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Paul Schlesinger/The Collegian

Preservation of Fulton Mall’s art debated as construction plans move forward

Paul Schlesinger/The Collegian

Paul Schlesinger/The Collegian

The question of whether or not vehicles will drive through the six-block pedestrian Fulton Mall in Downtown Fresno is becoming more and more a matter of when, not if.

Yet as the lengthy project progresses, some community members are concerned about the pedestrian mall’s artwork.

The Fresno Arts Council, one of the groups critical of City Hall’s revitalization project, was alarmed over plans to tear down certain areas of the mall to make room for a narrow and winding automobile corridor.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s plan to open Fresno’s downtown corridor to vehicular traffic was approved in February by the Fresno City Council. Those plans were then upheld in October when a judge dismissed a lawsuit to stop the project.

The Downtown Fresno Coalition lost a suit alleging City Hall botched an environmental report on Fulton Mall – squashing hopes of halting the projects’ progress.

City Hall says the project is necessary for revitalizing a rundown area that has been neglected due to decades of Fresno’s northwest expansion. Meanwhile, downtown leaders critical of the project fear the mall’s historical art and presence will be compromised.

Advocacy groups aiming to preserve Fulton Mall in its current state are engaged in a last-ditch effort to block the makeover. Although it seems Swearengin, who ran for office in 2009 on the platform of revitalizing Downtown Fresno, is getting closer to achieving one of her earliest goals as mayor.

“I think this will be a major catalyst to Fresno,” said city council member Lee Brand, who voted yes in the affirmative.

Brand said pedestrian malls like Fulton Mall have failed across the country, succeeding only under special circumstances.

“As long as the mall is there, it would never rejuvenate without traffic,” Brand said.

Lilia Gonzalez-Chavez, executive director of the Fresno Arts Council, said while the group is not opposed to the revitalization of the Fulton Mall, it is concerned about art pieces that would eventually be removed in the construction process.

“Putting the street on the mall will change things,” she said.

While the group does not oppose the plans laid in effect, Gonzalez-Chavez the mall “is an art piece” in itself.

She also noted that the city has permitted the place to deteriorate, saying that this lapse has accounted for a lot of the challenges the mall has faced.

“As a result, we have a mall that is not attractive as it could be if it were properly maintained,” Gonzalez-Chavez said.

Craig Scharton, the city’s former business development director, works for the Downtown Fresno Partnership and is a business owner at the Fulton Mall. He said 175 cities have removed pedestrian malls and consequently catalyzed revitalization in the area – 90 percent of them within the first four years of the change.

“We have actual facts that show that when pedestrian malls are removed, downtowns turn around almost overnight,” Scharton said.

Scharton is one of the chief supporters of the plan to remodel Downtown Fresno and said efforts will be launched to preserve the art in Downtown Fresno.

“All of the art will be removed, restored and then replaced,” Scharton said. “They are using a $1.5 million from the grant that will go toward restoration. If you love our Downtown art, this is the best thing that’s ever happened.”

Scharton believes some people oppose the plan for revitalization because they view the Fulton mall as an intact piece of art, but added that the revitalization of the mall is “the best thing we can do.”

Kate Upton, former chair of the Downtown Fresno Coalition (DFC), which was formed in 2002 when the Fulton Mall was first in danger of being removed, said the mall has been scapegoated as the root of downtown’s downfall.

“Our pedestrian mall has been blamed as the cause of the problems downtown,” Upton said.

“Being able to drive down those six blocks won’t fix our economic issues,” she added.

Despite Swearengin saying that the area’s art will be preserved by removing and reinstalling them elsewhere, Upton said “what is being ignored is that the entire mall is an example of landscape architecture.”

“There is an integrated design of the waterways, plants, trees, mosaics and fountains,” she said.

The revitalization of Downtown Fresno was also the original goal when Garrett Eckbo, an acclaimed landscape designer hired by city fathers, started work on the plan in the 1960s that led to the pedestrian mall’s construction. Eckbo, who died in 2000 at the age of 89, was known internationally for his work.

However, the trends that eventually would move the city’s center of gravity away from Downtown were already far enough along, even then.

“The economic problems of the businesses on the Fulton Mall trace to the land use decisions made by the City that led to northern residential and commercial sprawl of Fresno, not the introduction of a pedestrian mall,” said Doug Richert, co-chair of the Fresno Downtown Coalition.

Richert explained that the Fresno Downtown Coalition supports revitalizing the Fulton Mall, but is opposed to the destruction of the mall to insert traffic.

“Reintroducing traffic to the Fulton Mall will destroy this unique historical and cultural place,” Richert said. “Most major metropolitan areas are finding ways to limit the space allocated to cars and increase the space dedicated to pedestrians. Fresno is doing the opposite.”