Fulton Mall in downtown Fresno, California provides a good example of doing the right thing wrong. Or, at least, at the wrong time. Fulton Mall was a six-block pedestrian mall located in the central business district, but it is no more.
Back in the 60s—known to many as the Dark Ages of architecture and urban planning—Fresno was way ahead of the modern trend of revitalizing city centers by remaking them to serve pedestrians and bicyclists, rather than cars.
Too far ahead, apparently. Fulton Mall worked for a while, probably due in part to the novelty of walking in the middle of a street, but then it stopped working. Timing was part of the problem. The design was probably another part of the problem. But decades of poor city planning, which favored sprawl over downtown redevelopment, was likely the primary culprit.
The Fulton Mall ran from Inyo and Tuolumne Streets and was initially home to a wide variety of shopping, restaurants, offices and public art.
Fulton Street was transformed into Fulton Mall under the supervision of pioneering Austrian architect Victor Gruen and American landscape architect Garrett Eckbo.
The mall was dedicated on September 1, 1964, to much fanfare. During this time the mall contained major retailers such as Gottschalks, Montgomery Ward, Woolworth, and JCPenney.
The Fulton Mall declined in the late 1980s with the sprawling of the city to the north. The Fulton Mall was nominated in 2008 to the National Register of Historic Places, but was not placed on the register due to objections from a majority of local property owners.
In September 2013, the City of Fresno received a $15.9 million TIGER Grant from the US Department of Transportation to reintroduce traffic to Fulton. On February 27, 2014, the Fresno City Council decided the fate of Fulton Mall with a 5-2 vote in favor of putting traffic back on Fulton street, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held on March 3, 2016.
Now, on October 21, 2017, with much the same fanfare that accompanied its closing to automobiles, city officials and large crowds celebrated the reintroduction of cars for the first time in over half a century. Federal and state grants totaling $20 million helped the city achieve what they hope will be a successful redesign and re-repurposing of the street.
Mattie Hill, 67, who lives in Friant, said her family remembers the old Fulton Street and they were there when it was closed off and converted to a pedestrian mall. They were all there again on October 21.
“We always knew once all the shops started leaving (Fulton Mall) that this was not going to be the best place to be,” Hill said. “But we always still had hope for a better Fresno. I’m glad it’s here.”
Another $5 million was spent to restore part of the historic character of Fulton Street – its artwork. The centerpiece is a 60-foot tower decorated with four clocks and lights. The clock tower was unveiled to the public Oct. 19 after it was fully refurbished.
“This has been a Herculean effort that has literally taken every minute of every day for almost 10 years,” former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin said. She also thanked the hundreds of people who attended the celebration of what she called “the rebirth” of downtown Fresno.
Featured photo shows Fulton Mall in 2011. Credit: Bryan Harley via Wikimedia Commons.