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Commentary: Can cars really fix the Fulton Mall?
Update: The Save the Fulton Mall gto more dire today. Mayor Ashley Swearengin is now on record supporting two-way traffic on the mall.
Original post: It occurs to me that I might be wrong about the Fulton Mall, that the time for being blase and aloof has passed. I’ve mostly abstained from the “open-to-the-mall-to-traffic” debate because it felt a bit useless. The city’s — and community’s— financial and mental efforts could better be spent elsewhere, so I thought.
I was “so over” the mall.
Then, last week the PBID Partners of Downtown Fresno endorsed recommendations for the mall that included opening it to traffic. My initial reaction was ... well, at least it’s something.
I’ll take that back now.
Forward movement isn’t the same as progress here.
Opening the mall to traffic may appease those like me, who want some action after all the talk, talk, talk. It’s also appealing to the “raze and rebuild crowd” because it’ll make this stretch of the city’s urban core all shiny and new, which Fresnans will love, because we’re raccoons like that. The PBID no doubt likes it because it will likely increase some property values.
But it’s going to cost us and I’m not talking dollars and cents.
Let’s backtrack. The Fulton Mall never had a chance. It was designed to be the crown jewel of a concentrated urban core, an eight-block pedestrian mall that would be a national model. It won the American Institute of Architects “Excellence in Community Architecture” award a National Design Excellence award from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
And then it was abandoned. Just two years after the mall opened, the city gave the green light to Fashion Fair Mall and it was northward ho! The expansion never stopped. There’s no sense that it ever will. It’ll just keep moving to East and West. Think El Peseo. Think Fancher Creek.
Opening the mall to traffic won’t fix that.
But it will upset — if not completely destroy — one of the most authentic and interesting places in the entire city.
Which is what worries Kiel Famellos-Schmidt and the group behind the Save the Fulton Mall movement, which organized under the belief that the mall is a historic landmark and should be preserved as such— regardless of what the city thinks. “We saw the direction things were going,” Famellos-Schmidt says. So, they started a Facebook campaign to educate the community and rally support for the cause. The page is a must-click for anyone interested in the mall.
The group has also held mall cleanup projects and had a party at the clocktower. Look for another once once the Facebook page reaches 2,000 “likes.” Rademacher will be playing.
Famellos-Schmidt understands the complexity of the situation and says the group is not trying to hinder revitalization. He’s been to the meetings, heard the costs and projections. He just doesn’t believe ripping up the mall is the way to do it.
"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't believe it was the right thing."
So, maybe the Fulton Mall was a mistake in the first place. That’s certainly my father’s take on the matter. “Worst decision the city ever made,” he says, as if he’s been civic-minded his whole life.
Here’s the thing: Even if that’s the case, the idea of opening the mall back up to traffic smacks of reliving the past, of not learning from our mistakes. The mall was built as someone’s best idea to thwart suburbanism and the rise of the car culture. And here we are wanting to rip it up and tear out in the name of new urbanism — someone’s best idea at revitalization in the current car culture.
“That’s where you can see history repeating itself,” Famellos-Schmidt says.
It seems like, politically at least, it's the easy way out, and even for a cynic like me, that’s just not good enough.