Dream Unravels : Fresno: Rise and Fall of Urban Mall

Times Staff Writer

The great Fulton Mall sits abandoned in the night, a six-block monument to municipal vision and blindness. Iron gates stretch across the bargain shoe stores and jewelry shops that represent the latest mercantile dreams to inhabit the wide outdoor walkway, and the old office towers stand dark, their tenants having made tracks at sundown for the subdivisions.

Only transients walk the mall after dark, and they tend to step quickly, steer to the shadows and don't even window shop. No one else comes downtown to admire the expensive art pieces, or dip hands in the gurgling fountains, or hear the music piped from strategically placed speakers. The music, though, plays all night, serenading trees and benches.

The concrete void yawning through downtown mocks the notion of what was to have been--once automobiles were banished from the city's heart, once the forces of suburbia were thwarted, once Fresno had established itself as a bold pathfinder on the urban frontier.

'Our Finest Hour'

The downtown mall was dedicated in 1964, a time when white flight and inner-city blight were at the fore of issues here and everywhere, and it created a national sensation. "This is our finest hour," the mayor declared, more prophetically perhaps than he imagined.

Scores of American cities would pursue Fresno's vision. From Waco, Tex., to Eugene, Ore., from Oak Park, Ill., to Santa Monica--as many as 100 U.S. municipalities undertook to restore their centers by throwing out automobile traffic and creating what the architects called "pedestrian reserves."

"This was the thing to do," recalled Richard Hodge, whose family once operated the finest men's store on the Fulton Mall. "This is what towns were doing, putting in malls, sprucing up their downtowns. And why were they doing it? They were doing it to combat what they knew was inevitable--the sprawl to suburbia."

White Elephants

The thing to do turned out to be a mistake. Today, most municipalities that followed the Fresno model must contend with moribund white elephants where Main Street used to be. Suburban sprawl has not been thwarted, or even slowed, and the inner city has not been saved. In fact, arresting downtown decay remains a hot piece of work for urban designers--although now the first recommendation often involves yanking out the pedestrian mall to allow automobiles back in.

And Fresno, once the proud prototype for an urban experiment, now presents a case study in its failure.

Incorporated in 1885, Fresno dawdled pleasantly through its first half-century as a modest center for the enormous agricultural boom that huge water projects were bringing to the San Joaquin Valley. "We had buried no great men," Fresno-born author William Saroyan wrote in 1934, "because we hadn't had time to produce any great men. We had been too busy trying to get water into the desert, and the shadow of no great mind was over our city."

Like much of California, Fresno did not really begin to grow until after World War II. And like much of California, once the town did grow, it did not grow up. It grew out. The era of GI loans and ranch-style housing tracts, of suburbia in all its grid-patterned glory, was embraced fully, eagerly, by postwar Fresno.

Then as now, Fresno mainly promised warm summer nights, inexpensive housing, a pleasant compromise between back-yard living and economic opportunity, and short travel time to the Sierra and the Pacific. "So much, so close," is the newest official slogan.

'Branch Location'

And then as now, Fresno was suspended in that netherworld between big town and small city--large enough to support all species of fast-food outlets but, with the proud exception of the raisin industry, hardly any enterprise's first choice for a world headquarters. "A branch location," is how one Fresno leader describes it.

Downtown had been constructed in the early 1900s, and while it conveyed a certain Victorian charm, no one wanted to live there. The action was all in the subdivisions, and the subdivisions were all to the north--on inexpensive, barely farmable hardpan, and upwind of the prevailing southerlies.

"In cow counties you always move into the wind," said Joseph W. Levy, chairman of the Fresno-based Gottschalk's department store chain, citing a popular explanation for the tendency of all valley towns to grow north. "You move away from the smell."

Levy was one of the original One Hundred Percenters, downtown merchants who banded together in the late 1950s to improve their competitive prospects. Downtown had begun to totter, and it was clear that the suburban explosion was nowhere near full force. The Hundred Percenters wanted something bold to gird for the inevitable battle with suburban shopping malls.

European Ideas

And so, in 1958, they and the city's political leadership summoned an internationally regarded architect from Beverly Hills named Victor Gruen to rethink downtown. A native of Vienna, Gruen had retained a European-style--in his suits and bow ties, in his accent and, most important, in his ideas about cities.

