Fresno v. Eckbo

To revive downtown, the city appears poised to drive right through a masterpiece.

By Mimi Zeiger

The city of Fresno sits in the middle of California’s San Joaquin Valley. When you drive into town from Los Angeles, the landscape is agricultural and framed by roadside eucalyptus trees. It gives way to off-ramp clusters of gas stations, fast-food chains, and light industrial warehouses. Most of Fresno’s neighborhoods, after nearly 50 years of decentralization and flight from the urban core, sprawl north, tracking the edge of the San Joaquin River. The city’s historic downtown and civic center are a near ghost town.

At the heart of downtown is the Fulton Mall. In the early part of the 20th century, it was Fresno’s main drag, Fulton Street, six blocks lined with banks and department stores. In 1964, the landscape architect Garrett Eckbo turned the street into a modernist pedestrian mall as part of a master plan for downtown Fresno by Victor Gruen Associates. Photographs of the period show a wide promenade full of people flanked by the awnings of existing buildings. Daffodils peek out of Eckbo’s sculptural planting beds, fountains gurgle, and a clock tower by Jan de Swart, an expressive interpretation of a historic form, unambiguously marks the mall as the new town square.

Today, the mall is the center of a fight over downtown Fresno’s redevelopment. The city government, with a $14 million federal transportation grant, supports plans to put a new complete street down the center of the mall. Preservationists plan to file a lawsuit to block the scheme. The rhetorical standoff between sides comes down to revive versus destroy, but the conditions on the ground tell a more complicated story about the role of design as a catalyst and a scapegoat in a changing urban landscape.

In the mid- to late 1950s, Gruen Associates began developing a central business district master plan for Fresno. Designed to knit back together an already fragmenting urban core, the scheme took a superblock approach. Gruen first proposed removing cars and closing streets in an early plan for Fort Worth, Texas, in 1955, but the dramatic design was never built. He continued to test this idea in Fresno across some 2,000 acres of downtown property, which included the pedestrian Fulton Mall and planned pedestrian linkages to civic center buildings. The city’s convention center and two hotels were built under the master plan, but proposed housing in the urban core never materialized. In 1968, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development honored the mall with a National Design Excellence award. A film produced that year by Gruen Associates, Fresno: A City Reborn, shows Fulton Mall in full swing. It’s bustling with people, fountains are bubbling, and there is even a motorized tram to shuttle shoppers from the parking structures to the stores. A voice-over praises the ingenuity of banishing the dangerous and dirty automobile from public space. But the vibrancy was short-lived—within two years, anchor tenants began moving to north Fresno, following the economic trail, which led the city council to make a series of decisions that entirely undermined the Gruen plan. In 1973, amendments to the master plan undid the superblock scheme. Gruen planned east–west street closures along Fresno and Tulare Streets to connect the mall to the civic buildings, but the streets were never closed. The council’s vote confirmed that they would stay open. A more radical action came in 1974 with a new plan, the Fresno General Plan, which reoriented the city away from downtown and called for a policy of multiple centers.

Downtown Fresno’s decline throughout the next few decades mirrors the decline of urban cores across the country as suburbanization took hold, but a few rescue attempts were made in the 1990s and early 2000s. The state of downtown is currently Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s bête noire, and the current push toward redevelopment comes from her office. The architect and urbanist Stefanos Polyzoides of Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists in Pasadena was hired as a consultant to develop the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan in 2010. With input from a stakeholder committee, his office created eight alternative plans for the mall that ranged from full restoration to adding lanes of vehicle traffic and reconnecting the city grid. The city of Fresno engaged RHAA Landscape Architects of San Francisco in the fall of 2013 to assess three schemes: a straight roadway, a curving roadway, and the preservation of the existing mall. The politics around the schemes from both the mayor’s office and the preservation activists had polarized the decision, boiling down to an all-or-nothing debate. The analysis recommended moving forward with a design that adds a two-lane roadway, which requires the relocation of many of Eckbo’s landscape features.

Aris Janigian was born and currently lives in Fresno, and he splits his time between growing grapes and writing books. His 2003 novel, Bloodvine, is set in the Central Valley, and he is at work on an upcoming novel that takes place in part on the Fulton Mall. He remembers how his Armenian great uncle would walk to the mall every morning and sit in Eckbo’s landscape and play pinochle with other old-timers under the trees. “It was a refuge for them,” he recalls. “But over time there were fewer and fewer people. I was raised on the mall in the 1960s. My parents would take us down there for pants and shoes. As a kid I found the geomorphic sculptures so fascinating and imaginative that the mall became part of my psyche living here.”

