FRESNO, Calif. — While many U.S. cities are converting urban cores into walkable oases where people can stroll to restaurants and shops, bike and be green, Fresno is going the opposite direction.
Its leaders want to lay down roadway on a six-block pedestrian mall once touted as a national model for pedestrian-friendly downtowns.
City officials say the reconstructed street would be pedestrian- and environment-friendly, with just two lanes of traffic, 25-foot wide sidewalks, and public artwork. And with high speed rail construction slated to begin shortly, a station is planned just a block from the mall.
Built during urban renewal in the 1960s, the Fulton Mall has lapsed into decay, its mostly empty 1920s-vintage office buildings attracting little revenue in this city of 500,000 in California's agricultural heartland.
The city got a $16 million federal grant to dig up the mall and open it up to auto traffic, which officials say will draw new businesses and shoppers. "This mall does not meet market demand, yet we have all the ingredients to make it an amazing public space," Mayor Ashley Swearengin said.
Critics say reconstruction may not lead to revitalization – and would destroy one of the city's few walkable areas, displace immigrant merchants and harm air quality in one of the country's most polluted regions.
"It would become just another road, another piece of asphalt," said Kate McKnight, interim chair of the Downtown Fresno Coalition, a nonprofit that opposes tearing up the mall. "Without it being something special and unique, people won't have any reason to come."
The city council will decide in the coming months whether to move ahead with the plan.
The Fulton Mall was one of about 200 pedestrian malls built from the 1950s through the 1970s in the U.S. Many cities later converted the malls back into streets – often spurring an increase in shoppers and sales.
But in recent years, the pedestrian-only trend has come back throughout the U.S., with city cores from Portland, Ore., to New York City being transformed into walkable, hip places to live and work.
Officials and residents have pushed for car-free zones, pedestrian friendly laws and sustainable neighborhoods in city centers that have become hubs of creativity and innovation.
"Before, it was just the choice of the car. Now people are saying, we want to live in communities where we can walk, bike, take public transit, or drive to work," said Bruce J. Katz, director of the metropolitan policy program for the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Of the several dozen pedestrian malls that remain, many have been redeveloped and are thriving.
The pedestrian mall in Santa Monica, Calif., had fallen into decline. It was revamped and now attracts thousands of residents and tourists a day. Denver's 16th Street Mall, Boulder, Colo.,'s four-block-long Pearl Street Mall and Charlottesville, Va.'s tony brick-paved car-free mall are also big draws.
In Iowa City, Iowa, officials plan to redesign their pedestrian mall, keeping it car-free. And Phoenix is considering closing off some streets to automobiles to enliven parts of downtown.
But Fresno officials say redesigning the mall – an area especially popular among Latinos and other ethnic groups – won't bring back businesses or pedestrians. They point out that pedestrian malls thrive in college or resort towns.
In Fresno, with its suburban development and heavy reliance on cars, the culture is different, Swearengin said.
The mall's 45 buildings have a 56% vacancy rate. Many business owners favor opening the strip to cars.
"People would be able to drive through the mall and see what's there. It would give us an opportunity to be more visible," said Raul De Alba, whose family owns a restaurant and several other businesses in Fulton Mall.
The city would benefit from parking meter revenues and increased property taxes, officials said, and new businesses would bring new jobs.
But critics say the mall has failed because the city did not promote it, abandoned the urban core and allowed developers to build out housing, strip malls and upscale shopping centers on the wealthy north side of town.
"The problems of downtown should not be blamed on the Fulton Mall. The lack of traffic and business is tied to a failing economy and to negative perceptions about downtown," McKnight said.
The mall could be revitalized without tearing it down and promoted as an arts-and-entertainment or multi-cultural district, McKnight said. Theaters, arts galleries, ethnic eateries and beautiful public art already dot the area.
Residents also worry how increased traffic downtown will affect air quality in a region that records the nation's highest levels of particulate matter and ozone pollution.
"Anything that encourages a car-centric society is not what we need in an air basin that is as polluted as ours," said Jenny Saklar with the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, a Fresno-based watchdog group that represents 70 area organizations.