Fulton Street Reconstruction Project
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Like many pedestrian Malls around the country, the Fulton Mall has long since been plagued with low rents, high vacancy rates, little to no activity after 5 p.m., poor visibility of the Mall from other streets and declining foot traffic.
The City of Fresno and the Downtown Fresno Partnership advocate for a return of traffic to this traditional, “complete” main street to improve connections, accessibility, community, sense of place and economic vitality. This decision wasn’t arrived at hastily or without a great deal of research and public input. There has been much debate over the future of the Fulton Corridor and many community sessions have been held to allow for feedback.
In September of 2013 the City of Fresno received a $15.9 million TIGER Grant from the US Department of Transportation to reintroduce traffic to Fulton.
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The Fresno City Council voted 5-2 in a historic vote to open Fulton Mall to traffic. We’d like to send out a HUGE thank you to everyone who attended the Council meeting and spoke up in favor of a vibrant and accessible downtown! This historic vote was made possible thanks to widespread community support, particularly through the efforts of the I Believe in Downtown Fresno campaign. Throughout 2015, we will continue to launch campaign initiatives that support our efforts to engage Fresnans in the ongoing movement to reviatlize downtown Fresno.
Below is a list of questions and answers that we hear often. If there are unanswered questions that remain, please send them to us and we will add them. Read the questions below and get answers to your questions. Download a copy of our research regarding pedestrian malls. The data show that once pedestrian malls are reopened to multi-modal traffic, 90% of cities see immediate and significant investment in the area.
Are you a Fulton Corridor or downtown business? For information about thriving during the construction process, download our Open for Business Success Toolkit: A Guide to Thrive During the Fulton Corridor Transformation.
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Questions and Answers
Q. What is the TIGER Grant?
A. The T
ecovery grant provides funding for projects that favor rail, highway and transportation programs that include multi-modal elements – those that solve more than one transportation problem.
In 2013, this highly competitive grant received 585 applications requesting more than $9 billion in funding. Only 52 of those applicants (less than 10%) were awarded funding which totaled $474 million from the US Department of Transportation. Fresno’s $15.9 million was the fourth largest TIGER grant awarded in this round.
Q. How will Fresno use these funds and couldn’t we just use them in my neighborhood?
A. The City’s Fulton Mall Reconstruction Project will return the Fulton Mall in downtown Fresno to a complete street by reintroducing vehicle traffic to downtown’s former main street. The restoration of Fulton Main Street will occur over 11 city blocks and include bicycle and pedestrian accommodations and streetscape improvement elements. The total cost of this project is $20 million with $15.9 million being paid with the funds from the Federal TIGER grant. The remainder of the funding is expected to come from other sources including State and Measure C Transit Oriented Development sources as well as contributions from downtown property owners. No General Fund dollars will be used. Funds awarded through the TIGER grant can only be used for transportation-related projects, and only for the project as outlined in the grant application. Failure to use these funds for this project would result in returning the funds to the Federal Government.
Q. Are there other grant programs that the city could apply to for funding to restore the mall as is?
A. Major work is needed and the rehabilitation alternative has an estimated cost of over $18 million. The City has analyzed a variety of potential funding sources in fields such as outdoor recreation and historic preservation, as well as Measure C. Most programs, if funded at all and assuming that the project would be eligible, fund less than $100,000; considering all sources together it is difficult to imagine assembling more than around $2 million. So while there are potential sources of some funding, there are not potential sources of enough funding.
Q. Why should we restore Fulton Mall to a Main Street?
- Economic Competitiveness: One of the nation’s leading experts on downtown retail—who published the textbook Principles of Urban Retail in 2012—estimates that opening the Mall will bring a 146% increase in economic vitality and activity on Fulton.
- Saving Historic Buildings: Developers will not invest along the Mall. It does not make financial sense for them to do so. The vacancy rate in the Mall’s historic buildings is 70%. Investors in potential adaptive-reuse housing projects in the Mall’s historic buildings have been clear about the importance of traffic on the Mall for their projects. In a recent letter in support of Measure C Funding, Pacific Southwest Building owner Sevak Khatchadourian says, “In investing Measure C dollars for maximum benefit to our region, we could hardly do better than to unlock the potential of a revitalized downtown core, the place we find on the Fulton Mall.”
