Downtown down

Nightlife, bright lights, crowds of people—these elements may describe some cities thriving downtown. For the city of Fresno, however, a thriving downtown may be a distant goal rather than a reality.

Fresno’s downtown, aside from housing the city’s courthouse, Fresno Housing Authority office, Police Department and other government agencies, serves little purpose as a center of consumer interest. Many are simply too afraid to venture there because of the large population of homeless, the deteriorating buildings and the lack of resources offered.

The Fresno Bee’s crime map lists downtown Fresno as having less violent crime than surrounding areas. One reason for these numbers, Bee reporter Russell Clemmings supposed, is that the area is virtually vacant after the work hours, leaving few people to serve as potential crime victims. Still, the opinion remains that downtown is dangerous, ridden with homeless, and an “eyesore.”

Although downtown was once the thriving center of Fresno, downtown currently falls short.

As recent as the 1960s, Fresno’s downtown was a center of commerce and community activity. The Fulton Mall, a focal point for shoppers, gained national recognition for being the first of its kind, according to the Fresno County and City Historical Society. Downtown Fresno offers smaller, locally owned restaurants, vintage and thrift stores and outdoor produce markets. Despite being located near Highway 180 and 41, the area remains deserted. Dr. Michelle DenBeste, of Fresno State’s Social Science Department said, “People are just too afraid to be out downtown.”

Events like ArtHop coax visitors downtown once a month. DenBeste said visitors and artists fear downtown and refuse to venture beyond the Tower District after nightfall.

Some Fresno State students explored empty buildings in Fulton Mall during the fall semester of 2009 for Urban Entrepreneurship, a class taught by Craig Scharton, director of Fresno’s Downtown and Community Revitalization Department. Students were asked to create business plans for redeveloping the area.

Mechanical and industrial engineering major Casey Ogden said he does not consider downtown to be a place he would spend time in. The 22-year-old said he rarely goes there.

“The gang population in Fresno scares me, period,” Ogden said. Even though the Fresno Bee’s crime map lists downtown as having fewer violent crimes than some of its bordering neighborhoods, Ogden’s fear may hold some validity in regards to Fresno as a whole.

CityRating.com listed Fresno as having 1.3 times the national average of violent crime in 2003. Along with Ogden’s fear, his distaste for the scenery also keeps him away.

“Remove all gangs and signs of gangs, clean up the buildings and remodel,” Ogden said. These kinds of actions, he believes, would make downtown much more appealing.

Housing also posed an issue for Ogden. Mixed-use housing development such as the Iron Bird Lofts and Vagabond Lofts are priced at around $900 for a one-bedroom unit. “I don’t believe $900 is affordable for anyone who is attending school and working part time,” Ogden said. The result of all these issues keeps Ogden living, working and playing elsewhere in Fresno.

Mary H. Rodriguez, Marketing Coordinator for the Fresno Housing Authority, experiences downtown daily from her office located at the north end of the Fulton Mall. Rodriguez has worked downtown for six years, seeing many businesses come to the area and leave again.

“The improvement in creating mixed-use housing is an excellent move for Fresno,” Rodriguez said. However, Rodriguez fears there are not enough incentives to convince residents to move to the area.

“After [work day] hours, almost all the shops are closed leaving no reason to be hanging out in the downtown area, Rodriguez said.”

The recent Fresh & Easy store opening on Tulare Street was welcomed by the neighborhood. Rodriguez still thinks the lack of more businesses and anchor stores is evident by the lack of consumers choosing to shop downtown.

At her office, Rodriguez searches for affordable housing for families receiving housing subsidies. The costs of downtown housing remain high for these families though. The mixed use housing, in particular, Rodriguez believes, is unusually high.

“Families are unable to seek affordable housing close to the services they need, such as our agency [the Fresno Housing Authority],” Rodriguez explained.

Rodriguez hopes redevelopment and preservation of the area will occur to create a community that includes retail, restaurants, residential areas and attractions like museums and family events.

“Downtown Fresno is lacking attractions,” Rodriguez mused. “During baseball games or shows at the Convention Center, people tend to head back to other areas for dining.”

Mayor Ashley Swearengin aspires to make Fresno a “top-tiered city”. However, Swearengin stated on her website that one of the biggest roadblocks to redevelopment has been the City’s own laws and ordinances. Some of the changes Swearengin hopes for include improved parking, façade improvement programs, improved directional street signs, vacant building codes and expedited permits for business developers.

The path to a revitalized downtown includes many aspects and comes with numerous challenges. Students like Casey Ogden want to feel safe. Employees like Mary Rodriguez want affordability and convenience.

“If we want to improve our confidence and self image as a city, Fresno must have a vibrant downtown,” Swearengin said. “Otherwise, it will be impossible to meet our long-term goals in creating jobs, reducing crime and improving distressed neighborhoods.”

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