One of the entrances to Chukchansi Park is right off the Fulton Mall, a 60’s relic of urban planning deserted by one major business after another over several decades. Designed by the inventor of the shopping mall, Victor Gruen, Fulton Mall was to be the first part of a huge, outdoor, pedestrian-friendly superblock development. Even though Fulton Mall opened to wide acclaim and great amounts of traffic, all it took was the departure of one anchor tenant – Montgomery Ward’s in 1970 to a new suburban mall – to set off the eventual, gradual decay of the concept. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, numerous ideas were pitched to help revitalize downtown, none coming to fruition.
So it’s easy to see how many civic and business leaders felt that Chukchansi Park (opened in 2002) would become a key catalyst in the redevelopment of Downtown Fresno. Sadly, Fulton Mall is as rundown and empty as ever, the only tenants being thrift stores and other retailers catering to the Latino community. It’s an all-too-familiar example of how ballparks don’t bring urban renewal. Peeking into restaurants and storefronts before the game, it appeared that what few patrons were there were not also ballpark-bound. With a garage and a surface lot close by, there’s never a need to hang out in the dilapidated downtown.
That said, Chukchansi Park is still a decent AAA park, centrally located in the region, and easily accessible by public transit. If you’re a baseball junkie and have time for a day trip, Fresno’s reachable in four hours or less from most of the state. The single concourse at Chukchansi is vast at 50 feet wide. There are mist nozzles at the edge of the overhang that are deployed when it gets too hot. A beer garden is in the left field corner, though it mainly serves Tecate (a key sponsor) and Bud Light.
Speaking of overhangs, Chukchansi Park is one of two in the Pacific Coast League’s Pacific Conference that has two seating levels (the other is Spring Mobile Ballpark in Salt Lake City). Most PCL parks have the press/suite level above or attached to a single seating level. When building to 10,000 seats, going with one or two decks shouldn’t affect sightlines to any significant degree. Two decks puts the suites higher than you might expect at other minor league parks, though that is also not typically a deciding factor for those interested in suites.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Chukchansi Park is its inclusion of several amusement park attractions within the grounds. Behind the plate is a carousel. In remote right field are a ferris wheel and funhouse. The attractions were added for this season and could stay or go in the future depending on their popularity. Considering that there’s little to see in the outfield other than some cars and the portable stage that gets used occasionally, the ferris wheel is a welcome sight.
After the game ended at around 5 p.m., I walked through the Fulton Mall towards the train station about 15 minutes away. My walking route took me through the office/commercial area defined by the convention center, Selland Arena, and the William Saroyan Theatre. All three were completed by 1966, around the same time as the Fulton Mall. Though these venues are a bit old and not as compelling as newer facilities (Save Mart Center has more-or-less replaced Selland Arena), the buildings themselves are in much better shape than Fulton Mall. Moreover, as I walked through the area I noticed something eerily unusual: not a living soul anywhere. Only three blocks away from a ballpark and two from the heart of downtown, absolutely nothing was happening. It was a Sunday so I suppose that was to be somewhat expected. Still, it left an impression.
The 60’s were a time of great nervous social experimentation. The 1968 film embedded near the top was put together by Victor Gruen Associates as a crowning achievement to be shown in the White House. While Gruen was known most for pioneering the indoor shopping mall, he also had bold ideas of how to transform rundown urban areas to make them more inviting. Much of his work in this vein was centered around banishing the car, which the film’s narrator cites as largely responsible for the ills of urban living. In a 2004 feature for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell pointed out the irony in Gruen trying to recreate Vienna’s Ringstrasse in America, only to have it perverted by cars and developers and popularized to the point that Old World city Vienna has some America-style commercial development. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind for the next generation of urban planners. Fresno’s rebuilt downtown was done in the mid 60’s, at the same time as the Oakland-Alameda County Complex. The Coliseum was done without an ancillary commercial component, which in hindsight didn’t help Downtown Oakland as much as it could have. If Coliseum City were to come to fruition, effectively creating a second downtown, it’ll be interesting so how much it adversely affects the current downtown. As we’ve seen in Fresno and San Jose, legacy downtowns don’t suffer competition well.