We talk a lot about the current state of downtown Fresno and what’s to come in the future, but how many Fresnans know the story of downtown’s past? Let me tell you a little about the origins of our downtown, and how you can be a part of the grand reopening of its main street, Fulton Street.
Downtown Fresno Is Born
The legend of Fresno’s beginning goes that in 1872, former governor of California and president of the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, Leland Stanford, was riding the rails through the San Joaquin Valley. He saw a vast wheat field and decided to put a train station nearby so that the wheat could be transported to market. That station became Fresno Station, and thus Fresno was born.
Within a few short decades, downtown Fresno offered goods, services, and entertainment for its residents and the surrounding farmers and communities. Going to town meant going into downtown Fresno to do your banking, see a movie, visit a doctor, or shop (or all of the above).
Downtown Fresno was the place where people of all ages gathered. There was a Saturday morning farmers market and there were Sunday afternoon concerts in Courthouse Park. Young people dragged the main street (Fulton Street) on Saturday nights. There were also saloons, places to gamble, and bordellos, plus plenty of churches for the good citizens and sinners to attend on Sunday morning.
The Modern Mall Changes Downtown Fresno
In the late 1950s, downtowns around the country began to panic as new suburban shopping centers and malls began to appear. Fresno had not one but two new centers open during the years of post-World War II sprawl: Fig Garden Village (1956) and Manchester Center (1957).
One idea that emerged to help downtowns remain competitive was to try to replicate the suburban shopping mall experience by turning downtown main streets into pedestrian-only shopping areas. Kalamazoo, Michigan, was the first city to turn its downtown main street into a pedestrian mall. Ironically, the main planner who proposed pedestrian malls for downtowns was also the father of the suburban shopping mall, Victor Gruen.
In 1964, Fresno opened the second downtown pedestrian mall in the U.S. to great fanfare. Although some downtown businesses and property owners opposed the idea, the Gruen Plan was implemented and it attracted customers, national media attention, and visitors from other cities who wanted to see Fresno’s cutting-edge plan.
Fast forward to 1988, and we find a very different situation. Peter H. King, an L.A. Times reporter and Fresno native, wrote about the now-bleak condition of the Fulton Mall. Said King, “The great Fulton Mall sits abandoned in the night, a six-block monument to municipal vision and blindness… The concrete void yawning through downtown mocks the notion of what was to have been…” And in this condition Fulton Mall stayed for two more decades.
A Change Comes to Downtown Fresno
In 2009, newly elected Mayor Ashley Swearengin decided that the paralysis surrounding the Fulton Mall dilemma had to end. She began a comprehensive planning process to look at zoning, design requirements, sewer, water and—yes—what to do with the Fulton Mall. The Mayor and City Council appointed a 21-member citizens committee to guide the planning process, and hired a planning consultant team that included urban planners, traffic engineers, economists, and historic preservationists. The City also began the process to create a downtown property owners association, which resulted in the Downtown Fresno Partnership.
Because Fresno was already engaged in serious planning for our downtown, the White House chose us as one of six Strong Cities, Strong Communities. This pilot program matched representatives from various federal agencies with the city departments and community groups. The German Marshall Fund (a Transatlantic nonprofit that is focused on improving communities and sharing their research) selected two experienced professionals to work in Fresno’s Downtown Fresno Partnership. One of the German Marshall Fellows did research on pedestrian malls in the U.S. to generate the best information to help guide the decision-making process.
Finally, the stalemate was over and the City Council approved the new plan for Fulton. In April 2016, the Fulton Mall/Street construction project began. The project was recommended by the citizens committee, the Fresno Planning Commission, the City Council, and was certified by three separate courts (Superior, State Appellate, and Federal). To help pay for the construction, the Fulton Street project was awarded a highly competitive Federal grant intended to help change an economic condition—in this case, our distressed downtown. This same grant was used by Buffalo, NY, to remove its pedestrian mall, to great success.
Now it’s December 2016 and the project is over halfway completed! All of the former mall’s artwork is being restored and replaced. The sidewalks will vary from 14’-28’ in width—an enormous space for pedestrians and outdoor dining. We will have more trees (and better downtown trees) in the new plan. Two hundred new, on-street parking spaces will dramatically help the businesses. The new Fulton street is a narrow two-way, two lane street.
How You Can Be Involved In Fulton Street’s Reopening
We have a core group of downtown enthusiasts who are looking for people, groups, and sponsors to help throw a huge party for the reopening of Fulton Street. You could be on a planning committee, or you could form a group to march in the grand opening parade (get creative!). We’re planning a cruise night for cars that are 1964 or older, so let us know if you or your car club want to participate.
Send an email to me at email@example.com if you have an interest in helping to make the reopening of Fulton Street the biggest party in the Central Valley’s history!