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In the downtown recovery race, Fresno is an unlikely frontrunner

Nova Safo Aug 14, 2023
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Street vendors at Fresno, California’s monthly ArtHop, one example of how the city is trying to draw visitors to its downtown area. Nova Safo/Marketplace

In the downtown recovery race, Fresno is an unlikely frontrunner

Nova Safo Aug 14, 2023
Heard on:
Street vendors at Fresno, California’s monthly ArtHop, one example of how the city is trying to draw visitors to its downtown area. Nova Safo/Marketplace
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Recovery from pandemic-era shutdowns has been difficult for many U.S. cities. That’s especially true for downtowns — clusters of office buildings which once hummed with activity, but now, more often than not, are having trouble in the era of hybrid and remote work. The University of Toronto’s School of Cities did a study on which downtowns are best bouncing back. One of the most improved? Fresno, California. 

For decades, Fresno has been working to revive its downtown core — where large 1920s-era buildings sit mostly empty. A key part of that effort is to entice people to the area for something other than office work. 

Like a monthly street festival with food vendors and merchants, called ArtHop. It takes advantage of a Fresno strength: Artists and galleries have moved in where businesses have moved out. 

Artists like Nanette Mattos, who runs Clay Hand Studios. 

“We are membership focused,” she said. “We survive and pay the rent, and all the funds that the members put in go towards this.”

The space Clay Hand Studios occupies is cavernous. It was once an auto dealership, Mattos said.

In the back, there’s a workshop and kilns, and finished pieces are displayed out front. Mattos said she would not have been able to afford such a space elsewhere.  

“If you are willing to be a part of the growth, and get into these older places and help revive it, there’s a great opportunity for affordability,” she said.

Fresno’s downtown also benefits from regular crowds that show up at its Minor League Baseball stadium, and from a diversified workforce that has to show up in person. That includes healthcare workers at a major hospital, and factory workers in giant structures in downtown’s periphery.

In fact, foot traffic in downtown Fresno hasn’t just recovered from the pandemic. It’s surpassed pre-pandemic numbers. 

Now, the city wants to add more residents. 

Inside the abandoned JCPenney building in downtown Fresno, California. (Nova Safo/Marketplace)

Inside a giant, empty, concrete-and-brick building, William Dyck, a developer, unlocks heavy metal doors. The building, which used to be home to a JCPenney, has been empty for three decades. Inside, there’s nothing but concrete beams, dusty floors, and giant holes where escalators used to be. 

Dyck plans to build 140 apartments here, within view of the baseball stadium. 

“We don’t have any concern about filling the units,” he said. “Downtown has one of the hottest residential markets that’s out there. One, because it’s becoming more popular every day and two, there’s a very limited capacity. There just hasn’t been a lot of residential built.”

And that’s pricing out people with lower incomes. 

“We have an affordable housing project that just opened with 57 units that had 4,000 people apply,” said Elliott Balch, president of the Downtown Fresno Partnership — a public-private initiative. 

Balch hopes that as more apartments are built, price pressures will abate. Both in Fresno and in the surrounding areas of the San Joaquin Valley. 

“A future Valley, which is (a) healthier, more sustainable, inclusive, and economically dynamic place to live, it’s going to look more like downtown, and downtown is going to be more successful as part of that story,” Balch said. “It has to be.”

He said he sees this as key to Fresno’s future, and the Valley’s future. 

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