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Rehabbed gems the fuel for "Great Downtown"

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There are lots of changes happening these days along Downtown Fresno’s Fulton Street.

But so far no tunnels are showing up.

I took a couple of walks along Fulton recently to check things out. A half-dozen observations:

1.) Mark Standriff, City Hall’s communications director, and Randall Morrison, Public Works’ special projects engineer, were kind enough to meet me Friday morning in front of the CVS drug store at the north end of what used to be Fulton Mall.

It’s still too early for cars along Fulton’s six blocks between Tuolumne and Inyo streets. But the half-century old pedestrian mall made famous by its connection to urban architect Victor Gruen is already long gone.

Security fences are everywhere. The ripping up of the old mall and the creation of a new “main drag” for Downtown is the order of the day.

The work is attracting considerable outside interest. Morrison, who’s in charge of the project from the City Hall side, recently spoke about Fulton’s restoration at a luncheon attended by about 80 members of the American Society of Civil Engineers and/or the American Public Works Association.

After the food and formal talk, Morrison took everyone on a guided tour of Fulton Corridor itself.

photo (9)2.) I wasn’t part of Morrison’s tour. But I was struck on one of my own walks along Fulton by the hole next to CVS. A big machine, like a giant backhoe, was ripping apart a concrete bunker buried deep in the ground.

Old piping was no match for the machine’s giant claws.

I’d asked Standriff and Morrison to let me take a photo of the hole when workers were on their lunch break. That led to our Friday morning confab.

Morrison said the bunker used to be the electrical vault for the mall’s northern “super” block. (The term “super block” dates back to the mall’s birth in 1964. The northern super block is the two blocks between Tuolumne and Fresno Street. The middle super block is between Fresno and Tulare Street. The southern super block is between Tulare and Inyo.)

photo (10)Anything electrical – such as PG&E meters – for the northern super block’s daily operation was in this vault. Atop the vault was a raised platform with seating for the public.

Each of the super blocks had its own vault/seating platform.

Can’t build a secure street over an old and decaying electrical vault, Morrison said.

3.) I’d also been struck on a previous walk by what appeared to be a string of smaller concrete vaults along the west wall of the CVS store. These smaller vaults had been uncovered during the restoration work.

What are these smaller vaults?

Morrison said they were part of the basement of the building that occupied the site prior to CVS. Morrison said he thought the previous building had been home to the Roos Brothers store and Montgomery Ward.

Morrison said the old basement had never been part of the CVS operation. He said project engineers decided the old basement’s walls must be removed so the new Fulton Street can have a stable foundation.

I asked Morrison if workers so far have found anything interesting – chests of money buried by bootleggers now long dead or remnants of tunnels leading to secret delights of yesteryear’s Chinatown to the southwest.

“All those myths – haven’t found anything yet,” Morrison said.

4.) My meeting with Standriff and Morrison completed, I headed back to my pickup. I had parked in front of the Pearl Building, located at 1841 Fulton halfway between Amador and Sacramento streets in the heart of Downtown’s Mural District.

photo (12)But first I had to walk past the old Theatre 3 at 1544 Fulton. Glad I did, because the long-empty building soon will be full of life.

Developer/owner Reza Assemi and workers were busy late Friday morning putting the finishing touches on a complete overhaul of the historic building. The place as of Monday will be the new home of Jeffrey Scott Agency, the well-known local firm specializing in advertising, branding, marketing and new media.

Jeffrey Scott Agency for years had been located on P Street, a few blocks south of City Hall.

The Assemi family through its various companies has been the key player in the Mural District’s renaissance. But Reza Assemi was first among the pioneers, getting the redevelopment ball rolling some 15 years ago when he turned the Pearl Building into a hip residential project.

According to city documents, Assemi bought the Theatre 3 building in mid-2012 for $177,000. City Hall sold it to him.

How did City Hall come to own the building? That’s a tale Fresnans would prefer to forget.

The Theatre 3 building is part of the city block bounded by Fulton, Calaveras, Stanislaus and Van Ness that once belonged to the Fresno Metropolitan Museum – the infamous Met.

The Met’s top executives long ago had wild dreams of expansion. They borrowed $15 million from a local bank. The money came due, and the executives wanted a loan extension.
The bank wouldn’t give the extension unless City Hall co-signed on the loan. City Hall took the leap in 2007.

The Met soon collapsed financially. City Hall (i.e. taxpayers) repaid the loan and got the land and buildings. The worthless buildings were razed. Most of the site was sold to another part of the Assemi empire for a huge residential/commercial project called The Lede.photo (18)

The Lede is almost finished.

Reza bought the old Theatre 3 building. Built in 1929 in the Mediterranean Revival style, the building had originally been a customer service center for Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

The building is on Fresno’s Local Register of Historic Resources. That means no one was ever going to tear it down.

The old Theatre 3 building needed someone who believes in adaptive reuse. That someone is Reza Assemi.

5.) Assemi gave me a tour of his building on Friday. I asked if he had found anything unusual as he peeled away layer after layer of grime and decay.

“I kept finding more and more work to do,” he said with a laugh.

photo (11)His goal, Assemi said, was to retain so much of the original building’s assets and spirit that “when you walk in you can’t tell if anything was altered.”

My wife and I in our courting days of 40 years ago went to a couple of productions at Theatre 3. Sorry, Reza, the place looks a lot different than when local actors were putting on “Brigadoon” on a tiny stage in the 1970s.

By that I mean the building today looks immensely better. The open floor plan allows a visitor to see the building’s charm with just one glance.

Assemi is a stickler for details. He restored and retained the original brass fixtures. The entrance hints at the best of 1930s Fresno. New wood features (African mahogany) have an old-time look and feel.

“I love the old buildings,” Assemi told me.

6.) If I’ve heard Mayor Ashley Swearengin say it once, I’ve heard her say it a hundred times:

“Great cities have great downtowns.”

Fresno is building a great downtown.

I took a walk on Saturday from my home in Northwest Fresno to Downtown. I wanted to check out the books at the Disabled American Veterans Thrift Store on Van Ness.

Nabbed a couple of good biographies for only $3.14 (including tax).

As always when in that neck of the woods, I walked the length of Fulton Corridor on my way back.

photo (15)Alerted by Morrison during our Friday chat, I took a peek at the new concrete work in front of what used to be the Gottschalks building near Inyo.

Just about all of the old concrete in that part of Fulton Mall is gone. Workers are starting to lay new concrete for curbs and parking areas. From what I could see through the curtained security fence, it’s beautiful.

Many of the trees are gone, as well. Some trees will survive to live along the restored Fulton Street. Some trees have been given a brief reprieve. Morrison said that reprieve will end once the tiny occupants of the bird nests are on their own in the big, tough world.

photo (14)The businesses along Fulton Corridor are open during construction. For the moment, work is mostly impacting the shops on the southern super block. Security fencing has created narrow corridors for shoppers moving from one store to another.

That means a tight squeeze for lines of people going both directions. There seemed to be a lot of shoppers at that end of Fulton on Saturday. I was delighted to see everyone being so polite and good natured about the inconvenience.

It all made me recall Randall Morrison’s three-word summation of the Fulton Street restoration project to date.

“Everything’s moving smoothly.”

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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