A city, Gruen once wrote, is not a product of population or functional buildings, but rather "the fountains and flower beds, the trees shading streets and boulevards, the sculptures and monuments. The city is the little merchants who make their living on the streets . . . the elderly lady who strikes up a conversation with the elderly gent sitting next to her on the bench and later marries him . . . the millions of chance meetings that turn out to be important events of a lifetime."

Suburbia Gruen denounced as the "anti-city," a "land of economic and racial segregation, with phony respectability and genuine boredom." And automobiles he regarded as wild beasts in need of domestication.

Gruen's reputation was based on two contributions to modern architecture, significant inventions that would come to conflict mightily with one another. In the early 1950s, he designed the world's first major suburban shopping mall, the Northland Center near Detroit, and followed with the first enclosed shopping mall, Minneapolis' Southdale. Then, in 1956, Gruen and his associates developed a renewal plan for downtown Ft. Worth, Tex.; it dazzled architectural critics with its call for the abolition of automobiles from downtown streets.

Extraordinary Assurances

Ft. Worth rejected Gruen's plan as overly "dramatic," and when Fresno beckoned the architect was eager to carry out his experiment--if conditions were correct. "We had been made wise by the failure of Ft. Worth," recalled Edgardo Contini, a Gruen partner who would serve as point man for the Fresno project. The architects received from Fresno extraordinary assurances--that the money and commitment were there for the long haul, and that they would be empowered with almost complete control.

What they subsequently developed was a recipe for an urban revolution.

"The Fresno plan," the Fresno Bee reported, "appears to be the first one which has taken the entire central area--nearly 2,000 acres of it--torn it apart and put it back together again. . . . (It) proposes to put the automobile in its proper place and bring the pedestrian shopper back to downtown."

As a solution for downtown merchants, the plan essentially ordered the creation of a suburban-style regional shopping center in the heart of downtown. The 36-acre "superblock" would contain the Fulton Mall and two smaller, intersecting pedestrian reserves. The malls would not be enclosed. There would be outdoor cafes, boutiques, department stores at either end, playgrounds, art pieces, trees, fountains and music. No motor traffic would be allowed.

Fanciful Descriptions

Architectural renderings depicted a bustling urban oasis. In one, a man sat on a bench, smoking a pipe, reading a newspaper. Businessmen conferred under leafy trees. Couples conspired at sidewalk cafes and electric trams carried shoppers to well-maintained stores. Accompanying captions sang out fanciful descriptions: "A fashion show," went one, "is taking place under the central canopy, where, in the evening, an orchestra will entertain citizens who will have discovered anew the pleasures of an evening stroll downtown."

Gruen's vision did not stop at retail. He saw the superblock as the centerpiece for a citywide renaissance, a transformation that would re-create Fresno as a tightly clustered cosmopolitan hub: A city.

The plans called for downtown high-rises, hotels and a convention center. Two new freeways would intersect a third to form a triangle around the central core. One part of downtown would be reserved for hospitals and medical offices. Another would be set aside for warehouses and light industry. High-density housing would be built in the neighborhoods nearest the central core.

All of this was to be executed in phases, running into 1980. To depart from the blueprint, the planners warned, would jeopardize "the culturally and sociologically important center or heart of the city--to be replaced by an amorphous suburban sprawl or scatterization."

The Whole Package

While Kalamazoo, Mich., Miami Beach and Pomona also were developing downtown pedestrian reserves, none had contemplated such a comprehensive make over. "There is no precedent," Contini told Fresno officials. And they bought the whole package.

The town hurled itself at the task. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised for mall artwork; Renoir sculptures would replace hot rods on Fulton Street, then the main drag for cruisers. Tens of millions of private and public monies were invested. Buildings were ripped down, streets torn out. The archives filled with photographs of satisfied-looking men in shirt-sleeves, huddled over diagrams and blueprints, peering straight into the future. Vision was a word much in vogue.

There were skeptics, of course, but their remarks tended to be shoved to the bottom of newspaper accounts of the planning sessions. Like the observation of one Gladys Baxter: "A mall is beautiful, but a woman goes to town to shop. When she is through she goes home. She doesn't want to sit down under the trees. Besides, Fresno is too hot a place to sit outside and eat."

