Many California cities struggle with how to revitalize their downtowns to make them attractive, hip places that draw in retail and foot traffic. Fifty years ago, Fresno built the state's first outdoor downtown pedestrian mall. It was a pioneering idea at the time, but on Thursday the City Council will consider allowing cars back in.
It was a bold idea back in the 1960s: a cure for cancerous sprawl gobbling up open land and destroying the urban core of cities.
A 1968 documentary, called "Fresno, A City Reborn," chronicles the rise of the first open-air pedestrian mall on the West Coast – in Fresno.
“This film reports the story of one city which faced up to its urban crisis, a city in which government, citizens, and planners, working together are creating a city, reborn,” says a somber narrator, over footage of menacing traffic. “Downtown streets were congested, parking was inadequate, and pedestrians were endangered. The solution? Separate cars and pedestrians for the benefit of both.”
The walking mall, designed by landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, banned cars. It replaced potholes with public art, and tangles of telephone wires with a leafy canopy of shade trees. And dozens of sculptures, mosaics and fountains, including a rare sculpture from the French painter Jean Renoir. [See some of the mall’s artistic highlights here:
At the 1964 opening of the mall, Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown delivered the keynote speech. He predicted visitors would come "from all over the country to see this bold and beautiful new look in American cities. ... Above and beyond what this pioneering effort means to Fresno, it stands as evidence to the entire nation that one of our greatest problems can be successfully met and solved. I refer to the problems of our cities.”
Fresno’s Fulton Mall became a national model, and nearly 200 other U.S. cities followed, putting in their own outdoor pedestrian malls.
“ It was a noble idea that just did not work. The reality is that commerce and cars work together,” says Craig Scharton, sitting at a table that looks out onto the mall at Peeve’s Public House, the new pub he’s just opened. It specializes in locally grown products, and it’s one of the few places on the mall that’s hopping at the lunch hour.
Scharton studied pedestrian malls extensively when he worked for Fresno, overseeing downtown revitalization. He says he understands the appeal.
“It was like, we won, we stuck it to the car,” he says, over the din of the lunch crowd. “That stupid, stinky, noisy car, we banned it. Good for us, we won. Well, we killed our downtown in the process.”
Today, Fresno’s Fulton Mall sits mostly empty. Only a few of its fountains, designed to mimic the topography and rivers of the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada, still have water in them.
The abandoned historic buildings that aren’t shuttered with metal gates are home to discount stores, selling cowboy boots and T-shirts. Retired farmworkers are among the few who sit on the mall’s circular benches. Men like Alvaro Acevedo.
“It’s a park. If you really look at it, it’s a park,” Acevedo says in Spanish. “I come and sit a while. I buy myself a pair of shoes, a soda. “
Fresno’s not the only city grappling with a stagnating pedestrian mall. Many cities have opened theirs to traffic over the years. Sacramento is a recent example. Only a few, like Santa Monica, have successfully revamped them.
Fresno pub owner Scharton, along with the city’s mayor, Ashley Swearingen, back the idea of putting cars on the mall as a way to boost downtown. The art would be moved to wide sidewalks that still encourage walking and window-shopping. It would feature two lanes of slow-moving traffic, with parking right in front of businesses, and outdoor dining.
But that proposal is sparking fierce debate among Fresno residents.
“I think the idea of a cafe setting, people sitting next to parking and idling cars, is not going to be the draw they think it’s going to be,” says Doug Richert, co-chair of the Downtown Fresno Coalition, which opposes plans to reintroduce traffic to Fulton Mall
Richert walks the length of the mall, pausing to point out some of its historic features. He says yanking out mature trees and adding cars is exactly the wrong formula for a city grappling with lack of park space and some of the nation’s worst air pollution.
Moving sculptures and mosaics, he says, would undo the vision of the mall itself as a work of art.
“This is such a unique place, where you can not only see magnificent pieces of art, but also go up and touch them and be close to 'em,” he says, standing next to a Brass water fountain by famed Seattle sculptor George Tsutakawa, Seattle. “Refurbish and renovate (the mall), and it would be totally unique in the state.”
Richert says suburban sprawl is what’s killing downtown Fresno: the same problem urban planners worried about in the 1960s. The stately office buildings anchoring the mall emptied when companies moved north, following new subdivisions. Richert says adding parking and cars to the mall won’t be enough to draw people downtown. With thoughtful renovations, he says, the walking mall could become an attractive destination again.
City Council members are expected to decide today whether accept a $16 million federal transportation grant for the mall. The catch is that the money can be used only to open it to vehicles again … not to keep it as a pedestrian mall.