Sunday, April 22, 2012

They Fought the Mall, and the Mall Lost

Hello, PBID Partners of Downtown Fresno. How are you, PBID Partners of Downtown Fresno? I figure you're tech-savvy enough to have a Google alert set up for yourself, PBID Partners of Downtown Fresno, so I'm glad we have this opportunity to talk. (While Rob and I agree on many things on this blog, I'm speaking only for myself here.)

For those readers of this blog unfamiliar with the PBID Partners of Downtown Fresno, let me introduce you. Readers, PBID Partners of Downtown Fresno is a Property-based Business Improvement District and perhaps better known as "Downtown Fresno," though that seems to be a bit of a misnomer. PBID Partners of Downtown Fresno, these are the readers—say hello.

You don't know me that well, either, PBID (Can I call you just PBID?), but let me tell you why I care about Fresno. I edit books about planning, and I've published articles on the co-designer of Fresno's Fulton Mall, Victor Gruen. I've taught classes on urban geography, and I worked for a few years in the art world. Thanks in no small part to this blog, I've been to an awful lot of smaller cities in America—and while many of them have been depressing, only one of them has made me angry.

Actually, let me amend that. I'm not angry at Fresno at all. In fact, I rather like what I saw of Fresno. I am, however, not at all pleased by Fresno's possible future, and I'd like to ask you to reconsider your perspective on it, PBID.

Since this is nominally a baseball blog, however, let me cover a couple other items briefly: As Rob mentioned, we saw the Grizzlies play the Reno Aces on Tuesday—a lightly attended game in the very nice Chukchansi Park, which backs onto downtown and a small amusement area. As with the Brooklyn Cyclones, the spectacle in the background is a visual delight.

If you don't have the scratch for a ticket, you can peek through the outfield fence from an alleyway.

We had such a good time at Chukchansi Park that we thought about going to the day game the next day, but we had other plans—specifically the Underground Gardens, about which I think all I have to say is that a singularly focused Italian gentleman figured out how to plant subterranean orange trees and live among them. Our obsession with obsessives' intentional environments continues unabated.

But really, the focus of this day was the thrilling and complex Fulton Mall. Designed by Victor Gruen and Garrett Eckbo, the Mall is a near perfect embodiment of a mid-20th-century ideal: the compact downtown pedestrian mall. Gruen is best known as the innovator of a space we all now hate—the enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall (starting with Southdale in Edina, Minnesota)—but he had a longtime interest in using urban design to revitalize commercial areas of historic downtowns as well, principally by reducing traffic congestion on shopping streets. Gruen's major concept was that by building large garages near but not on the main shopping streets, cities could then close those streets to traffic and make them a kind of pedestrian paradise, filled with art, play areas, and civic events. His Fort Worth Plan of 1955 was highly influential in the spread of this idea, leading directly or indirectly to the creation of malls in Kalamazoo, Burlington (Vt.), Denver, Boulder, Newburyport (Mass.), and of course Fresno. (There are many others that have busways through them.)

In 1964, the city agreed to bar traffic from Fulton Street—its busiest downtown street—and landscape it with pools, raised seating areas, benches, and more.

The Mall is practically a museum of midcentury sculpture, and its four blocks still have the potential for great flow. But the Mall does not have enough merchants, nor does have it enough customers. Over the years, many of the anchor institutions that lined the streets have closed, and at least three major office buildings seem to be mostly or entirely vacant. Much of the population and economy of Fresno appears to be elsewhere. There is a huge amount of vacant office space. The Mall needs help.

Overall, what remains of the retail is far more downscale than what was there in 1964—but it exists. We saw a number of vibrant stores aimed at a less affluent, Latino/a population, and I would like to believe that the street sees a decent amount of traffic on a Friday night, or over the weekend—after all, something is keeping these stores in business—but I'm starting to get ahead of myself.

Something does need to be done, and there is a debate under way right now about the best way to proceed—whether to demolish the Mall, demolish part of it, or refurbish it as is. (Details here.) Fresno seems to have some real urban design problems—way too much low-density development, for example—as well as significant economic problems and a long-running issue with how to accommodate or regulate homeless people who have congregated there.

But Fresno also seems to have so many of the key ingredients for success: strong and growing immigrant populations; a central location; good rail access; and downtown redevelopment opportunities galore. This may sound weird as a compliment, but I thought that the future of Fresno might be promising in the same way as the future of Detroit, which is vibrating with potential because so many of the barriers to entry and innovation have, for better or worse, been removed. And if that's the case, what better magnet than a truly unique public space that should serve as a crossroads for all these communities, while demonstrating the city's commitment to the arts and to the value of a true central public space?

And yet, the current inclination in Fresno, apparently backed by the mayor and supported by the PBID, is to celebrate the near-fiftieth anniversary of Fulton Mall by tearing it up and reopen the street to car traffic. There is a very real possibility that this will happen.

