Archive · Fresno

With Fulton Street vote, a look at the future through the past

How old is Craig Scharton? Sometimes I think he must have a hundred years under his belt.

Truth be told, I’m older by a fair margin, and I’m only 65. But Scharton, a former Fresno City Council member and once the downtown revitalization czar for Mayor Ashley Swearengin, knows so much about the town’s political and cultural history. Seems like he must have lived through it all.

Scharton and I once got to talking about Fresno in the 1950s and early 1960s. He said there was a popular recurring advertisement in The Bee from a clothing retailer on Fulton Street. I’ve forgotten the store’s name; maybe’s it was Coffee’s.

Anyway, the author (perhaps the store’s general manager) used the space to recall events and people he had seen in the Human Comedy that was downtown Fresno. The items were brief in length and conversational in tone. Each item was separated with three dots – an ellipsis.

It was that simple.

“People loved it,” Scharton told me. “It helped build a sense of community.”

For reasons soon to be made apparent, the chronicling of Thursday’s remarkable City Council meeting deserves something close to that old-fashioned formula.

Here goes.

The big item on the agenda was the awarding of a contract to rip up Fulton Mall and build a road from Tuolumne Street to Inyo Street so cars can once again drive the Fulton Corridor … But none of that debate was to occur until the afternoon … I got to City Hall about 9:30 a.m., just in time to chat with Andy Levine outside the Council Chamber …

Levine, executive director of Faith In Community (a local alliance of activist groups), had just finished giving council members an earful about City Hall’s shortcomings when it comes to code enforcement … His inspiration was last month’s revelation that hundreds of residents in Summerset Village Apartments in central Fresno would be without heat or hot water for weeks … Levine said his message to lawmakers was simple: Use your legal powers to defeat slumlords, or yield your seats to someone who will …

Levine wasn’t the only activist to speak in blunt terms to the council … Council members then went into closed session to discuss, among other things, whether the city should sue Summerset owner Chris Henry … I don’t know if the tongue-lashing of Levine and Company was the reason, but the council stayed behind closed doors for the rest of the morning …

The morning action turned out to be at Summerset Village itself (about a quarter-mile south of the Veterans Hospital), where Swearengin announced that Henry had hired Brad Hardie to make sure natural gas service is returned to all apartments ASAP and hundreds of code violations are fixed … Hardie is president of Regency Property Management, a big player in Fresno’s residential rental market … Hardie also was a key member of the Mayor-Council Code Enforcement Task Force earlier this year, advocating for property-owners’ interests with an impressive diplomatic touch …

A phone chat between Hardie and myself later in the day allowed me to ask about getting a copy of the contract between Hardie and Henry … My thinking was that, while it’s true Hardie and Henry are private parties, it’s also true that angry city officials have insisted that Henry recognize City Hall as the ultimate judge of what happens at Summerset in the coming weeks … In light of this state of affairs, I told Hardie, the Hardie-Henry contract should be viewed by all parties as a public record …

Hardie didn’t disagree, but said he didn’t think it proper to email the entire contract to me … Hardie did say he’d show me the contract on Friday, an offer I plan to accept … I couldn’t get city officials, including City Attorney Doug Sloan, to give me a firm answer as to whether City Hall has in its possession a copy of the Hardie-Henry contract …

Hardie supposedly has a blank check from Henry to get all the repair/code enforcement work done fast and skillfully … But no one short of Bill Gates has an unlimited checking account, so I want to know the point at which Henry tells Hardie to stop spending … One of the interesting things Hardie told me was that the Hardie-Henry agreement is, in essence, a receivership …

Gregory Barfield, Council President Oliver Baines’ chief of staff, announced to the council chamber at about 11:30 a.m. that the council wouldn’t return to the dais until 1:30 p.m. … A lunchtime walk through Courthouse Park was much nicer than sitting in the Council Chamber … The crew at Carl’s Jr. at Abby Street/Illinois Avenue near Downtown provided great service during the noon rush …

The council when it reconvened first took care of a few routine items … Granville Homes Vice President Jeff Roberts thanked the council for its quick approval of a community facilities district for a portion of the Cooper River Ranch project … Copper River at the far north end of Fresno is one of the most attractive master-planned communities in the Valley, a magnet for any family that has a healthy bottom line and a love for the finer things in life …

It was with no apparent irony that the council pretty much went from Copper River Ranch with its country club to the public hearing on what to do with Fulton Mall at the opposite end of town … The six-block-long, 51-year-old pedestrian mall was supposed to do for downtown and surrounding residential neighborhoods what Copper River and innumerable other suburban residential/retail projects have done for North Fresno… But, instead of being an engine for greatness, Fulton Mall has pretty much been a wasteland for decades…

The Mayor and an army of allies worked for several years to get to this particular item before the council on Thursday … A key hurdle was cleared in early 2014 when the council decided the best of three options for a reformed Fulton Corridor (Tuolumne to Inyo) was the one preferred by Swearengin … Now the council merely had to award the construction contract to locally-based American Paving, the low bidder …