- An Accessible Downtown: A pedestrian mall cuts off the viability of what could be a successful street because it is essentially a suburban model plopped on top of a city grid. It does the exact opposite—it cuts off accessibility, connections and walkability. Nationally, as reported in January by CBS News, even suburban shopping centers are trending toward adaptation as more urban-seeming, Main Street-style areas.
- Potential for a Vibrant Urban Center: The building stock of private property on the Fulton Mall has a built density of 2.93 building square foot for land square foot compared to just 0.62 in the rest of downtown. The potential to transform the Mall into a vibrant street exists. Option 1 calls to open the street to vehicular traffic, to widen the sidewalks for sidewalk cafes, to create on-street parking, to create a new streetscape, to keep or plant hundreds of trees, and to retain some artwork and fountains. Currently, Fulton Mall is not a successful urban area. The Mall is operating at 6% of economic potential and showing just half the sales per square foot of identical stores in the area.
- Model of Failure: Of the estimated 200 malls installed in the 1960s and 1970s, over 170 have been removed. About two dozen remain. Most remaining malls have universities, hospitals, or other large foot-traffic generators adjacent to them. Fewer than ten malls work well, and these are located near colleges or the ocean. 90% of cities that remove malls see “significant improvements in occupancy rates, retail sales, property values, and private sector investment in the downtown area” when streets are restored.
Q. Shouldn’t the design be preserved and treasured? It is the oldest remaining pedestrian mall!
A. One of the first and most prevalent arguments is simply in the value of the design. The design is exemplary in relation to landscape architecture. Had it been woven into an existing urban park rather than a commercial district, we would not be having this discussion today. While the historical and design significance of the last 49 years is important, this argument neglects the history and architecture of Fulton Street in the 90+ years prior to the mall’s installation. Where is the concern for preserving the architecture of Fulton’s historic buildings? Additionally, our research has shown that other cities who have removed their pedestrian malls have seen a very speedy recovery of the commercial district. It appears that this treasure comes with a cost that we simply can’t afford.
Q. You do this and then what? Will people even come? Are there other projects planned?
A. Opening Fulton to varying modes of transportation is simply the beginning. In no way do we believe that making this transition eliminates the need for revitalization efforts. However, we know from studying other cities, that this opens the door to other investments and development projects and private sector involvement – which is exactly what we need. The truth is, that the opening of the mall is only the beginning, it is the point where our organization can be the most effective. We will work with the property owners and the brokers to heavily recruit new tenants to fill vacant spaces. At the same time we will work with the existing business owners to ensure their viability. From retail strategies and merchandising, to financial planning and marketing, we will provide guidance to these existing businesses that have weathered this storm for so many decades. Events and marketing efforts will be crucial to the success of the new Fulton Street and we will organize a variety of these types of activities. Imagine Saturday Sidewalk sales where the entire area is buzzing with shoppers and tourists. In addition, we are seeking grant sources in hopes of being able to offer forgivable loans for facade improvements and building renovations, so that property owners will have the needed capital to invest in their buildings. Luckily, 170 other cities have removed their pedestrian malls and we can replicate their successes and avoid their mistakes. The City of Fresno is currently looking at the existing ordinances that make outdoor dining difficult for restaurant owners. The City understands that they need to encourage sidewalk cafes and outdoor dining. It is the City’s job to provide a structure that allows for the greatest success for the private business owner. It is our job, as an improvement district, to give our businesses and owners all the tools that they need to succeed. There are 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of Downtown Fresno just waiting for this downtown to become a vibrant hub.
Q. What will Fulton Street look like after the renovations? Will we lose all the trees?
A. We are currently in the design phase of the project but we have a good idea at this point. Option 1 will result in a straight street with a 28 foot sidewalk on one side and a 10 foot sidewalk on the other side. The wider side would allow for the park-like setting to be retained and both sides will allow for pedestrians, bikes, accessibility and other features such as outdoor dining. Many of the water and landscaping features will remain as they are today and the sculptures would stay in the 6 block area as well. Essentially it will be a 6 block corridor that is unparalleled in beauty, public art, and accessibility. The goal is to make the street friendly for all modes of access, vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians. There will be a net gain in trees and many of the matures trees will be untouched to retain the shade canopy that is so necessary in our warm summers. Picture a shaded street with a great deal of outdoor dining areas that favors the pedestrian but allows vehicles to slowly progress down the street.
