Chukchansi Park and its environs

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.

Downtown Fresno in better times.

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.

The large buffer area between the stadium and the entry gates makes the stadium feel somewhat detached from the neighborhood.

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.

Spacious concourse provides much-needed relief from scorching summer days.

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.

Seating deck layout at Chukchansi Park

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.

Ferris wheel provided by Hanford's Wold Amusements

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.

12 thoughts on “Chukchansi Park and its environs

  1. When we lived in Fresno, we went to many Grizzlies games there, including an overnight scout trip where we actually pitched our tents on the field. (Could you do that in an MLB park?) And yes, it is sad about Fulton Mall. However, with all the government/county/municipal offices down there, it is much livelier at lunchtime during the weekdays.

    Now you’ll have to come visit Hooks stadium in Corpus Christi. A great AA park on the waterfront near a big bridge(sound familiar?) It has a huge play area in back, and free access to a waterpark that just opened next door.

  2. I went to High School not far from Fresno. I have yet to make it to a Grizzles game. This makes me want to go really bad.
    I saw a sweet picture of Corpus Christi’s yard when I recently sent to an Astro’s game. That picture was enough to put that in “must see a game there” bucket. Time for a minor league roadie!

  3. I saw a couple games here in 2003.Great Park,Great Atmosphere. Modern but not too fancy.They have the old time scoreboard which was very cool. Probably the best minor league park that I have been to.(only been to about 25)

  4. For Spring Training 2011, we drove down 99 and stopped at all but a couple minor league parks. Modesto, Fresno, Visalia, Bakersfield, Adelanto, and San Bernardino. We missed Lancaster and Rancho Cucamonga because they were a little out of the way.
    Out of them, San Bernardino probably looks the neatest, with Fresno a close second. Visalia and Modesto and Adelanto look cool, and I’d like to watch games there someday. Bakersfield, however, is a complete shithole.
    Interestingly, TNA Wrestling held a show in Visalia at Recreation Ballpark a month ago. It’s cozy enough that probably worked out well, but I haven’t read any reviews. They drew 500 people.

  5. I used to go to Rec Park all the time. I can’t imagine wrestling in that place. On a related note, I used to watch WWF at Sellabd Arena once a month. That place sold out for WWF every time. I still remember Bam Bam Bigelow’s manager search ending at Selland Arena 🙂

  6. Coliseum City is too far from Downtown Oakland to have much impact. If anything, Emeryville, and to a lesser extent Walnut Creek and San Francisco, is turning the Broadway/Jack London Square corridor into a “legacy downtown”.

  7. I haven’t seen Rec Park(Visalia) since they remodeled. Wasn’t too much there before.
    I am one who prefers older stadiums, but have to admit that Bakersfield was far worse than I could even imagine! I thought how bad could it really be??The main problem is the non uniform RagTag seating arrangement, all of which is literally falling apart. and that was 4-5 years ago!

  8. As a resident of Fresno, I was very interested in hearing your view of the city. You nailed the essence of this town when you noted the total lack of people downtown after six pm or so. The weekends are far worse than the weekdays. Here in lies the problem with “downtown”. The city council here can be rather inept at times….on occassion rivaling even Oakland for sheer incompetence. The ballpark opened to much fanfare, but the city was so intense on generating revenue, they choked the goose before it could lay a single egg. Parking enforcement is brutal, but what makes me shake my head in wonder is the fact that parking enforcement on the weekends is non existant…..except for gameday. And then they are out there with a vengence. It’s ridiculous. No one cares to come to downtown because they don’t want a parking ticket, especially when they have several other options where parking is not an issue. And public transportation in Fresno is a joke. It consists of bus service, and that shuts down at six pm. So cars rule the day here, because they have to. Oh, and one other thing. The jail is downtown and it turns out prisoners by the dozens all day due to overcrowding. Usually there’s no one around in downtown, but if there is anyone, they’re usually very wierd transients and released inmates. Frankly, I work downtown and I won’t walk around unarmed at night. The thing is, I sincerely believe if the city would work with business owners who are interested in prodcuing a nightlife in the downtown area, the ballpark could help provide a draw. But like I said, this little burg has some unusual politics.

  9. I think the reason for the cities lack of focus on downtown Fresno and it’s decline is due to the influence of powers in North Fresno who have really dominated both City Hall and the LAFCO (land use commission) for county. Developers who have been in bed with some interests in farming have continued to push the city to expand further outward so they can turn cheap ag land into expensive developments has allowed for socio-economic segregation in the city. North Fresno is more homogenous, richer and has the best infrastructure. Southeast and West Fresno is poorer and has poor infrastructure. Look into the FBI investigatoin of Operation Rezone which took place in the 1990s.

    Grizzlies Stadium, the refurbishing of the Fresno Met, Security Building, Guaranteed Building and some of the older theatres like the Warnors should have helped, but because Fresno has been hit hardest by the housing collapse, this is going to be a much longer process.

    Downtown could and should be a place with more amenities. My hope is that as more young people who might live in the Tower District move downtown, you can get more focus on the city. I like the idea of downtown being a place with mixed incomes because the hope is that there can be some political coalition building between minorities in West Fresno and some of the hipsters in Downtown who can try to push to have greater influence in City Hall and perhaps more influence on the Board of Supervisors.

    Fresno is Chinatown, but hopefully some changes can be made.

  10. Baseball in Fresneck, made complete with carnies. What’s not to love?

  11. Still think the best of all the ballparks in the Central Valley is Raley Field in Sac. It’s the perfect size and layout (lacking Fresno’s odd upper deck and displaced luxury suites). And its proximity to old town Sac ensures fans can enjoy a drink or a bite to eat in Old Town before walking across Sac’s own beautiful Tower Bridge right to the ballpark (a path that’s become even nicer in the last year with the completion of the new road in that area). And then the views are also pretty darn nice of both downtown Sac and the a fore mentioned bridge.

  12. I miss Ratcliffe Stadium ( West Coast Relays ) and Euless Park next door ( Fresno Giants , single A) . Mays and McCovey used to come down during Hot Stove League festivities .

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