The Fulton Mall opened officially on Sept. 1, 1964, and tens of thousands of Fresnans turned out.

Accolades and Eggs

Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown delivered the keynote speech, predicting that people would come "from all over the country to see this bold and beautiful new look in American cities. . . . Above and beyond what this pioneering effort means to Fresno, it stands as evidence to the entire nation that one of our greatest problems can be successfully met and solved. I refer to the problems of our cities."

Some shine came off the moment when several hooligans, for reasons unclear, began to lob eggs at the governor. The eggs were off-target, and for this everyone was grateful. "If he had been struck by an egg," a Bee editorial observed, "Fresno would be suffering one of its worst cases of civic shame in a long time."

Back then, there was no reason to search for omen in the debris of shattered eggs. Everything was sunny-side-up.

Fresno old-timers can get downright dewy-eyed today as they recollect the Fulton Mall's early days. Everything sparkled. There were throngs of shoppers, ferried from store to store by electric trams. Magazine writers, architectural critics and urban planners journeyed from around the world to gaze at Victor Gruen's new marvel. And city officials kept careful watch on the vision, turning down requests to construct a convention center and high-rises at locations outside downtown.

"It was," said Levy, "all harmony and song and singing and everyone swimming in the same direction."

And then it began to unravel. Reconstructions vary, but nearly every account lingers at a watershed decision made by the City Council less than two years after the mall's grand opening.

Rival Shows Up

A Southern California developer sought permission to build a massive indoor shopping mall on Shaw Avenue, which at the time approximated the northern boundary of Fresno's suburban growth. Initially, the proposal for the so-called Fashion Fair mall was rejected.

"I think our children will thank us for this," said then-Mayor Floyd Hyde, citing Fresno's commitment to downtown.

Intense lobbying and political maneuvering followed. Elections came and council members went. Threats were raised: If Fashion Fair was not allowed on Shaw, it simply could be built elsewhere, either on congested streets already approved for such development or in Clovis, a small bedroom community a few miles farther north. Either way, it would be close enough to downtown to undermine Gruen's project. Fresno could lose jobs and taxes, council members were warned. Fresno could lose control.

In December of 1966, 11 months after first rejecting Fashion Fair, the council approved it. "As a legislative body," Mayor Hyde said after switching his vote, "we are responsive to the needs of the total community." This time, there was no mention of Fresno's children.

Green Light

The planners and downtown merchants were crushed, and realized at once the reversal's significance. Growth would not be channeled into downtown. It would blow out north, to the suburbs. The green light was on.

"We were let down by the political system," Contini, the former Gruen partner, said in a recent interview. "They didn't have the courage to do what needed to be done."

Over the next quarter-century, Fresno's population would double to about 300,000 people. The growth was uniformly fast, flat and northern. New subdivisions brought convenience stores. Convenience stores brought supermarkets. Supermarkets brought corner mini-malls. Mini-malls brought congestion and a new exodus north, to the next subdivision.

And it wasn't just residential. Major streets miles away from downtown began to fill with office buildings that offered sleek, low-slung designs and plenty of parking. Not only here but everywhere in America, suburbs became a place to work and play as well as to live. Downtown Fresno became superfluous.

Out of Tune

Inexorable forces were at work. It cost less to buy and build in the north than to renovate or rebuild downtown. And the new suburban neighborhoods, with their large lots and safe streets, became fashionable, as did their so-called "garden" offices. People were moving to Fresno to escape big cities, not invent one. They treasured back yards and barbecues as Gruen did sidewalk cafes and kiosks, and here perhaps was the architect's greatest miscalculation.

"I don't think he was in tune with the automobile and the California life style," Levy said. "He was from Vienna, and he still thought you could create the downtown atmosphere of Vienna in Fresno . . . ."

There was, many Fresnans now believe, almost an arrogance to Gruen's quest for a citified Fresno. For several years, a scale model of his design was displayed at City Hall. "It had these wood blocks for towers," remembered developer Bud Long, "and showed this metropolitan area that you couldn't help but admire when you looked at it. But it made a statement: 'This is it. This is what your city is going to be.' "

Though many elements of Gruen's design were executed--Fresno now can boast of a thriving convention center, two new downtown hotels and a few new, albeit unfilled, office buildings--many crucial components were abandoned or left incomplete. Central city housing was one example.

