Downtown Fresno hopes that opening Fulton Mall to through traffic will help revitalize the area’s economy. Courtesy Elliott Balch
Soon there may be more than foot traffic through the Fulton Mall in Fresno thanks to a federal grant to fund a makeover for part of the city’s struggling Downtown district.
The mall was among 52 projects to receive money from Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery 2013 grants, also known as TIGER. The Fresno project will get almost $16 million from the fund.
The mall’s historic buildings are mostly vacant. The grant will reopen a total of 11 blocks back into a main street for vehicles and pedestrians, like it was prior to 1964.
“TIGER’s really geared toward transportation,” said Elliott Balch, downtown revitalization manager for the city of Fresno. “Our TIGER application was really just for the mall project. But we thought this was a good fit, and, evidently, so did the federal government.”
Balch said the grant is centered on developing economic growth in Downtown.
“It’s a good fit for TIGER because what we’re trying to do here is not really strictly a transportation outcome,” Balch said. “What it’s about is the businesses and the economic situation here on this block.”
Balch said the change to the through street should attract young people to the area, especially Fresno State students.
“I think we’re creating a place that’s going to be irresistible for Fresno State students,” Balch said. “Where else in the metro area or really in the Valley do you get such a density of buildings and storefronts and places for restaurants and bars?”
Craig Scharton, who resigned as the city’s business development director on Aug. 31, was a major force in the Downtown revitalization effort.
He recently opened Peeve’s Public House & Local Market where Fresno Brewing Company once was on Fulton Mall.
Scharton said he is excited for the future plans of the street and believes it will cure the economic slump in Downtown.
“Fulton Street was a great street, and it’s great to have that back,” Scharton said. “It will support retail and restaurants once traffic is re-established.
“I don’t think it will change Fulton Street. Based on all the data, the professionals in the field and all the other experiences of 180 other cities, we know that if we reintroduce traffic, it will bring the downtown back.”
Scharton said Downtown lacks the energy expected in a city with universities and a large population of students.
“In a normal city with college students, you would find dozens of restaurants, coffee houses, clubs, cafes and bistros all lining the street. And it’s a very fun place for college students to come hang out on the weekends and in the evenings. So that’s certainly within the mix of all we’d like to see.”
Balch said before 1964, Fulton Mall was the main street in Downtown Fresno.
“What was happening in the 1940s and ‘50s was Fresno’s suburban growth was really getting under way,” Balch said. “Fig Garden Village opened in 1947 and Manchester Center in 1945. The merchants on the mall were worried about losing those customers.”
Balch said the city transformed the main street to a pedestrian mall to keep customers from moving away.
“Downtown wanted to make that mall experience so that it became more like a place to stroll or a park rather than a main street, which was the more urban feel,” Balch said.
From research and interviews conducted, Balch said that Fulton Mall, when it was closed to traffic, worked well for a few years until the early 1970s when stores started to leave.
Balch said a national survey conducted for the city of Buffalo, N.Y. found that 90 percent of downtown pedestrian malls became successful when reopened with streets and pedestrian sidewalks. He said that is the aim for Fulton Mall.
The plan will reopen Fulton Street for vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians from Tuolomne Street to Inyo Street. He said other streets will be opened as well to allow through traffic.
Balch said the city aims to break ground at Fulton Mall in early 2015 and hopes to complete the streets within one year.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said during a ceremony with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Sept. 6 that TIGER will help re-establish the culture that Downtown once had.
“I appreciate the commitment that Secretary Foxx and his department have made to the future of our city and region,” Swearengin said. “A prosperous Downtown is an important part of Fresno’s past, and this grant will help our Downtown return to prosperity.”
In addition to the $16 million from the program, local public and private funding will supply another $4 million.
The local public funding includes $2 million from City of Fresno Community Sanitation Division to improve buildings and upkeep and $1.75 million from Fresno County Measure C transportation sales taxes to help fund street, parking and transit improvements.
Private property owners voted to commit $250,000 to the plan, as well.
Balch said they hope to attract people from all corners of the Valley.
“And not just that, but it’s accessible pretty quickly if you think about it,” Balch said. “In 45 minutes, we could get 1.6 million people from this area and its surrounding communities, like Madera and Fresno counties. Even areas like Lemoore.
“The test for success for me is that you know you’re a successful district and area when people aren’t making their plans based on a particular restaurant, but are making their plans to go to the district knowing there will be something to do or get there. That’s what I envision for Fulton Mall.”
Four public meetings are set to review the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan at City Hall and council chambers at 2600 Fresno Street. The public is invited to attend the meetings, which are on Oct. 18 at 3 p.m., Oct. 25 at 3 p.m., Nov. 1 at 3 p.m. and Nov. 8 at 5:30 p.m.
For a full guide to the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan, visit www.fresnodowntownplans.com.