But the low bid came in at $22.4 million while City Hall has only $20 million to spend … This situation seemed to open the door for mall supporters to refight a battle it had lost time after time in last few years … Mall supporter after mall supporter went to the public microphone to say the council should simply walk away from what they viewed as a bad deal …

There was a time in the mid-20th century when Fulton Corridor from Inyo to Tuolumne was one huge beehive of retail activity … Scharton, owner of Peeve’s Public House at the mall’s north end, was one of those on Thursday who spoke in favor of opening Fulton Corridor to cars … Scharton noted that only his business among those with a Fulton Mall address is open past 6 p.m. seven days a week …

Swearengin was not shaken by the high bid, telling the council that it should approve the American Paving contract and trust the “value engineering” skills of city staff to pare the final cost by a couple of million dollars … What the council is facing, Swearengin said, “is yet another significant moment in the history of our city.” … In the end, the council on a 6-1 vote (Paul Caprioglio the lone no) awarded the contract to American Paving …

There was considerable applause when the electronic vote was displayed for all to see … Many of those who want the mall to survive didn’t see Swearengin, Chief of Staff Georgeanne White and other top Administration officials exchange hugs not far from the dais … The defeated had already left the building …

Council Member Lee Brand, who is running to succeed Swearengin when she’s termed out in January 2017, had spoken eloquently from the dais on the need to award the contract to American Paving … If Fulton Corridor stays as a pedestrian mall, Brand said, “ten years from now I don’t see us being any place other than where we are now.” … Brand said he’s confident the reopening of Fulton Corridor to cars can be done within the $20 million budget …

But what happens if the job actually takes $22 million? … Brand and I discussed this possibility during a Wednesday evening telephone chat … My premise, strictly for the sake of argument, was that the extra $2 million could be found someplace other than the general fund …

I told Brand about my trip to Old Pasadena in the mid-1990s … I was a Bee business reporter at the time … John Moffat at the time was deeply involved with something called the Uptown Committee, a group of business leaders and public officials trying to revitalize the area north Fulton Mall …

The idea was that an energetic Uptown would lead to an energetic Downtown … Both areas had their assets, Uptown being home to The Fresno Metropolitan Museum and Arte Americas, Downtown beginning to see another spurt in government offices … But, as anyone with a good memory will attest, Uptown some 20 years ago was a pretty sad place …

Pasadena leaders had already done to Old Pasadena what Moffat and company wanted to do in Uptown Fresno … Ten or so Fresno leaders, among them developer Ed Kashinan, Mayor Jim Patterson and Council Member Dan Ronquillo, traveled to Pasadena to see how the folks down there did it … I tagged along …

And how have things changed in both Uptown and Downtown since then? … Brand and I saw no reason to go into detail with each other … But, in a nutshell, you’ve got all those Assemi/Redevelopment Agency residential projects in Uptown and you’ve got Chukchansi Park, a revived Convention Center, Civic Center Square and the new Federal Courthouse in Downtown …

That’s not all, Brand said … Sevak Khatchadourian has invested millions in Fulton Corridor buildings, and plans to invest even more in the future … Owners of the empty Hotel Fresno at long last are getting their financing ducks in a row to rehabilitate that historic building …

“If you had told me as I drove down to Old Pasadena that all these changes would come to pass, I wouldn’t have believed you,” I told Brand … “All that’s missing now is doing something with that mall,” I added … “In that case,” Brand told me, “wouldn’t you spend $2 million to get the final piece in place?” …

I loved to go The Bee library during my reporting days and read old clips from 1954-1964 debate over the fate of downtown Fresno … I used to think the answer could be found in those thousands of old stories as to how Fresno’s shrewd, experienced, worldly leaders came to the conclusion that the best way to ensure a dynamic future for the most important half-mile stretch of the city’s most important street was to turn it into one vast sidewalk … I never found the answer …

It was Victor Gruen, the famous urban architect, who sold Fresno in late 1950s on the wisdom of turning Fulton Corridor into Fulton Mall … Gruen’s company in the 1960s was so in love with its Fresno creation that it made a short documentary of the mall project, and once showed it at President Lyndon Johnson’s White House … I love the idea of a company simply called American Paving getting the honor of fixing Gruen’s over-thought mistake …

The Council Chamber pretty much cleared out after the big mall vote … The council, with a few tweaks, adopted the new development code … The council also formally added receivership to its options should Chris Henry and Brad Hardie fail to fix Summerset Village to City Hall’s satisfaction …

I congratulated Swearengin at one point during a long Thursday on her Fulton Corridor success … I told her that I was amending my earlier prediction, and she would have an honored spot in Fresno history not only for the $429 million water project but for restoring Fulton Street as well … “Oh, I think I’ve got a couple of other items that will permanently change our city,” she told me …

One day I went to The Bee morgue (where bound volumes of old newspapers are kept) in search of the chatty advertisement by that long-dead retailer … As Scharton promised, I found it … The Bee throughout those old papers added this line: “Shop Downtown – Most Stores Open Until 9 p.m.”

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

1 Comment

  1. John Voenes worked for Coffee’s. His column in the ad was called JV Speaks. I am 100 years old, but I only look 90!

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