Fresno Pedestrian Mall Is No More

Fresno's Fulton Street pedestrian mall is no more. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog
Fresno’s Fulton Street pedestrian mall, seen here last year, is no more. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

One of the oldest pedestrian malls in the U.S., the Fulton Street Mall in Fresno, is no more.

The modernist mall was built in the 1960s in an attempt to prevent Fresno’s downtown economy from being sucked dry by suburban development sprawling on the outskirts of town. It failed, as many such malls did, because investment was all happening away from the center, and the downtown mall has since become a quiet refuge for people of color.

There is no other way to put it. Take a walk down Fulton Street any day of the week and look who’s there, sitting under its trees, shopping in the few remaining stores, gathering with their friends.

Or who used to be there. As seen in a series of photos taken by James Sinclair for his blog Stop and Move, the mall is disappearing behind construction fences, trees are being chopped, and much of the remarkable artwork—including a Rodin sculpture—is being removed and stored, to be replaced later somewhere along the reconfigured street.

From Sinclair’s update:

The speed of this project has surprised me. Kickoff was a year delayed (original completion date was next month) but they’ve since moved quickly after a March groundbreaking. That’s certainly good for the businesses which are in a bad shape right now. However, I was surprised to see how superficial the construction was. It appears that they scraped off the mall and are laying the new road straight on the dirt. That is, I didn’t see any digging. I assume the area has very old sewer and electrical systems, and now would have been the very best time to replace those. Maybe lay some fiber cable as well? Seems short-sighted to ignore that. If the area “booms” as the project component claims, will the existing underground infrastructure support it?

When it’s complete, the downtown mall will no longer be a place for pedestrians and bicyclists. That’s because the city decided that to fix its problems, the mall needed to be opened up—to cars. And parking.

Never mind that the rest of Fresno’s downtown has the burned-out look of any area that used to be an economic center but has been decimated by years of commercial development elsewhere. Fulton Street is surrounded by parking lots, empty storefronts, empty industrial areas, and thrift stores. It’s a familiar sight in many California areas that saw their downtowns emptied out.

Fresno has decided that the culprit is this one street where cars aren’t allowed because it’s filled with (long-empty) fountains, trees, sculptures, benches, and other things that get in the way of driving and parking.

“Downtown should be the financial, historical, and cultural place of the city,” says local developer Sevak Katchadourian in this video, a heavy-handed bit of PR that fails to explain how opening the mall to cars will create the “great city center” it says Fresno desperately needs.

The mall needs “visibility, accessibility, and connectedness,” says another developer—meaning for cars, because of course the pedestrian mall is utterly invisible, inaccessible, and unconnected. Except to the people who currently use it.

“If we could just park right in front,” moans one would-be mall user, who can’t convince her friends to join her because they drive cars.

And only people who drive cars matter.

Here are some more Fresno links:

  • Jen X

    The problem has always been the things going on outside of downtown that keep downtown from thriving.

    Short-sighted greedy investors would rather build on farmland-because it’s cheaper-than renovate the Fulton Mall. A shining example of that is River Park. I guarantee that if all the stores had gone in on the Fulton Mall, instead of River Park, our downtown would be thriving. I also guarantee that if the Save Mart Center had also gone in close to downtown, it would be even better downtown.

    But because city planners think fossil fuels grow on trees, Fresno continues to sprawl without transit and make a polluted cesspool of what used to be vibrant farmland. Fresno has become UN-BREATHABLE, and UN-WALKABLE even though the sun shines 288 days a year, and there are farmers everywhere that should be capable of planting trees for to help Spare The Air, and for shade to walk under.

    And you all wonder why you are fat! Get out of your cars, and stop going to the drive through, Fresno. It’s the definition of insanity to do the same thing over and over, and expect a different result!

    • The problem goes deeper than that. Downtown Fresno is a place where no one with any clout would want to live. The family people prefer Clovis or the northern parts of the city where good schools and spacious parks are, and the Fresno State University, something that *could* bring life into downtown, as college people are not picky about K-12 schools (or at least not yet they aren’t), is out that suburban way to the northeast of downtown too. Clustering office buildings downtown might be the best option Fresno has. That may create a “ghost town after 6”, but that is better than a 24 hour slum.

  • Cittaslow

    The failure of many pedestrian malls in this country wasn’t simply because “pedestrian malls don’t work in America”. It was because those malls were located in areas that were being gutted by underinvestment in city centers as people and money were fleeing to the surburbs. The malls were also frequently located in business-heavy, housing-lite locations, meaning they were deserted after office hours.

    Visit the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder to see a pedestrian mall done right. Pedestrian-only streets can work as well in the US as they do in Europe. But like in Europe they need the right conditions. To go even further, pedestrian-only streets are as essential in the US as they are in Europe or anywhere else. Only with common space can communities be strong. That’s one reason why community is so weak in the US: There are so few squares and pedestrian streets.

    I don’t know the Fresno case well enough to comment upon it but generally the solution to poor urban design isn’t more cars, it’s good urban design. That involves densifying housing close by, or on, the mall; offering tax incentives to attract a wide range of businesses to the mall; programming and maintenance of the mall; good public transportation to the mall; and so on.

    • Cali Curmudgeon

      There is a problem with this. Unless lots of single or “empty nest” people abound in Fresno who want a downtown experience, you are not going to get demand for downtown apartments or condominiums and so you will not get people living in the immediate walkable vicinity, other than the down-and-out. The family people want to live in Clovis or Northern Fresno where the better schools and family oriented shopping already are.

