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Fulton Mall Project A Done Deal? Not So Fast

Dec 8, 2015

The Fulton Mall has been a source of controversy since before it was built decades ago. Last week, the Fresno City Council took what could be the final vote deciding its fate. But opponents says the fight is not over yet. In fact, there are still challenges facing the project.

At their most recent meeting, the Fresno City Council approved a $22,400,000 contract with American Paving to rip out the Fulton Mall and replace it with a street drawing cheers and applause from crowd of supporters.

The vote seemed to many to be the final step in the long and contentious battle over the future of the mall.

But this is hardly the end.

First among the remaining challenges is the contract the council approved.

It’s over the city’s self-imposed cap of $20,000,000. That’s the amount that has been lined up in state and federal grants, keeping the city from spending its own money on the project.

‘No worries’ says Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin who argues the contract has numerous add-ons and extra that can be pulled out without dramatically altering the project or triggering additional environmental review.

“Such as a traffic signal. Converting to a stop sign instead of a traffic signal. Such as a low kind of light standard. Nothing that jeopardizes the integrity of the project but would in fact lower the cost,” Swearengin said.

Working with companies to lower the cost of a project is common. But sources familiar with city practices say what is uncommon is knowing how much money you have and approving a contract that exceeds that amount without knowing where the savings will come from.

But what if that doesn’t happen?

Council members repeatedly stated, time and again, that if the project can’t be brought under 20-million it will not happen, as Lee Brand said from the dais.

“We have to find the money. I can be through cost savings. We can find other federal grants. If somebody wants to donate a half a million dollars. It is not going to some from the general fund,” Brand said.

But that talk has rattled residents who fear ‘cost savings’ means losing city’s multi-million dollar public art collection that currently lines the mall.

Again, the mayor and council promises that will not be the case.

So that is the first hurdle. The second is lawsuits over environmental impacts of removing the mall.

Two separate lawsuits have been brought by the Downtown Fresno Coalition seeking to stop the project. Last year, the coalition lost a suit in Fresno County Superior court and advocates are now appealing to the state. A separate federal lawsuit is now before a US district court judge.

The group’s lawyer Sarah Hedgpeth-Harris promised to ask the court to halt construction if the city tries to break even one piece of concrete before those lawsuits are resolved.

“If you have already started or commenced with any kind of construction, it is within the power of the court to repair and unwind everything that you have undone. Because you have not complied with the law before you have done that,” Hedgpeth-Harris said.

This is not unheard of in California. Other projects, such as a super target in LA, have begun construction only to be stopped mid-way because of legal challenges. It is also still possible the appeals court could determine that the city does need to do more review.

Long time CEQA lawyer Mike Slater says that is how projects wind up scuttled, the delays either cause a private developer to decide it’s not worth the hassle or a municipality loses its political will.

“The CEQA process can be very time consuming. It can take a year to try a case at the trial level. And in my experience two years to get an appeal. So you are looking at a three year process,” Slater said.

Slater says because every project is different, there is no consistent trend regarding whether or not an appeal will be successful.

And even if all of those problems are cleared away, there is still the concern about what to do with the small businesses that now line the mall should it become a hip and more expensive destination.

Advocates for returning the mall to a street acknowledge that if it is successful, the price of real estate is going to go up.

Council member Esmeralda Soria says the city should look into making relocation money available for the small business that could no longer afford the rent but want to stay in business in Fresno.

“I think that it is only fair that given the fact that they have been there for a number of years, that they continue to have the opportunity to thrive even if it is in another neighborhood,” Soria said.

The Downtown Fresno Partnership, the business association, does not currently have a program to help businesses move off the mall, but does have programs to improve signage and access for businesses that want to stay.

Assuming all those problems can be overcome, which is a big assumption, advocates say work on the mall could begin in earnest early next year and under ideal circumstances be completed by spring of 2017.