by Bill McEwen
Fresno’s Fulton Mall was strangled, kicked and pronounced dead.
Now, after nearly 20 months of jackhammering, digging, restoring and paving, it will officially be reborn as a street Saturday.
There will be speeches, fist bumps and goosebumps. There will be tears of joy, big smiles and even sighs of relief.
Most of all, optimism will fill the air as city leaders talk of new investors coming to town, long-stalled apartments and lofts getting built, and the city’s historic tall buildings receiving much-needed facelifts.
All that, we have been told, will rise from the ashes of the Fulton Mall and carry the rest of downtown on broad shoulders to better days.
Don’t misinterpret what I’m about to say. Fulton Street is tangible. You can see it. Drive on it. Walk on it. And marvel at the world-class art.
In addition, with a 50% occupancy rate and spaces renting for as little as 50 cents a square foot on the mall, City Hall had to do something. Spending $20 million of targeted grant funding and Measure C sales taxes to bring back the city’s historic “main drag” was worth a roll of the dice.
Downtown Needs Much More Than Fulton to Thrive
But returning automobile traffic to Fulton is merely a down payment on transforming downtown into a vibrant place where people live, walk, shop, drink and eat — and tourists leave impressed. In fact, it’s possible that Fulton’s six new blocks will become just another downtown street, little different than its once prestigious cousin, Van Ness.
What’s fueling my pessimism?
One, not enough people live downtown, and those who do reside there typically live on tight budgets. Slightly more than 400 residences have been built downtown in recent years. The bars, restaurants and shops that open on Fulton would have a much better chance of success if that number was about 2,400, according to a 2013 analysis conducted by downtown stakeholders.
Two, people with discretionary spending power have shown for five decades that they prefer to shop, eat and drink close to home. City Hall and business owners have yet to figure out how to overcome downtown’s parking meters and the perception that downtown is dangerous.
Yes, I realize that the cost of parking figures into the price of purchases at Fashion Fair and River Park. But at those places, there’s an invisible hand reaching into your pocket. Park downtown and you have to consciously pay for the privilege — and run the risk of a ticket.
Three, many downtown streets, sidewalks and landscapes need repair — as does downtown’s antiquated water and sewer systems. These repairs will make the $20 million spent on Fulton seem like a pittance, Still, they are much more critical to downtown’s rebirth than turning a failed mall into a street.
Four, Mayor Lee Brand and a majority of councilmembers don’t appear interested in continuing the downtown focus.
Over the last two years, we’ve heard councilmembers demand that City Hall send more tender, loving care into their neighborhoods. And many citizens have questioned the wisdom of yet another downtown revitalization attempt. As for Brand, he’s more focused on large-scale job creation and improving public safety than on gambling the General Fund on a downtown-wide revival.
Revitalized Downtowns Float All Boats
Fulton Street is former Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s baby. She promised supporters of her 2008 mayoral campaign that she would get it done, and she did. Swearengin understood that a healthy downtown would reap huge financial benefits for the city.
Indianapolis, for example, is considered to have one of America’s best downtowns. It spent $62.5 million — a combination of grant, city and private funding — for an 8-mile cultural trail (think art, cyclists and walkers) linking neighborhoods to downtown. A study by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute estimates that the trail boosted property values by more than $1 billion from 2008 to 2014.
Pittsburgh also used the arts to turn around its downtown. Out went the strip joints and dives. In their place: renovated theaters, public art, urban parks and craft breweries. In 2014, tourism revenue in greater Pittsburgh totaled nearly $8 billion.
Dallas, which had a dying downtown, went bold in 2012. Leaders there built an urban park over a freeway. Instead of the freeway splitting downtown, Dallas suddenly had a walkable downtown. Prior to that, Dallas had more vacant office space than any big city in the country. Now business is booming.
The 8-mile, $62.5 million Indianapolis Cultural Trail is estimated to have raised property values by more than $1 billion.
No Quick, Cheap Solutions
Rebuilding a downtown isn’t easy. There are no quick, inexpensive solutions. Success requires government officials working closely with private investors to clear the decks and accelerate progress. Fresno isn’t there yet.
Success requires widespread citizen input and support. And it requires leaders who commit to the long haul and understand that a thriving downtown will boost both the local economy and City Hall coffers. Again, Fresno isn’t there yet.
Understand: Fresno is a city where tens of thousands of people brag about never going downtown. Or they tell you, “The only time I go down there is for jury duty.” Or, “The last time I went, I got a parking ticket.”
Some are proud of the fact that they aren’t proud of their downtown.
Many more want to be proud of downtown Fresno — as long as they don’t have to go there.
It will take a lot more than Fulton Street to change these attitudes.