As for how residents view the mall today—how it resonates with the civic psyche—Janigian is less poetic: “Fresno is oblivious to this part of town.” According to an interactive poverty map created by Esri for ArcGIS, which visualizes census tracts, U.S. median net worth, and demographics, Fulton Mall is one of the poorest tracts in a region facing huge income inequality. Figures from 2012 report the median income on the mall as $8,544, or 13 percent of the national average. Shopping now happens in the northern part of the city, at the River Park shopping center. The huge outdoor mall, set appealingly in a sea of parking lots, opened in the late 1990s, but it was the suburban Fashion Fair Mall, built in 1970, that first drew shoppers away from downtown, signaling the beginning of the end. “Fulton was historically the main street, the densest part of the downtown—it is our lifeline that has been cut off,” says Wilma Quan-Schecter, Fresno’s deputy city manager.

The swirl of politics and maneuvering around economic revitalization, however, is largely deaf to preservation cries and the quality of Eckbo’s modernist design. The Fulton Mall is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and is listed in the California Register of Historical Resources. A lawsuit filed in March by the Downtown Fresno Coalition aimed to block the renovation, called the Fulton Mall Reconstruction Project, with technicalities tied not to the landscape’s merits but to an environmental impact report made by the city of Fresno. In October a local judge ruled against the petition. The Downtown Fresno Coalition appealed the decision and also filed a federal lawsuit. Members of the coalition such as the urban planner Hal Tokmakian, who is now retired; Linda Zachritz, a petitioner on the suit; and Stan Bitters, a Fresno-based sculptor responsible for the large, organically shaped fountains on the Fulton Mall, consider the mall one of Eckbo’s masterpieces and a total work of art. They championed its merits on the Save the Fulton Mall!!! Facebook page, but given how fast the city is moving forward with the new designs, the time for rallying public sentiment has passed. Protest has given way to litigation.

Marc Treib, the architectural historian and a coauthor of the seminal book Garrett Eckbo: Modern Landscapes for Living, sums up the difficulties of preserving landscape architecture. “The first stage is new and modern, then old fashioned, then, if the project hangs on, it becomes classic,” Treib says. “Landscape has a hard time reaching the classic stage.” The Fulton Mall, he observes, still holds many of Eckbo’s motifs, some formally modernist such as the biocubic and fragmented shapes, and some socially progressive, such as a swerving path that gives a sense of townscape and shapes the views.

Eckbo’s design is steeped in symbols of the San Joaquin Valley—fountains, paving, and plantings reference the city’s geographic location between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Coastal Range. Echoes of the region’s agricultural topography arise in alternating bands of stained and unstained concrete in wavy patterns. Water features at either end of Fulton Mall pay homage to the Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers.

“From day one Garrett was interested in linking the farm community to the mall,” says Bitters, one of the last links to Eckbo. “My clay pipes look like the standpipes up Highway 99.” His fountains will be removed or relocated per the city’s plan—including some 26 clay and enamel sculptural pipes set in Eckbo’s water features.

Bitters, who is recognized as part of the modernist craft movement in the 1960s but was largely overlooked afterward, had his first solo exhibition after more than three decades at Heath Ceramics in San Francisco this past spring. Founded in 1948, the tile and homeware company Heath Ceramics epitomizes the continued popularity of California modernism. The opening at its San Francisco retail store and gallery brought Bitters’s clay sculptures and objects back to national attention but did little to stir debate around Fulton Mall. Bitters first met Eckbo in the 1950s while working for a local brick manufacturer, for which he’d toured California, knocking on the doors of landscape and design firms. The sculptor’s large concrete fountain, titled Dancing Waters, sits in front of the Guarantee Savings Building at the corner of Fresno Street and Fulton Mall. Like much of the artwork on the mall, it’s an emblem of midcentury sensibilities. But the waters no longer dance out of electronically controlled jets and splash into mushroom-like trays, and Bitters isn’t sure what happened to the colored lights. The fountain’s kidney-shaped basin sits dry—maintenance issues shut it down years ago.

In addition to Bitters’s work, the mall features 19 artworks—sculptures installed on podiums or worked into water features—purchased by a group of private citizens for the mall the year after it was completed. Bitters says that a group of “city fathers” led by Lewis Eaton, who was a Guarantee Savings and Loan president and later a noted nature conservationist, raised $160,000 and selected the San Francisco gallerist Paule Anglim to curate the outdoor collection. She acquired an impressive group, including bronze works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Tony Rosenthal, and George Tsutakawa. At the corner of Mariposa and Fulton is Big A by Peter Voulkos, a monumental assemblage of polished bronze and cast aluminum. A series of colorful mosaic benches by the local artists Joyce Aiken and Jean Ray Laury, like much of the artwork on the mall, epitomizes the art of the era, combining abstraction with an investigation of craft and materiality. “It’s extraordinary to see so much art as part of the civic experience,” notes Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, the founder and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, in Washington, D.C., who consulted on the development of an alternative scheme for Fulton Mall in 2010 that was not selected. His proposal suggested opening up some cross streets for better access while leaving Fulton pedestrian—and its features intact.