The economic problems are, it is said, exacerbated by a design issue (parking) and a social issue (homeless people). We stopped in to visit the PBID and spoke with a representative who enlightened us on these subjects. First, it seems, most Fresnans have no idea that the Mall is in fact incredibly accessible and that large parking areas surround it (consistent with Gruen's plan). People apparently tend to park in only one of the many lots and then are disinclined to walk up to the full four blocks to reach some of the businesses. Second, "36 to 46" homeless people live regularly on the mall—including "two who are there all day"—scaring off shoppers. Getting rid of the homeless people—despite the fact that the last time the city decided to do this it had to pay out $2.25 million in a legal settlement—seems to be a priority for the PBID and the city.

And what is a Property-based Business Improvement District anyway? Well, it's a species of Business Improvement District—which is usually a group of business owners in a given area who together fund additional services or amenities in that area. For example, they might agree to pay for extra street cleaning or to pay for events in a park, with the aim of creating environments that they think will make their businesses more attractive. BIDs have been around for decades, and in many places they are popular. Cities tend to like them because through them private businesses pay for things that they might otherwise pressure the city for. There's a case to be made that a city should provide all the services that a BID does, but doing so could be seen as preferential and even discriminatory—whereas private provision of public goods is simply the haves doing something with their resources.

So that's a normal BID. A PBID is slightly different in that its members are property owners, not business owners. Those Latino/a stores almost certainly don't own their buildings—older, richer Fresnans (or ex-Fresnans, or non-Fresnans) do. Some of the people who want to tear up the Mall, it seems, are absentee landlords and slumlords—though it should be said that the local Community Advisory Council, which does include business owners, also favors partial demolition. The PBID representative told us that three very large buildings are held by people who did not want to pay to renovate their buildings, nor will they sell. What, you might ask, are they waiting for? It's just a guess, but they're probably waiting to be paid more than the buildings are currently worth, and they're making the tax payments (and taking the corresponding deduction) until that day. They're speculators at best—and a drag on real redevelopment at worst.

Between its location, the many city and county buildings that surround it, and the ethnic diversity of the city of a whole, the Mall seems to have all the ingredients of success. But remember earlier when I had to speculate about the condition of the Mall on the weekends? I have no more detailed knowledge about this because when we asked a PBID representative about it, the reply was, "I don't know. I work Monday to Friday."

Think about that. The staff of the property owners' collective, which supports spending millions on transforming a landmark pedestrian area into just another roadway, doesn't apparently have full knowledge of how the Mall is actually used, nor much curiosity. What it wants is those scary homeless people to go away and maybe for some of the current stores (and perhaps their demographics) to clear out, too, so that it can be 1964 again and we can all shop at J. L. Hudson's, or Dayton's, or any of the other vanished department stores of that monochromatic era.

Tearing up Fulton Mall will make it less pleasant to sit on, no matter who you are, but it's hard to see how it will do more than that. What I don't understand is why PBID is supporting (and, amazingly, proposing to spend Fresno's transit-oriented development funds on) this project, when there are so many other positive and less parochial things it could do—at the very least, heightening awareness about the Mall's accessibility and finding better ways to house and help the homeless.

Destroying a cultural icon isn't the key to Fresno's revitalization; capitalizing on it to spur true, local redevelopment might be. Fulton Mall might have been bad for business even in 1964, and it might be bad for business today—but it's what Fresno has, and it makes it distinctive. Instead of making the Mall "good for business" by destroying it, how about making business that's good for it?

So, PBID, that's my take on Fresno. PBID, I know you're only one player there. I know the planning consultants and the mayor and others believe some of the things you do. I want to like you. I don't want to believe that you are thoughtless, possibly racist, definitely classist, and in the thrall of some of the forces that seem to be doing the least to revitalize Fresno, but it's hard to escape those implications.


  1. Thank you for your most excellent post. I wholeheartedly agree with your take on our fine mall.

  2. Thank you for your post! These are all the things I have been thinking and saying about the Fulton Mall. Tearing any part of it up would not be good for Fresno.

  3. Thank you for clearly exposing the back story here. As a small business operating tours regularly on the Mall you would think the area business association would appreciate and help to, say, build that audience; no. In fact they have begun competing directly. Same day exact same time offering tours for free.
    Hum,since when is capitalism not encouraged?
    I have now moved my tours off the wonderful Mall.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful and informed consideration of our mall. It is frustrating that Fresno has all the assets that you mention, yet consistently CHOOSES to ignore them, dismiss them, devalue them and destroy them. A small band of us are trying our best to keep the mall intact as an amazing resource and example of excellence in Mid Century design and space. We can be found here:

  5. What happens on the Mall on the weekends? Some data on that can be found here (my inactive blog): I did this study for the PBID's predecessor organization, the Downtown Association. The full report is on the City of Fresno's website. If you Google "downtown fresno pedestrian count" you should see a result for the pdf of the report.