Q. Why does a great downtown need a great Main Street?
A. Downtowns compete by being compact and walkable—by offering “everything in one place.” A great Main Street is the hub of economic vitality for a downtown. It is a walkable and accessible destination that creates a sense of place and supports commerce, arts and culture, and a high quality of life. A great Main Street is the anchor for a downtown.
Q. We haven’t done everything to make Fulton Mall successful, why should we give up now?
A. People are quick to suggest various strategies to make the mall successful. If only businesses were recruited or incentives given, the revitalization would take place. If only there were a movie theater or nightly bands booked in Chukchansi, people would venture downtown. The problem with these recommendations is that they ignore the nature of the marketplace. Businesses move into areas that they believe will pencil out. Commerce is capitalism, which is driven by demand. After 49 years, the Fulton Mall is still not a sought after location for business owners, meaning the demand is simply not there. With lease rates as low as 50% of the area’s average and vacancy rates 2x as great as the other areas of Fresno, the Fulton Mall is a commercial failure.
Q. But the Mall is one piece of artwork. If you remove any part of it, you would be destroying the original design and architectural intent.
A. Over the years, the original benches, original garbage cans, and original parts of the sidewalk have had to be removed. Shoddy façade jobs and security bars over storefronts have changed the landscape’s look and feel. Lights are failing and inadequate by design without additional light from storefronts. The City has tried and failed to operate several of the remaining fountains. Restoring the fountains to operation would require tearing up the Mall to repair the plumbing underneath. No matter what option, the “original” artwork requires destruction. The infrastructure is deteriorating. The Fulton Mall is one part of a functioning city. The city cannot remain a stagnant piece of art because it is a living organism.
Q. What is going to happen to the art on the Fulton Mall?
A. The art community will play an important role in helping decide how to integrate existing (and possibly new) artwork into the new streetscape. Both of the traffic bearing options will retain all of the sculptures and some of the fountains in the 6-block Fulton Mall corridor, whether in their exact current locations or slightly relocated. Right now, the art is underutilized and under appreciated. The highly valuable Renoir statue Washer Woman, which is on display at the Musée d’Orsay as well as on Fulton Mall, is often defaced and tagged. The average Fresnan is unaware of the significance of the art on the Mall. The art needs to be treated in a way that is commensurate with its value and currently it is not. Also it is important to note that the construction budget includes funding to refurbish and reinstall the artwork, and light it property. This project is the only source of funding in the foreseeable future to do this kind of conservation work. Changing Fulton Mall will bring regional, national, and international attention to the art that we all treasure on Fulton.
Q. The last thing we need is more roads, vehicles and emissions! How can you justify this?
A. Actually infill development reduces vehicle emissions overall. If we get Fulton’s buildings full again, the emissions reductions will dwarf the emissions from cars on these few blocks of the street itself. Consider the bigger picture and it becomes much more logical.
Q. What will happen to all the mom and pop stores that are there now?
A. Small, independent retailers have the least ability to market themselves and therefore the greatest need to be visible to new customers. This is the basic problem this project is trying to solve. Look at the main streets in our neighboring cities and are still mainly populated with small mom and pop stores. Additionally, it is our job to assist the store owners with construction mitigation promotions, signage, marketing, and business assistance. As we research best practices, we are finding many examples of cities were the construction period brought an increase in retail activity to a district.
Q. What happens to the events that currently take place on Fulton Mall?
A. The Downtown Fresno Partnership produces many events annually on the Fulton Mall. In 2013 those include Cinco de Mayo, Fiestas Patrias, Sudz in the City, the Christmas Parade and the Downtown Ice Rink. We are committed to the value of these events for attracting new audiences to downtown. All over the country, events are an integral part of introducing the public to your downtown. This construction project provides the opportunity to look at the street as an intended event space and design it to include elements that will make events simpler to coordinate. All events will continue and they will be simpler to produce. Cities all over the world hold events on closed streets and transform public right of ways to a festival setting. Fulton will do exactly that.
Q. What other cities have successfully taken out their pedestrian mall and what have the effects been?
A. Most pedestrian malls have been removed. 90% of cities that remove malls see “significant improvements in occupancy rates, retail sales, property values, and private sector investment in the downtown area” when streets are restored.