People Are Key

"Gruen said . . . people have got to live here to make this thing work," said George A. Kerber, the city's chief planner. "He said the key to central area revitalization is not converting Fulton Street into a mall. . . . It is bringing back people who will live here and enjoy this thing.

"The community did not heed his advice."

Also, the plan had envisioned two, possibly three, major department stores on the Fulton Mall, yet there remains only one, the original Gottshalks at the mall's south end. Without at least two department stores, the mall violated an elementary shopping center principle: Anchor stores are needed at either end to stimulate foot traffic past all the shops in between.

Throughout the 1970s, the city was rebuffed in its attempts to excite interest in the Fulton Mall by major chains like Macy's. Fashion Fair had opened in 1971 and was an immediate commercial success, making it even more difficult to sell downtown to new retailers.

"Wherever the middle-income people are," said former Mayor Daniel K. Whitehurst, who was involved in many of the solicitations, "that's where they want to be. And in Fresno, because of the development patterns, those people are not downtown."

Other Problems

There were other problems. Freeways were delayed. Traffic patterns were redrawn, creating a circular pattern of one-way streets that confused and frustrated longtime Fresnans. The mall itself was so broad that even when good numbers of shoppers turned out, it looked desolate. And crime became a concern.

"It was hard getting the housewife down there," Hodge said. "There was a fear. We got broken in one year a half a dozen times. . . . You'd get a call every morning at 2 or 3: Somebody has broken your window; somebody has broken your gate."

Failure, like success, generates its own momentum. Bright facades began to droop. The trams stopped running. Building owners and shopkeepers no longer felt compelled to improve their stores.

The north end of the mall emptied, and its stores became roosts for winos and pigeons. Recalled Hodge: "We were damn near alone on the block, all alone. We said, 'What are we doing here.' " And so, in 1981, Hodge & Sons--among the last of the original One Hundred Percenters--pulled out, too.

City planners waged a doomed campaign to preserve the Gruen plan's integrity. One of their last defeats involved placement of a drug store at the north end--where Gruen had envisioned a major department store. Despite the planners' objections, the drug store was permitted to put in its own parking lot. Today, pedestrians who arrive at the store via the mall find a locked door and a sign instructing them to use the parking lot entrance.

So much for putting the automobile in its place.

Floyd Hyde was back in town the other day. Not long after the tumultuous Fashion Fair decision, the mayor left Fresno to serve as undersecretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon Administration. He remained in Washington, as a consultant, and on this day had been brought back to Fresno on business.

"Plans are dangerous," Hyde said as he sat with an interviewer at the center of the mall. "Once they get all printed up and with all those fancy colors and all that, nobody wants to change them--and yet the development of a city, like a person, is a changing one. And if you can't zig and zag now and then, you are going to be stuck with some real problems.

"Unlike a Vienna . . . the government here doesn't have autonomous control. For example, if we could have mandated that no regional shopping centers could be built within 20 miles of Fresno . . . we would be sitting here with crowds flocking around us, with Macy's at that end, and the Broadway over here."

Hyde made no attempt to explain away the devastating importance of Fashion Fair.

"It set a trend that was never reversed," he said simply.

Like a Retreat

As he spoke, twilight faded to darkness and the mall began to empty, fast. Gates were drawn over doorways. The old men of the mall moved in slouching ranks toward their retirement hotels. Uniformed guards escorted female workers to parking lots. It looked like a retreat.

Most cities that created downtown pedestrian reserves have endured hard lessons. A February report from the Washington-based Urban Land Institute noted that the pedestrian malls "killed business in 80% of the towns that put one in," and it identified 21 cities that were tearing them out. A recent survey conducted by the city of Eugene, Ore., made similar findings. The only place where the pedestrian reserves seem to work well is in smaller college towns, like Boulder, Colo.

"There is a lot of rethinking about pedestrian malls going on right now," said Boris Dramov, a San Francisco architect hired to redesign Santa Monica's outdoor mall. "Most cities are questioning whether they want to keep them."