“This is the first time that I know of in the modern era that an outside sculpture garden happened in a city. It is something that only might have happened in a Beaux-Arts period.” Birnbaum sees the collection as an authentic piece of the landscape’s integrity—something to be celebrated and a magnet for future midcentury modern tourism. While the assessment report by RHAA recommends the repair, conservation, and restoration of the artworks in place or close by, what seems irreparably lost is the historical significance of this collection as a civic gesture—the sharing of renowned contemporary art culled from California and beyond with the Fresno public.

This past September, the Fulton Mall turned 50 years old, and the design shows the difficulties of age. In conversations about the redevelopment, proponents use “blighted” to describe the place as it exists now. The term calls to mind midcentury urban renewal and demolition and clearance of impoverished sections of cities, a strategy haunted by blatant social justice missteps. The fountains are dry, some concrete around planters is buckling, and morning glory vines have taken over the landscape in spots, mounding over curbs and dead plants. Yet the integrity of Eckbo’s vision is clear. Plazas are barren in the blast of the midday sun, but look closer and you’ll find people gathered under wisteria-covered pergolas. An inventory of existing trees conducted by HortScience for RHAA found that of the 154 trees on the mall, 81 percent are in fair to good condition. There are mature Chinese elms, Canary Island pines, oaks, magnolias, crape myrtles, olives, and pistachio and fig trees. In the shade under their canopies you see day laborers and office workers, skate punks and residents from the nearby Section 8 housing. In the windows of Fulton Mall you can see a bright pink quinceañera dress hanging in one storefront with a rainbow collection of others. The signs advertise international calling cards, immigration and social services, and Chinese food. A bunker-like CVS near Tuolumne Street, at the north end of the mall, is one of the few national retailers in downtown Fresno.

Craig Scharton is the proprietor of Peeve’s Public House and Local Market located on the mall. The brewpub and music venue is aspirational, an example of how some business leaders envision a future for downtown Fresno that mirrors the booming return to urban life seen in places like downtown Los Angeles or Portland. “The reality is that downtown will be revitalized by local businesses, not corporate entities,” says Scharton. “However, it’s not bad to have a few national retailers involved. That’s good because they have advertising expenses figured in in a way that most of us don’t.”

Scharton may subscribe to if-you-build-it logic, but he’s also been priming the pump for nearly a decade. He is referred to as the “czar” of Downtown Fresno redevelopment, having served as the city of Fresno’s business development director under Mayor Swearengin and, until recently, as interim head of the Downtown Fresno Partnership, a property-based improvement organization. “Where else can you get farm-to-table or gastropub food and craft beer?” he asks rhetorically with the hope that Peeve’s support of local food, beer, and wine culture will win over the well-heeled crowd that lives in affluent North Fresno and nearby Clovis. “People who are urban by nature will come.”

In the past few years, there has been a small influx of urban-minded activity downtown. On the north side of Tuolumne Street is the self-proclaimed Mural District. It begins as the Fulton Mall fades into a plaza framed by parking lots, and at this corner Fulton returns to a roadway—the mall becomes a street. An artist and developer, Reza Assemi, renovated several industrial buildings into commercial spaces and residential lofts, each painted with a large street-art mural. Some of the real estate is occupied by artists and galleries, but the loft units are meant to appeal to the professional and creative class “urban pioneers,” a term used on the Mural District website. The renewed energy in the neighborhood is fueled in part by an event called ArtHop, organized by the Fresno Arts Council, which includes open studios and a street fair and takes place every first and third Thursday of the month. Signs of change are evident throughout the neighborhood: There are new construction, fresh asphalt, bump outs for parking, and newly planted median strips.

The Mural District claims the historic Warnors Theater at the corner of Tuolumne and Fulton Streets as its own. Built in 1928 as a Pantages theater, it is now a center for performing arts. Its Byzantine-meets-Baroque marquee asks passersby to “like” it on Facebook. There’s some logic then in the plan to extend existing Fulton Street into the mall and knit together a struggling piece of the urban fabric with one showing signs of life, but is a roadway the only way to reestablish this connection?

