Built in 1955, Manchester Center Mall was Fresno’s first foray into the suburban enclosed mall template*. Three and a half miles north of downtown, the Mall promised ample parking and an escape from the weather. The concept was indeed successful, and the mall expanded as the decades went by.
Well, for awhile anyway. Fresno kept expanding north (Fashion Fair opened in 1970), and Manchester Center was left behind. What was once the edge of the city became the inner city. As popularity waned, so did the investment. By the mid-90s, the mall was in serious trouble. And in 2009, when Gottschalks (139,500 square feet) closed, it was left with only Sears (186,000 square feet) as an anchor and a handful of stores catering to lower incomes.
*See the comment section for clarification
(You can learn the full history of the Center in this excellent post).
|While Sears is no longer a choice retailer, their Manchester location is successful and not in danger of closing.|
Since then, the question has been: What’s next? Even though many urbanists are not fans of enclosed malls, having 640,000 sqft of leasable space rotting in the geographic center of Fresno would be tragic. Demolishing and replacing with dense housing and modern retail makes for a great dream, but is not feasible in Fresno’s current economic climate.
Fortunately, over the past two or three years, we have heard that big changes are coming.
A new company is preparing to renovate Fresno’s nearly dead
Manchester Mall. Omninet is asking the city for a small section of land
to increase the appeal of the struggling shopping center.
KVPR – May 12, 2015
A year later, nothing had changed.
|Retail on the first floor, mostly empty office space on the 2nd.|
In fact, there had been some regression.
As the website proudly proclaimed:
The International Food Court is located at the South end of the Center on the Second Level and includes:
Dairy Queen/Orange Julius
Yup. That’s the food court. A single Dairy Queen / Orange Julius store. The two other food locations that were open last year had closed (the pretzel stand in the middle of the mall remains).
|The sad state of the food court|
About a year ago, Valley Public Radio uncovered a website from the
property management company Omninet Capital selling a vision of a newly
remolded and revitalized Manchester Center Mall including this slick
Nazarian says the company is ready to invest a handsome sum in
Manchester but when pressed he declined to say how much the company is
willing to spend or how long they are committed to the project.
KVPR – April 26, 2016
Until about a couple of month ago, when real renovation plans were announced
Life for Fresno’s aging Manchester Center is about to get a lot better.
The mall owners, Omninet Capital
based in Beverly Hills, and Mayor Ashley Swearengin announced on Monday
long-awaited plans to transform what was once Fresno’s premier shopping
destination into a new unique multi-use property in the heart of the
The plans include a new mall entrance, a redesigned facade
with signage, a marketplace or “artisan food community” for chefs, food
trucks and restaurants, an exterior shopping area and an outdoor events
plaza. There will soon be new tenants too. Among them: Chipotle and The Habit in a new building on Blackstone Avenue, and nearly a handful of local restaurants (so far) in the marketplace – Green’s Family Grill, Med Wraps Cafe, Rocket Dog Gourmet Brats & Brew, and Yummyz Street Treats.
mall renovation, at Blackstone and Shields avenues, will happen over
the course of a few years with the first phase to be finished by spring
Nazarian said Monday that the goal is to have retail stores occupy
the mall’s first floor and offices on the second floor. The marketplace
will be located in the old Gottschalks space. A new outdoor event plaza
will be built on the existing parking lot between the marketplace and
Regal Manchester Stadium 16 cinemas.
Some fantastic news, but also some tidbits that make me worry.
First the good news. The plan is solid. Currently the mall is already set up with retail on the first floor, and office on the second. Surprisingly, much of the retail is occupied, but with lower end stores. The office area is not fully leased, but the location and investments can fix that.
Converting Gottschalks into a food marketplace is also a fantastic idea. It is extremely unlikely that Fresno will get a new department store anytime soon. The only potential candidate, Nordstrom, would never locate in Central Fresno. Macy’s already has two locations, and neither them nor JC Pennys are expanding. Fashion Fair was fortunate that Forever 21 was looking to experiment with a large format store when the Gottschalks location there became available. The one is Sierra Vista became an indoor go-kart racing venue.
|The Forever 21 at Fashion Fair was the largest in the world when it opened.|
Exterior improvements are also welcome.
|Existing Manchester Exterior|
So why worry?
A groundbreaking on Monday signified a critical first step the
revitalization project – an 8,000 square-foot building to house
Chipotle, The Habit and at least two more retailers.
The first step is a new outbuilding by Blackstone. It is fantastic that they got Chipotle and The Habit. I’m not a chain guy, but they do draw people. They also help raise the reputation of the area. (Note that the parking area has proven to attract customers in the past).
In addition, the center will receive increased attention from Fresno’s upcoming fake BRT system, although the importance of the Center as a transfer point will decline. There will also be a new pedestrian crossing.
However, an outbuilding success does not guarantee success elsewhere. Sierra Vista Mall is a prime example. When the mall expanded about a decade ago, the retail locations by Shaw were quickly snapped up. However, multiple retail spots in the mall expansion have sat empty for over a decade. Inside, the mall has more known retailers than Manchester – but also more retail vacancies. So while Chipotle, Jamba Juice, Blast Pizza, and the cell phone shops have been well patronized, they haven’t resulted in more action inside the mall.
|A decade after expansion, the locations marked with a red X are empty, most were never occupied. The Chipotle and Jamba Juice however have always been popular|
But my real concern is this:
“will happen over
the course of a few years with the first phase to be finished by spring
No. You can’t do that. You can’t revive a dying mall with band-aids and hair extensions. You need a full body shock. Opening 2 or 3 new retailers might draw some curiosity, but lose it just as quickly. The renovation and investment needs to be large enough to attract repeat visitors. You can’t do that with a 5 year plan.
|A current attraction|
The Fresno Bee reports that the new “artisan food marketplace” will open in Spring of 2017. I can’t wait to visit. But on it’s own, it won’t save the mall. Instead, the decay around it might hurt its reputation.
The area in the back here is where the new food is going. But does this hall invite wandering?
Or this one, towards the existing movie theater and new plaza?
Half measures do not work.
Incidentally, while walking around the Mall, it struck me how similar it was to the Fulton Mall. Not surprising, as Manchester was built in direct competition, but many of the existing (and surprisingly maintained features) are lifted straight from Fulton. Such as the seating areas.
And (working) fountains.
Here are some additional photos of the state of the mall before renovations, taken either this past summer or last winter. I’ll visit again in a bit to see if there has been progress.
|My favorite tree|