• Two separate blocks were converted to a pedestrian mall in the late 1970s, one adjacent to the Mississippi River and the other in the historic retail block.
• Within a decade, retail vacancy on the latter block was close to 80%.
• Both blocks were reopened in 1990; by 1992 all retail space on the latter block was filled.
• Old Town Plaza was reopened to two-way traffic with parallel parking prior to the 1993 holiday shopping season.
• Retailers immediately reported year over-year sales gains of 30%.
• A 7-block, H-shaped pedestrian mall was opened in 1971.
• Several blocks were reopened in 1985; retail vacancy on those blocks was reduced from 25% to 6% by 1989.
• All but two blocks had been reopened by 2000, due to the previous successes.
• Four-block downtown mall on Burdick Street was the country’s first pedestrian mall, built in 1959.
• Two blocks were reopened to traffic in 1998.
• By early 2000, three major projects were under development, including the conversion of two large spaces previously occupied by the last major retailers to leave into mixed-use spaces with first floor retail and upper story residential and office use.
• In 2011, it was announced that every storefront was occupied or under agreement to be filled, the first time in four decades retail vacancy had seen such levels.
• The 3-block River City Mall opened in 1973.
• When reconverted to two-way traffic in 2000, the vacancy rate was decreased from 80% to 50% the following year.
Oak Park, IL
• Four-block Oak Park Center Mall was built in 1967 on the traditional main street.
• By 1987, one major retailer—who had direct access to a parking structure—remained, though overall vacancy along the mall was 25%.
• Retail sales had been cut in half from a high of $50 million annually in 1972.
• Three of the four blocks were reopened to traffic in November 1988, and within the next year, vacancies dropped to 19% while retail sales increased 6.3%.
• In the decades since reopening, new redevelopment of the corridor has taken place, resulting in a 15–20% overall increase in sales from the time of reopening, and a vacancy rate that today is around 5%.
South Bend, IN
• Michigan Street, South Bend’s main thoroughfare was opened as a pedestrian mall in the 1970s.
• The mall had lost its two department stores and movie theatre to regional malls by 1987.
• That year, the city decided to reopen the street to two-way traffic.
• Retail sales increased by 20% after the reopening of the street to traffic, prompting new development including the reopening of the State Theater.
• Less than ten years after the reopening, the street had become a revitalized area for restaurants and entertainment.
• East Liberty Mall opened in 1969, restricting three streets to buses and taxis while directing auto traffic around a perimeter ring road.
• In 1983, the vacancy rate along the mall was 60%.
• A retail study at that time determined that shoppers were not willing to navigate the ring road system to find perimeter parking.
• In 1986, the streets were reopened to all vehicles and on-street parking was added.
• The six years after reopening saw $80 million in development of both new and restored buildings.
• By 1992, 200 new businesses had opened in the area.
• Four-block Main Street Mall was completed in 1973.
• More than 70 businesses operated along the mall, which contained “over one hundred trees, numerous benches and six fountains, a pavilion and playground equipment.”
• Anchor stores—and subsequently other retailers—left to new regional malls.
• By 1991, vacancy rates were around 30%.
• When the street was reopened to one lane of traffic that year, vacancies dropped to 10.7%.
• The street was converted to two lanes of traffic with on-street parking in 2001.
• The four-block Austin Avenue mall was opened in 1971.
• Austin Avenue was reopened to traffic in 1986, and ground-floor vacancies fell by 50%.
Q. But I keep hearing that cities are adding pedestrian spaces, not taking them away?
A. A “road diet” usually means widening sidewalks and/or taking away vehicle lanes, to better balance vehicle and pedestrian accommodation. That’s what we’re talking about here, too: balance. Pedestrian malls have not balanced the needs of different travel modes, and except in a few places where heavy foot traffic alone is enough, they have mostly failed and been reopened. This has been the case for 89% of pedestrian malls in the US. The national trend is for “complete streets” that integrate people with bikes, rail, and autos without excluding any of these users.