  • Steve Skibbie

    One missing element to this very brief blog post is the nationwide historical research on ineffective pedestrian mall designs. It seems in a few locations, like Madison, Wisconsin, a pedestrian or pedestrian-transit mall works well because it includes a large local population at the State Capitol, hospital, University, student housing, and two recreational bodies of water on both sides of the city’s isthmus.

    In a downtown like Fresno’s (almost no local pedestrian population nearby, no university campus nearby, few entertainment venues, no bodies of water) and a city growth plan that for decades, rewarded building further from the urban core–the recipe proved to be a failure. Most of the cities that experienced this removed their pedestrian mall after their economic downturn. Fresno waited 50 years to decide.

    The pedestrian mall mistake is boiled down to a potentially beautiful design experiment that didn’t work. Almost everywhere. Fresno is just now growing up enough to do the hard work of getting rid of old ideas.

    • Jen X

      The mistake is exactly what you said: There is nothing downtown to draw in the dollars. Improving bus routes between Fresno City College, and downtown, and then improving downtown with projects like renovating old buildings into housing STUDENTS CAN AFFORD (this part is important) would be a way to do something like that. If people who spend money are then actually living downtown, grocery stores and retail can go in to serve them. Fresno keeps trying to put the round peg in the square hole by putting in business without actually doing the work of planning the entire long term result.

  • 66 City

    That’s unfortunate. On a recent Saturday evening visit to Fresno, I was impressed by the friendly community gathered around Peeve’s Public House (on Fulton Mall). Live music at Peeve’s took place in the front window, and there was a bunch of outdoor seating being used by patrons and others. Bicyclists passed by, or parked their bikes close by to visit Peeve’s.

    Sorry, but I don’t see how allowing cars on that street will make it a better place. As a pedestrian mall, it’s a rare public space that isn’t under assault by the many negative impacts of motorized traffic. Too bad the city & business community couldn’t think beyond the tired old template of accommodating cars, instead of innovating on a non-motorized public space.

    • Andy Chow

      Even if the business thrives there the whole mall would require a lot of renovations. The mall itself, as well as the businesses and buildings surrounding it, look aged. Successful shopping malls and business districts require continuing improvements to maintain its edge (compare this with the 3rd St in Santa Monica, which is closed to cars, but filled with high-end mall-type retailers).

      So not doing anything is not really an option. The retail business is not what it was when the mall was built. It doesn’t make sense to replicate or compete with an indoor mall.

    • Eric VonBerg

      Ask the owner of Peeves if the mall is working for him? The answer is NO. In fact he led the charge to convert the mall back to a Main Street. Why? Because it works. Something like 90 of the pedestrian malls converted back have seen economic success. Cars provide the public safe exposure to what is going on to allow them the security to park their car and become a pedestrian. They are not mutually exclusive.

  • Andy Chow

    In 1950s and 60s, large indoor shopping centers were the trend. These indoor shopping centers offer pedestrian only environment in the middle. That’s what these pedestrian malls in Fresno tried to emulate.

    These days large indoor malls are no longer popular, and retail trend has changed due to online sales. Many of them are closed and remodeled. Today the retail trend is strip style “power centers” or “lifestyle centers” that are outdoor oriented and with some that emulate downtown streets with retail surrounding a main street with angled front door parking (but with more parking behind).

    These newer retail concepts integrate hotels and upscale restaurants, as well as downtown residents. So opening these streets could make these uses more attractive.

  • David

    It’s been proven time and again that this style of pedestrian mall simply doesn’t work, and removing them betters the environment for everyone who uses them–not just cars. The research is pretty widely available with a simple Google search. While I appreciate the pro-bike/ped/transit slant of Streetsblog, uninformed pieces like this will put you at risk of losing credibility. Just because something is “pro-car” doesn’t mean it’s anti-everything else.

    • Charles Siegel

      I would add that pedestrian malls do work under some conditions. I was recently in Vienna, and they have three major streets downtown that have been converted to pedestrian malls in pretty much this same style. The difference from Fresno is that these were busy, successful streets before the conversion, and they became even more successful afterwards.

    • Jen X

      Pedestrian malls absolutely work. There is Third St. Promenade in Santa Monica, (where I’m sure the numbers are staggering as far as how many people DRIVE to get to).

      I believe parking is one of the main problems with the layout and draw of the current Fulton Mall. If there was a free, secure and safe place to park, on every side, I think people would get out of their cars just like any other mall. Why wouldn’t they? They can get sun outside. The mall originally had the fountains to cool the area. There were wisteria and other scented flowers that grew along it. I remember it, even in the days as it was less pleasant, as a beautifully done outdoor space.

      I think adding cars to THE ONE PLACE there aren’t cars in Fresno is unbelievably silly, and lazy. If there aren’t stores, nobody will go. Did we secure a ton of businesses that are planning on going in after this road is finished? If not, the Fulton Mall won’t change a bit, even with cars driving down it.

  • Charles Siegel

    I can’t agree with your take on this. In the 1960s, people believed that converting a street into a pedestrian mall would fix its economic problems, but experience has shown that this is not true. If a street is already popular and busy, making it pedestrian-only will make it even more popular. If a street is doing badly economically, making it pedestrian-only will make it do even more badly.

    I lived through this myself. One of the shopping streets where I grew up was doing badly, with some unrented storefronts. The city decided to make it a pedestrian mall. Within a year, it has many more abandoned storefronts and several abandoned and demolished buildings. After the city allowed cars on it again, it began to recover. The same experience has been repeated is other places,

    Of course, you are completely right that other factors are also to blame. The Fresno regions should be planning for smart growth, to replace sprawl development with infill development downtown. But it doesn’t follow that this pedestrian mall should be retained.

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