In a landmark five-to-two decision Thursday, the Fresno City Council ruled in favor of remodeling the Fulton Mall to allow through traffic, a key project in Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s Downtown revitalization efforts.
The remodel selected by the Council creates a straight street and moves all art and mosaic benches to the sidewalk areas, and establishes over 100 parking spots in the mall. It represents the first time traffic will be allowed in the mall since 1964.
“I am sure we are making history in many ways tonight,” Swearengin said.
The Council’s decision also certified the environmental impact report, revised the general plan and accepted federal funding for the project, giving City Hall a green light to move ahead with the remodel.
The project will be funded by nearly $16 million in federal grants awarded to Fresno in addition to $1.8 million in Measure C funding for which the City is now able to apply.
“It’s hard to overstate how important this is because a healthy downtown really makes the entire Central Valley work again,” said Craig Scharton, owner of Peeve’s Public House in the Fulton Mall.
“It’s not about Fresno — it’s about Selma, it is about Kermen and it’s about Sanger. When Downtown works, it allows everyone to have a small rural lifestyle, but they all come into this one great urban experience,” he said.
Voting for the project were Councilmen Blong Xiong, Oliver Baines, Clint Olivier, Steve Brandau and Lee Brand. Against it were Councilmen Paul Caprioglio and Sal Quintero.
The tension was palpable as advocates on both sides of the issue packed into the council’s chamber to try and sway the vote.
With the Downtown Fresno Partnership clad in orange shirts supporting the project, and the Save the Fulton Mall campaign in green, the two sides threw verbal jabs in the culmination of a bitter five-year battle over the mall’s future.
“The mall didn’t fail, the city of Fresno failed the mall,” Dixie Salazar, an artist who lives Downtown, said. “It was allowed to fall into its present state. The mall is a historical and cultural asset worthy of renovation and refurberation.”
Proponents of the plan cited accessibility issues with the mall and the fact that nearly every other pedestrian mall in the country has been taken out.
Community members spoke for about three hours before council members had their chance to address the crowd.
Lee Brand, whose vote was a major question mark going into the meeting, spoke first coming out in support of the plan.
“The Fulton Mall has had 50 years to prove itself. The property values have declined. The buildings deteriorated,” Brand said. “It’s simply not working.”
During his time, Sal Quintero rebutted calling for a compromise that would open up just half the mall to traffic. Under his plan, he would close off Fresno Street to Tulare Street to traffic creating a “town square.”
Caprioglio, while supporting the verification of the environmental impact report, was not convinced that the project’s cost would be covered by the grants.
“I believe what the mayor said about us not being able to take on anymore debt, but I haven’t seen a project yet that comes in on time and under budget,” Caprioglio said.
He also voiced concerns that lawsuits from local businesses and groups challenging the environmental impact report could drain City funds since the federal grants cannot be used to cover litigation costs.
“Just like any other project we bring forward, I don’t ever recall us putting into the capital budget the cost of litigation. We absorb that every year as part of our risk fund, and along with what the city attorney has in his budget,” said city manager Bruce Rudd.
While lawsuits brought against the City over the project may delay the project, construction is scheduled to begin in early 2015.