Competitive Forces

Competition from major suburban shopping centers is a commonly cited contributor to the idea's death. In clashes between the central core and suburbs, the forces of politics and economics often come down on the side of sprawl.

"Our system encourages dispersion and decentralization rather than concentration," said Ki Suh Park, a leading Los Angeles architect. " . . . As certain areas are successful, the land becomes too expensive. And so the people seek cheaper land elsewhere to build something."

Some cities adopted the Fresno model seeking a quick cure for a complicated disease. "The example of Fresno," Contini said, "unfortunately was followed by many cities that were taken by the simplistic notion that all you had to do was close a street. They just did the surface medicine and did not have the real commitment that was required."

Gruen's premise that automobiles do not belong in a city's heart is no longer in vogue. The latest approach in downtown redesign is called streetscape--dressing up oversized sidewalks with outdoor cafes and landscaping, while still allowing street traffic. Downtown Santa Cruz is a model of this approach.

The Right Scale

"I think the important thing is putting cars and people in the right place, and the right scale," said Park, who espouses this view as managing partner of Gruen Associates. The firm's founder died in 1979 after returning to Vienna.

Fresno has entered another period of reappraisal. The housing tracts now are bearing down on the San Joaquin River, once an unthinkable natural boundary to the north. Architects joke that Fresno's geographical center drifts at a constant pace of 3 m.p.h.--away from downtown, away from Gruen's lyrical heart of the city.

"I don't think Fresno has a heart," said Stan Rys, a Fresno planning official.

There are those who believe that Fresno's growth eventually must turn back on itself, restoring neighborhoods left to crumble in the explosion's backwash. Others say that, should Fresno run out of suburban elbow room, the forces of expansion simply will pick up and move to smaller valley towns, where the process will begin anew.

One More Try

Fresno planners, meanwhile, have girded themselves for one more attempt to restore the central city. This time the vision is more prosaic. They want to create a civic center, a concentration of government buildings, law offices and the like, with shops and boutiques to serve a daytime clientele.

"The council is realizing that the people of Fresno are not exactly as they have been," said Rys. "There are thousands of people who like downtown. They would like to see downtown strong."

The Fulton Mall seems to figure in the new schemes as a minor element, an appendage.

And at a meeting in early April, members of the City Council began to kick around in public what planners already have discussed among themselves. Perhaps the time has come to concede defeat, rip out the mall and reopen Fulton Street to traffic.

Forgotten now by the great minds of urban design, the Fulton Mall has taken on its own personality and course.

Many storefronts remain empty, but others have been occupied by a second generation of merchants--jewelry outlets, shoe shops and discount stores that post specials in Spanish and English, marketing to farm workers rather than well-to-do suburbanites.

"Everybody doesn't have to have furs when they shop," said one mall property owner. "We were so engrossed with the maintenance and the traffic and the high-end image that we forgot we are dealing on a human scale with human people--and what makes something successful is if they use it."

And during the day at least, the mall is used.

Today's Denizens

By retired old men in thrift store suits who sun themselves on its benches.

By a woman with stringy hair and too much tan who admires her reflection in store windows as she mimics the poses of mannequins--window shopping for herself.

By a tough-looking woman who puts down her supermarket tabloid and pummels an old man with his own cane for a lewd remark.

By a sidewalk preacher who screams in Spanish from the very stage where, on a bright September day 24 years ago, the governor of California hailed a "bold and beautiful new look in American cities" and then started ducking eggs.

Here, like nowhere else in Fresno, are "the little merchants who make their living on the streets . . . the elderly lady who strikes up a conversation with the elderly gent sitting next to her on the bench . . . the millions of chance meetings that turn out to be important events of a lifetime."

'This Is America'

And at the heart of it all is a kiosk.

"You can find bad here if you want to," said Tom Dorsch, 54-year-old proprietor of a stand that advertises itself as American Hot Dogs. "You can find empty stores and winos and all that. But look at these people. This is America. This is what we have got down here. People trying to get by. All kinds of people. Not people walking around with their noses in the air, saying how much nicer it is up north."

The hot dog vendor sounded more than a little like Victor Gruen himself.

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