Q. OK, but if traffic is the answer, then why isn’t Van Ness thriving?
A. Van Ness is a transportation corridor, a busy thoroughfare street that brings higher-speed traffic through downtown. Van Ness is not a Main Street. A Main Street is a complete street, for people, walking, driving, biking, and transit. It has wider sidewalks, slower vehicular traffic, a mix of retail and residential uses, bike lanes, trees and other place-making characteristics. The ground floor space is smaller so you can easily walk from one store or restaurant to another. Main Streets engender a feeling that they are accessible to people (via walking, biking and driving) and provide multiple options to buy goods and services. Fresno had a Main Street for many years, on Fulton. The street had stores, restaurants, hotels, and theaters, many in buildings that are still present today. Pedestrians reached these businesses along sidewalks that shared the right-of-way with four lanes of through traffic and parking on either side. This was the history of Fresno’s Main Street. Option 1 calls to create a Main Street with an even greater emphasis on pedestrians, to open the street to vehicular traffic and create on-street parking, widen the sidewalks for sidewalk cafes, plant more trees, and retain all artwork and some fountains. The projected result is $79.1 million in annual retail sales.
Q. Why is this revitalization effort different? Haven’t we tried and failed in the past?
A. Right now, Fresno has a Mayor and an administration that cares about the success of downtown. The Mayor has listed downtown revitalization as one of the core priorities of her administration. This is also the first time that property owners of Downtown Fresno have created a property tax-based business improvement district, where they voted to tax themselves an additional assessment to contribute to the Downtown Fresno Partnership. The Partnership is an organization dedicated to improving downtown’s built environment, businesses, marketing, and events. The timing is now ripe nationwide as Census data and the Brookings Institute note that more and more people are moving into urban areas. Led by the millennials and baby boomers, downtown centers are experiencing resurgence.
Q. Why does Downtown Fresno even matter? I have all I need in my neighborhood and I don’t need to go downtown!
A. A strong downtown is an economic powerhouse that benefits an entire region. Renowned Brookings Fellow and George Washington University School of Business professor Christopher Leinberger writes, “The metro area that does not offer walkable urbanism is probably destined to lose economic development opportunities; the creative class will gravitate to those metro areas that offer multiple choices in living arrangements.” Cities need a strong core to compete nationally, to build the regional economy and create a sense of identity for the region. Right now downtown Fresno is a drain on the city as a whole. Imagine if these buildings are full, property taxes go up, sales taxes increase, and downtown becomes a boost to our city’s economy.
Q. People only go downtown to work and there are no businesses that I want downtown.
A. The Downtown Fresno ice rink attracted 31,920 visitors downtown. People do come downtown given the right asset, endeavor, activity or business. If the area is vibrant and attractive, people will come downtown. We already have plenty to work with as a start. Each day, approximately 40,000 people come downtown to work. There are approximately 666 residential units in the downtown area, with more being planned and constructed. Additional retail, amenities, and restaurants will further establish the area as a destination. Businesses cater their products to their shoppers. Currently, the demographic on the Fulton Mall is predominately low-income. A thriving downtown will have a diverse audience with a wide array of businesses and products. A thriving downtown will cater to multiple populations.
Q. If we tear it out, we’ll never be able to get it back. What about the historical significance?
A. It makes no sense that 1964 is the historical moment in Fresno’s past that we are honoring. Before 1964, Fulton Mall was a vibrant Main Street that was open to cars, people and bikes. Fulton has been a street longer than it has been a pedestrian mall. There is no reason for us to hold on to a model that has failed all over the country. Pedestrian malls have a less than 3% success rate. Kalamazoo, home of the first pedestrian mall, realized that it was a failure and took it out, letting go of the “historical” aspect in favor of building a vibrant, successful, living city. The smart business decision is to move forward with removing the Mall. To preserve the historic buildings along the Fulton Mall, there must be economic incentive to invest in them. There is little to no economic incentive to invest in them currently. These buildings are at risk of greater decay and demolition if they cannot be accessed and used profitably.
Q. How much does it cost and will my tax dollars contribute to the opening of the Mall?
A. The total project cost is estimated at $19.9 million. The project will be completely funded without using any general fund resources. The breakdown of funding is $15.9 million from the TIGER grant, $2 million from state grants, $1.8 million in local grant dollars that can only be used in downtown, and $250,000 directly from the property owners within the project area. The $20 million dollar estimated project cost has been thoroughly vetted and includes a contingency, meaning the project should come in on budget.
Q. I am supportive, what can I do to help?
A. Support our downtown and Fulton Corridor businesses! Support the 2030 General Plan. Keep up to date on the project by visiting our website. Introduce friends and family to Downtown Fresno and discover what’s next!