Fresno Seeks Touch Of Paradise To Cure Ill Downtown

Is it appropriate for designers to create objects that have no use beyond giving pleasure? In 1972, a French interviewer asked a similar question to the designer Charles Eames in the film "Design Q&A." His answer: "Who is to say pleasure is not useful?" Eames's rhetorical question can be rephrased in a positive way: Pleasure is a legitimate concern in design, and nowhere more so than in urban design. Just as we have outgrown the idea of strict functionalism, in which design is little more than finding the most efficient shape for a given purpose, we have abandoned the idea of the city as nothing more than a pure economic machine that contains housing, places of employment and ways of moving goods and people. We now think a city should provide pleasurable experiences — things to look at, places to hang out, beautiful landscape to stroll along — to fulfill its role as a city. Pleasure, however, is not a word that forms itself soundlessly on one's lips when looking at downtown Fresno. A city with a large downtown dating from the 19th century, Fresno was once a place of graceful, turn-of-the-century mansions and elegant apartment buildings from the 1920s. Now, however, the vacant lots and blocks of isolated, aging buildings emanate a sense of desolation and exhaustion. Until recently, the downtown area was virtually deserted on evenings and weekends. This enervation is a strange fate for Fresno, the hub of the San Joaquin Valley. "Fresno grew up as a center of agriculture," says urban designer Richard Thompson of A.C. Martin, the Los Angeles-based architectural firm that served as a design consultant for Vision 2010, the latest downtown plan. Set amid the plains of the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno's "magnificent buildings … seemed to come out of the middle of nowhere," he added. The magnificence of Fresno during the 1920s is hard to visualize nowadays. The city's downtown area is perhaps the most radical example in California of the abandonment of the traditional downtown core in favor of the suburbs. Like many cities during the postwar years, Fresno exploded with suburban growth (Fresno is now California's sixth largest city, with a population of nearly 500,000 residents) and Fresno County probably has more "rural sprawl" than any other region of the state. Making matters worse, earlier generations of city officials demolished some distinctive masonry buildings dating from the 19th Century during the period when we believed that buildings were the source of urban blight. Those buildings are mourned now because they would have added character, history and scale to a downtown revival. In Fresno's favor is an energetic redevelopment department that has worked hard to attract developers. During the past several years, those efforts have attracted nearly 30 projects or proposals, some recently completed, others under construction and still others unscheduled possibilities. A 12,500-seat baseball stadium, built by the city and rented by the Fresno Grizzlies minor league baseball team, reached completion in May. The stadium is located in the "entertainment district," just northwest of the dilapidated Fulton Mall, one of the oldest pedestrian malls in the country. The ballpark attracted 500,000 spectators during the Grizzlies' 2002 season, a stronger-than expected showing that suggests the ballpark could be the long-sought anchor of the entertainment district. A federal courthouse broke ground in the civic center about seven blocks east of the new ballpark, while a regional medical center is under construction several blocks north of the courthouse. Meanwhile, Fresno County officials are trying to decide on a new downtown location for a large library. The good thing about the current crop of projects is that they are large, "catalytic" projects capable of attracting further development around them. The bad thing is that most of the projects are scattered widely across the vast canvas of downtown Fresno, with little connective tissue in between. One project that holds some promise to connect the disparate, mutually unacknowledging pieces of downtown Fresno together is a proposed River Walk and Lake. It would stretch for seven or eight blocks between Highway 41 on the east and the Grizzly baseball stadium on the northwest. Like many American cities, Fresno appears enchanted by the famous Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas, that has become so widely imitated that it verges on becoming a planning clichι. Never mind. Cities do not need to be original to be successful. Rather, they need to provide amenities — water, shade, continuous architecture, landscaping — that provide a pleasant backdrop for human activity. And while "water features" are corny in many places, water in downtown Fresno would seem almost paradisal. (Students of Islamic architecture will remember that fountains — symbolizing the junction of four rivers — represent paradise in Arab courtyards.) Although the idea remains a mere diagram at this point in time, the proposed River Walk would flow alongside Fulton Mall, which the city plans to rejuvenate while building a residential mixed-use district around the old shopping center. In theory, people who attend the baseball game could stroll or shop or grab a meal in the Fulton Mall. I hope that the city will also create pricing incentives for people to park their cars near the off ramps of Highway 41, and walk several blocks up the Fulton Mall to the ballpark. In this way, a pedestrian district comes into existence. The artificial river is the thread that can stitch together the entertainment district. Under the leadership of Executive Director Dan Fitzpatrick, the redevelopment agency is using its modest resources to advance infill projects such as River Walk, as well as new housing and retail in ethnic enclaves likes China Town and Armenian Town. The city has earmarked a none-too-generous $30 million during the next five years for various downtown projects, including $10 million for the River Walk. If those projects move forward, lonely downtown Fresno would then have what seems almost unimaginable now: a lively pedestrian, mixed-use district. Pleasure, in turns out, is not only useful, but crucial to the district's future. A touch of paradise can bring people to otherwise abandoned places and return vitality to even the most degraded downtowns.