Like many other proponents interviewed about the Fulton Mall Reconstruction Project, Scharton easily rattles off metrics on pedestrian malls as if they were a mantra for redevelopment: Of 200 pedestrian malls built around the country in the 1960s and 1970s, 89 percent failed, 11 percent remain, and 90 percent of cities that restored traffic to them revitalized in the first few years. “Yes, a lot of malls failed, but because cities failed at the time,” counters Birnbaum. A landscape may struggle, such as Lawrence Halprin and Associates’ Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, slated for a second redesign in 2015 by James Corner Field Operations, but other projects—such as Halprin’s Charlottesville Mall in Virginia or Morris Lapidus’s Lincoln Road in Miami—are renewed with an eye for preserving the design intent and character. “A landscape can absorb change, but when it’s gone, it’s gone,” Birnbaum continues. “Once the power of place is divided from the authenticity of the place, you could be anywhere else.”

Scharton is well versed in contemporary urbanist topics and paraphrases The Death and Life of Great American Cities, citing Jane Jacobs’s call for “eyes on the street” as an argument for a roadway. In context, Jacobs’s quote refers to street safety and mutual policing. The need for a two-lane street in the Fulton scheme is twofold. First, by creating a six-block-long “complete street”—one that accommodates pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists, and access to public transit—the city of Fresno qualifies for the federal transportation grant it has received under the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, Discretionary Grant program. Two of the three schemes developed by RHAA followed this line and, according to RHAA’s report, will be bolstered by “nonfederal matching funds,” whereas a third scheme that proposes restoration lacks a funding source. Second, many national retailers require street-facing storefronts in their leasing packages. In short, a street is all but a fait accompli for the city of Fresno, local business owners like Scharton, and existing building owners and new ones—there’s been a small uptick in out-of-town developers purchasing real estate on Fulton Mall.

Some of the speculation may not be fueled by the revised future of Fulton Mall, per se, but rather by the coming high-speed rail station just a couple blocks west. To the east, a planned rapid bus system within Fresno will connect to the neighborhoods and suburbs. According to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the system will run from San Francisco to Los Angeles by 2029, with the initial section making stops in Fresno by 2022. With travel times predicted to be as little as 90 minutes to the Bay Area and two hours to Los Angeles, there’s potential for the city to be a bedroom community. “High-speed rail will make California smaller and more accessible,” Quan-Schecter, the deputy city manager, explains. “This opens up the possibilities of where folks can work and live. When people can move around that quickly, it helps with the economy and sets us up for a vibrant downtown.”

RHAA’s Douglas Nelson, ASLA, is leading the project. He seems eager to talk about the design, yet over the phone there is a slight hesitation in his voice. Nelson’s mentor, Robert Royston—the R in the firm’s name—shared a practice with Eckbo and Edward A. Williams from 1945 until 1958. He knew Eckbo and aims to honor his achievement and memory. Although the firm has a record of preserving and restoring historic and cultural landscapes, such as the Golden Gate Park Music Concourse in San Francisco, Nelson doesn’t consider this a preservation project. “Integrity and fabric [are] always a part of the discussion,” he notes. “We will do what we can and preserve the character and some qualities of the design.” This means creating sidewalks of different widths on either side of the two traffic lanes, a 14-foot-wide walkway on one side and a 28-foot promenade on the other, to be able to retain many of Eckbo’s features. The iconic clock tower that currently sits in the middle of the mall at Mariposa Street will be moved off center to an adjacent plaza used for festivals and gatherings.

To address public and stakeholder input, RHAA brought the landscape architect and organizer Steve Rasmussen Cancian of the firm Spaces Landscape Architecture onto the team. Meetings were held across Fresno and individually addressed the city’s Hmong, Vietnamese, African American, and Latino communities. Building owners, the Downtown Fresno Partnership, and Mural District pioneers were all brought into the conversations. Yet even with outreach to multiple constituencies, the success of the design hangs on persuading many Fresno residents that downtown has a future. “This will not solve the issues of downtown, but it is a step in the right direction,” Nelson says.

The new design is adaptive and will include removable bollards for street closures and events. It’s not hard to imagine the nearby ArtHop, a local music festival, or a farmers’ market filling the street. It’s a vision for a new urban landscape shared by many mayors across the country. It’s just that in Fresno, Eckbo’s design and the unique artworks serve as the street’s motif, the local inflections along a European-style retail street. “If this is successful, the street will be closed on many days,” Nelson reflects. “That’s the irony.”

Mimi Zeiger is a Brooklyn-based freelancer who writes on art, architecture, and design. She is a contributing editor at Architect.

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4 thoughts on “Fresno v. Eckbo”

  1. Reblogged this on Here in Van Nuys and commented:
    Excellent article. You somehow manage to explore and explain the different facets of ideology, design and practicality without bias. I have a new appreciation for the mid 1960s pedestrian mall even as it failed to ignite the rebirth it intended.

  2. “To revive downtown, the city appears poised to drive right through a masterpiece.” – Mimi Zeiger

    You’ve got it backwards: the Fulton Mall was driven right through the heart of Fresno, and the city hasn’t been the same since.

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