Fulton Mall.

The directors were in closed session when I barged through the door. They politely told me to leave. Their agenda: Lay the groundwork for replacing Aaron Blair, the Partnership’s president/chief executive.

Blair is resigning to take the city manager’s job in Granby, Colorado, a small resort town in the Rocky Mountains west of Boulder. His last day on the job in Fresno is June 9.

The Partnership is a property-based improvement district focused on Downtown renewal. Blair succeeded Kate Borders, the Partnership’s first CEO, in July 2014.

Blair emerged from Wednesday’s meeting to tell me that the board will conduct a national search for his replacement. Blair said an interim CEO will take over in June and serve until the new boss is on board.

No word on when the interim CEO will be named.

I asked Blair what the new permanent Downtown Fresno Partnership president/chief executive will find in Downtown.

“They’re coming into a pretty good situation, actually,” Blair said. “We have the opening of Fulton Street. We have a large number of breweries that are moving in around the stadium. Our soccer teams are continuing to grow – they’re moving up in the league.

“I think they’re going to come into a very financially stable organization. They’re also coming into a property-based improvement district that was renewed – seven years. So they’re not going to have to worry about renewal. Finances are good. Breweries are growing. Fulton Street is open. They’re coming into a pretty good situation.”

Blair added a postscript to his analysis – Bitwise Industries, Fresno’s high-tech hub, is going great guns in Downtown.

My walk included the six blocks of Fulton Street between Inyo and Tuolumne streets. Motorists will be driving that stretch by this time next year.

Those six blocks, of course, used to be Fulton Mall. To turn back the clock some 60 years is to revisit a time when Fresno’s business and government leaders were equally confident in a new vision for the city’s core.

It was in the late 1950s that world-renowned urban architect Victor Gruen came to town with lofty talk about a city redesigned for people, not cars. Gruen’s firm and city leaders chewed on the ideas for nearly a decade. Fulton Mall, the crown jewel in that vision, opened Sept. 1, 1964.

We all know what happened in the coming decades. Fulton Mall declined. Mayor Ashley Swearengin and the City Council, after considerable public debate, finally decided to rip up the mall. The new Fulton Corridor will welcome cars, but also be friendly to pedestrians and art-lovers.

However, the Downtown dream of Gruen and Fresno leaders in the mid-20th century was much bigger than just Fulton Mall. And that brings me to my visit earlier this week to the City Clerk’s Office at City Hall.

As you may recall, the Swearengin Administration in the course of its eight years of planning for a new Downtown created a fair number of new plans. There’s a new development code, for example. And there’s the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan and the Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan.

These new plans took the place of old plans. When that happens, government, being the stickler for protocol that it is, must make the old plans walk the plank. The old plans have to be repealed. That’s what the Swearengin team did.

Well, almost. One old plan, apparently refusing to go gentle into that good night, slipped through the cracks. The 1966 Civic Center Master Development Plan is still on the books.

The City Clerk’s Office has posted a notice of a public hearing. On Wednesday, May 17, the Planning Commission will consider a plan amendment application that, among other things, would repeal the 50-year-old Civic Center development plan.

The repeal is necessary, according to the notice, “to remove potential inconsistencies” with the Fulton Corridor and Downtown Neighborhoods plans.

Earlier this week I bumped into Dan Zack, the planning department’s assistant director and resident expert on the history of urban renewal ideas across the globe. I told him of my interest in the old Civic Center development plan. Zack was kind enough to email me a copy.

You know what? To a layman like me, it appears the plan worked just fine. (It’s a mere 12 pages – today’s planners can’t clear their throats in 12 pages.)

Near as I can tell from the maps, the Fresno Civic Center Master Development Plan encompasses the 100-plus acres that include the Convention Center and the government buildings stretching from Courthouse Park to City Hall.

The civic center area is shaped like a T on its side. The boundaries are Ventura Street on the south, Van Ness Avenue on the west, Merced Street on the north and Q Street on the east.

The City Council adopted the Civic Center development plan on Oct. 20, 1966. It became effective a month later. Officially, it’s Ordinance 6910. There’s no need to remind all you Fresnans with a sentimental heart that 1966 was the same year that the magnificent old Fresno County Courthouse was torn down, replaced by the eight-story modern courthouse we have today.

“The Civic Center shall be the centering place of the common public activities of the citizens of the City and County of Fresno,” the plan states.

Is that not what we have in 2017 within those 100-plus acres? The original Convention Center was finished in 1966. It was later expanded. The beautiful City Hall of 1966 is still with us, but serves these days as part of police headquarters. Probably no one in 1966 could have envisioned a new City Hall 25 years down the road that looked like a space ship, but that’s what we’ve got. Granted, it would be nice if one of the signature buildings within today’s Civic Center weren’t a high-rise jail. But, again, that’s what we’ve got. Civic Center Square near the Convention Center is everything an urban architect of 1966 could have hoped for. We protected the Water Tower. And who knows – we still might do something innovative with Eaton Plaza.

All in all, I think the Civic Center development plan fulfilled its mission.

The City Council on Oct. 20, 1966 also passed a resolution that created the machinery to implement the Civic Center development plan. This machinery included a Civic Center Advisory Committee with 15 members. The committee was to have six citizens from the city and county, two local real estate experts, various city officials and two representatives of the American Institute of Architects.

The resolution states: “It shall be the goal of the Committee that the Plan is not to be abandoned or overlooked, …”

The Planning Commission on Wednesday won’t be abandoning anything. The commissioners, like Aaron Blair’s successor, will be doing their part to keep the circle unbroken.


Photo Composite courtesy The Fresno Bee & Bitwise

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George Hostetter

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

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