The idea that there was some kind of grand fix in on the Fulton Mall is a little far fetched.  Below, I explain why, and give an alternate explanation for why things stand the way they do.

Some people think the fix was in all along to get cars back on the Mall.  The Mayor’s letter to the state Office of Historic Preservation calls the Mall a failure.  Six of eight Mall options presented by Moule & Polyzoides (MPA) at the charrette include traffic on part or all of the current pedestrian mall.  The composition of the citizen’s advisory board has been criticized.  One version of the “it was all fixed” argument can be found in this hilarious video.

So, the Mayor has a preference, MPA put a lot of work into traffic-friendly options, and their economic team presented arguments that opening the Mall to traffic is virtually necessary for any decent retail-oriented development.  But do these things add up to a fix?  I don’t think so.  For it to all be predetermined, something like this would have needed to happen:  Mayor Swearengin goes to downtown revitalization chief Craig Scharton and tells him she wants cars back on the Mall.  Craig Scharton goes to MPA top dude Stefanos Polyzoides and tells him to make sure to spin everything so it turns out that cars take over the Mall.  Polyzoides and crew engineer a charade of a charrette that results in a citizen’s advisory board vote that favors traffic options for further study.

Well, I doubt it.   There are a few too many causal links there and it would all have to work as planned – indeed, it would take a diabolical genius to pull this off.

There are much more plausible reasons why the Fulton Mall seems to be careening toward traffic (or traffic careening toward the Mall?).

MPA did key stakeholder interviews at the very start of the process.  Key stakeholders include those with the power to make or break the plan, and of course, this includes the Mayor.  These are usually confidential interviews, a problematic practice from a democratic standpoint, but probably necessary to get some candor and ensure the plan doesn’t get torpedoed.  Mayor Swearengin has a record of being results oriented.  I seriously doubt she would have told MPA, “We need cars on the Mall, non-negotiable.”  I can fully imagine her telling them, “We need an economically revitalized downtown that delivers far more revenue to the city than it does now.  Non-negotiable: give us a plan that does that.”  MPA may have heard the Mayor’s charge through a new urbanist filter that makes a revitalized “main street” (Fulton Street) with cars more likely.  If so, then their charrette process would reflect a bias for cars on the Mall.  This is not controversial: we all filter things through our own personal, professional and cultural lenses.  Stefanos Polyzoides and company are not superhuman.  They too have a lens through which reality gets refracted.

And then there is the social, cultural, political and economic context of Fresno, which has certainly exerted conditioning effects on the charrette process, helping create what looks like overt, conscious bias toward cars.  North Fresno seems to many like a success, and in purely economic terms, it is.  So downtown property owners, including those on the citizen’s advisory committee want what north Fresno has – successful, relatively high-end retail.  They and other influential, politically active people disproportionately shape public discourse.  Those who voice alternative visions are in the minority and have less political and economic clout.  Those who walk the Mall daily hardly even show up in the public process – no conspiracy there, the city went crazy with outreach, especially during the late-September charrette.  They just didn’t show up in any numbers.  And of course culturally, Fresno is really all about cars, as transport, means of self-definition, status symbols.  MPA walks into this context and makes choices of substance and process that result in what seem like fairly clear choices between the past/failure and the future/cars.  After all, anyone who knows consulting can tell you that consultants tend to say and do things that make their clients happy.  And I think this usually happens without anyone consciously “plotting” some kind of fix.

Indeed, far from a display of diabolical genius, I’ve been struck by some of the miscues in the charrette process.  Certainly, many things went right.  The charrette was well-publicized and well-attended, and there were numerous points at which public input was central.  But, the MPA decision to walk into the Sep. 27 Fulton Mall discussion with eight options already developed was a major mistake from which the entire process may not recover.  They seem to have forgotten one of the major reasons you hold a charrette at all: to build consensus around a plan that can actually get passed and implemented.  Hence, one point of all the public participation is so people can walk away and say, “That’s the plan we came up with” (the experts merely polished it up for us), or at least, “I don’t like that plan but it’s the one some of my neighbors put together.”  MPA will never have this because they walked in with the options already laid out.  This means that it becomes possible to say, “That’s their plan, the one those out of town consultants foisted on us.”  I’m not saying I agree with this sentiment, but I am saying that this sentiment becomes possible when the consultant does too much, and forgets to let charrette participants get messy with the design process.  (By messy, I mean creatively and chaotically focused on good results.)

But the MPA charrettes have been anything but messy.  Stefanos Polyzoides and his firm’s consultants are without a doubt extremely expert at what they do, and I have thoroughly enjoyed and learned much from the various presentations I have seen at the neighborhood and Fulton charrettes.  But MPA desperately needs someone whose mastery of the participatory charrette process matches the firm’s technical expertise.  There have been far too few breakouts and almost no participatory designing.  At the Fulton Mall session on Sep. 27 I wanted to see us all around tables scrawling and drawing.  Instead, we were talked to, we did some talking, and we were half-heartedly invited to draw something on a back table (no one did).  This weight given to talk, much of it by the technical experts on the team, over messy and creative public input encapsulates the MPA approach to charretting.  The result?  The opening for an “us and them” attitude, whereby the resulting options and perhaps the final plan are seen as something someone else produced as opposed to the community led process that the city has (sincerely, in my opinion) tried to pull off.

(Kiel Famellos-Schmidt and Craig Scharton read and commented on a draft of this blog posting but the views expressed are those of the author only.)

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