Can Manchester Center Mall be saved?

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

NPR investigated:

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.
Fresno Bee

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.

Proposed exterior

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

17 Replies to “Can Manchester Center Mall be saved?”

  1. i agree they need a "full bodyshock" that place is pretty much done it would be better to just close the entire thing and finish a full renovation. it also will add to a big wow factor on the unveiling if they were to do that.

    doing half jobs or small bandages is meh. manchester has a lot of potential because it has 2 stories. i always thought 2 story malls were cooler. its just more attracting, always seems bigger than the are. fashion fair is the only real "nice" mall here, but it would be way nicer if it was 2 stories. Being to be on the 2nd floor and looking down being filled with stores from your entire view and peripheral vision just makes you feel in a legit mall. Single story malls just make me have that "is this all" type of feeling. thus why manchester does have potential.

    i like how you touch on sierra vista mall. wasted potential in my view. how do the stores in there survive. it always seems dead. where are the people of clovis shopping? then you got the expanded new section with many stalls stil vacant. sierra vista also needs interior renovations but without big name stores its pointless. just as it will be with manchester.

    cheap brand stores will only bring lower income crowds. but bigger name stores wont want to invest and open up in a mall/area that doesn't have the type of clientel foot traffic they want. so its hard to win. its a gamble for a big name store say like apple to want to open in manchester. why would you if you knew the area.

    this goes true for when fulton mall is completed. the area and streets will be new clean and updated and renovated, but what stores will be there and occupy the spaces? if you have those no name flea market type stores, you aren't bringing people from the affluent areas of north of shaw and clovis folks here to spend money. why would they if there are no good stores. they need classy restaurants, some upscale eats, and some high end brands.

    so in the end, im just curious. curious to see how this turns out. we all want to see it succeed. fresno/clovis needs another real legit indoor mall. fashion fair is good but not great. but i guess here it is great as there really is no competition. riverpark is nice, but just simply doesnt have a true outdoor mall feel with only limited stores. figarden village is a nice center, but again just not big enough.

    1. I agree, with the heat in the summer another indoor mall could be successful in Fresno. I also agree that unless the city has 5-6 retailer announcements up their sleeve for the Fulton Mall, the ribbon cutting will be a disaster.

  2. I love Fresno. I really do. But let's face it Fresno and surrounding area is a poverty stricken area. The people just don't have the disposable income to support higher end stores or even medium end stores. But here's the dilemma, and this pertains to dtf also…the chicken or the egg syndrome. Do you hope that if you do a BIG renovation and retailers take a gamble and build a store in an impoverished area and people DO come?? Or do you first take baby steps with lofts and condos in order to get the people there first and THEN slowly build the retail? That's always been the conundrum. Now, look at other areas like Brooklyn Austin and other cities that seem to have a gentrification movement going on; well it might work in these areas because they have a larger population demographic to choose from. More people with education and well paying jobs enough to go around. Fresno only has a limited people like this to support these projects. Sad but true. That's why the city NEEDS to be proactive to market themselves positively to corps like amazon, Nords distribution center and other biz that will create tax money and higher paying jobs that foster an overall higher living standard.

  3. A correction for you…

    Manchester Center was not Fresno's first enclosed mall. That remains Fashion Fair's place in local history.

    Manchester originally opened in 1955 as an outdoor shopping center. Some of the stores that existed there in the first 25 years included Mayfair Market, Longs Drugs, Hollywood Camera, Eddie's Bakery, and more. The shopping center advertised its 4,000 free parking spaces as a way to compete with the Fulton Mall in the 1960s.

    Manchester was remodeled into an enclosed mall about 1978-1980 when Gottschalks originally was added as a single story building. About 1987-1988 the enclosed mall was extended to the Sears building and a second floor was added to the Gottschalks building as part of that expansion.

    I found this map of Manchester Center circa 1959 showing the outdoor layout.
    and this one is circa 1980 after it was first enclosed.

  4. The unused portion of the Gottchalks building at Sierra Vista is going to become an entertainment facility to supplement the go karts. Laser tag, arcade, bar. Plans to open until midnight on weekends. Would be great for the mall.

  5. Does anyone remember the names of the two restaurants that used to be at the south end of the mall near Shields? One was a nice steak restaurant with a bar and the other one had a chicken or rooster on the sign.

  6. You are absolutely correct James. I didn't particularly like that steak house but the owners were nice. I drove by the mall yesterday with all the new construction. Kind of a weird layout with Chipotle and HB in a separate building right in the middle of the parking lot doesn't allow for good flow in my opinion. But I hope everything works out. BTW…are you still contributing to this site? I miss all your very explicit info on different projects around town. maybe you can shed some light on the new Francher Creek construction delays?

    1. I have new photos of Manchester coming up as well. I agree it does break up the parking.

      I didnt take any of Fancher Creek because it hasnt changed since I last went. There was a Bee article recently about the delays, but it is the same crap they say every year.

    2. Ok that's cool. How about the Fulton mall reopening and the progress of it. I haven't been out there at night but I heard the lighting is adequate. Idk. That HB and Chipotle layout at Manchester reminds me of all the Dutch Bros in town, they always seem to put their buildings right in the middle of parking lots!? Weird concepts. But they're so popular right now.

  7. I believe that it would have been better to turn Manchester into something like Santana Row in San Jose. Indoor malls are getting less popular, while outdoor lifestyle centers thrive. There really isn’t enough shoppers in Fresno/Clovis to support 6 major brick and mortar shopping areas, maybe 3 or 4, but there is no way that many malls in this area can thrive, unless Fresno experiences a major population growth. While unfortunately, if Manchester were to become like Santana, it would probably hit Fashion Fair hard, but a lifestyle center with retail,restaurants, entertainment, residential, office space, and maybe even a high end hotel would be better for the community than a single level indoor mall.

    1. Transforms into Santana Row/ Do you really think that the demographics of Fresno can support a Santana Row type shopping center?? I seriously doubt it. But yes those lifestyle centers are the new thing now. Ala Americana at Brand in Glendale is all the rave.

    2. True Manchester center in the past was a very successful, shopping place they were full everywhere no wasn’t empty lots but the problem your dealing with ain’t buyers, it’s with violence people don’t want to be close to places where violence exist example for me I’m a buyer for big retail stores but I don’t shop at locations where I’m gonna be robbed at? look at the forums why people are starting to stop going to fashion fair mall? And just stick to online shopping instead, A business location is so important, you can have population but no customers research the stats on Bussiness that have went out of business in big populated areas and you’ll see what I’m talking about

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