by Tom Sims
It was a great party. Thousands showed up. There were lots of smiles, laughs, and dollars being circulated. There was music on every corner. There was dancing in the street. Businesses were popping up in empty buildings. It was like a Saturday night in a busy and revitalized city. It was Saturday, October 21 in Fresno on Fulton Mall. For a few moments, I thought I was in San Jose, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.Craig Scharton was very pleased. Scharton has been engaged in a cause to revitalize downtown Fresno, and especially, the Fulton Mall, for decades. In 1989-90, he was part of an initiative to lure the 13th campus of the University of California to the mall. In 1988, he was a part of the construction of City Hall. Now, he is celebrating the culmination of a controversial campaign to open the Fulton Mall to automobile traffic, thus connecting the two sides of downtown, and hopefully, infusing the center of the city with new traffic and new life. There are 175 cities that have already done this. Most have found that the move worked with most being revitalized in four years or less.
That is Craig’s hope. He has worked on this project for eight years. There was resistance. The vision of walking malls championed by urban architect, Garrett Eckbo was dying a hard death. People have been walking the Fulton Mall for decades. Families come to town on weekends, shop, socialize, and enjoy the open areas to play, admire art, and relax. Yet, somehow, businesses have not thrived, and new businesses have not been attracted.The mall, closed to car traffic, according to Craig Scharton, acted as a mote around downtown. Customer loss and acquisition is a big part of the equation for Scharton and the downtown Fresno Partnership that he leads and represents. “If you lose 10% of your customers, you are out of business.” The vacancies along the mall are obvious. The new driving mall is no thoroughfare. The street is narrow with large walking spaces. The art from the mall’s past has been retained and updated. The fountains are flowing.
Compromises have been reached with agitation from all sides of the equation. The agitation continues. Not all questions and concerns have been answered. The unintended consequences of regentrification still loom as dangers. However, from the looks of things at the grand opening, there was something just short of a consensus that a compromise had been reached.
The mood was festive. Things were busy, but not crowded. The mall was alive. The event was a staging of downtown the way it could be and hopefully will be. It was a demonstration day with pop-up businesses showing their potential in the empty spaces. One target was business owners who would hopefully see the potential. Scharton hopes that the 35% ground floor vacant spaces will all be filled with thriving businesses in three years.
The equation for others includes concerns that still need to be addressed.
1. If this is a success, are we prepared to build upon it? When it is successful, will the success displace the people who are already established in the mall? Will rents remain affordable for the current businesses that serve minority communities, and will there be affordable housing developed?
2. Will the art pieces, so prominently displayed, continue to be given a prominent place, and will they be well maintained?
For the moment, they are clean and attractive. They have been given visibility and honor.
3. Can the empty spaces be filled quickly enough? What is the strategy for filling them with some of the exciting businesses we saw?
Small business development programs can address the need of budding entrepreneurs for a hand-up. From the conversations I had online and in person, the businesses invited were enthusiastic and appreciative of the opportunity to shine.
4. Will the mall be as kid-friendly as it had been when closed to automobile traffic?
There will be less room to roam and an enhanced need for supervision, but there continue to be places to stop, sit, and play.
5. Will the traditional clientele continue to be welcome?
Scharton is confident that these and other concerns can be addressed. Some community members continue to voice concern, but their concerns have mellowed a bit. Of those who did not see this as the best of all possible worlds, there seems to be a commitment to make it work and a strong hint of optimism, tempered by a call to vigilance and continued agitation with cooperation. On the Facebook pages of the key players, participating businesses, and downtown organizations, there is overwhelming enthusiasm.
My impression is that, if the vibrancy of October 21, the diversity of the faces and families participating, and even a fraction of the turn-out can be maintained, there is a better than fighting chance for this initiative to be a factor in downtown Fresno’s revitalization. I met people who had promoted and opposed the opening on the mall that night. To the person, everyone wanted it to work and for everyone in the city to be included in the benefits. It is now up to everyone to make it so. I know I will be back.