Craig Scharton, interim CEO for the Downtown Fresno Partnership, stands in front of the CityView Apartments at the northwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and Inyo Street. He says the building embodies the future of new buildings in the city’s downtown. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
One thing you can say about Downtown Fresno’s skyline is that it’s far from consistent.
Older buildings, such as the Pacific Southwest Building built in the 1920s — the closest structure the city has to a skyscraper — share the view with buildings that reflect the styles of a hodge-podge of eras.
If you look at a lower elevation to the buildings just a few stories tall or shorter throughout downtown, a new evolution of downtown Fresno architecture becomes apparent.
For Craig Scharton, the CityView Apartments at the northwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and Inyo Street embodies that change.
It replaced a building literally on the verge of collapse, so much so that support beams that kept it erect used to block the sidewalk, said Scharton, interim CEO for the Downtown Fresno Partnership, an association of downtown property owners promoting the area.
CityView, finished in 2015, is only four stories tall, but it’s urban-chic design and colors make it stand out in the neighborhood, so much so that it has won design awards. But form is just part of the appeal, said Scharton, noting, “This was the first building to go through our downtown development code.”
That code, which replaced outdated codes for urban construction in Fresno’s downtown, actually was approved by the city council last year, but CityView served as a test case in its development, Scharton explained.
For example, the revised code directs new structures to go right up to sidewalks instead of having to be set back by feet or yards, so more of the property can be used.
The city also made it easier to incorporate commercial and residential space in the same buildings, as CityView does, with a health club on the first floor and apartments on the floors above.
It stops short of saying how new buildings should look or what materials should be used, but as Scharton sees it, architects working on the
CityView Apartments and other mixed-use buildings that have been popping up throughout downtown in recent years are doing well at mixing modern urban sensibilities and style in their designs.
“So that’s really the goal. You don’t ever want to make new buildings appear to be old buildings, because that’s just fake and makes everyone cringe,” he said. “So what you really want to do is take the best elements of good urban design — which really isn’t fake but really doesn’t have to say, ‘Look at me, look at me,’ and grab all the attention.”
More changes appear to be on the way, said architect Arthur Dyson, partner in DSJ Architects in Fresno’s Tower District, as construction seems to be on the rise downtown.
“I really think the downtown area has a lot of potential. My concern is that the major buildings that seem to have been built over the last several yeas in Fresno have been done by large, out-of-town firms” who don’t know this area, its people or its climate, said Dyson.
He said he doesn’t want generic designs becoming a staple of downtown, so “Fresno needs to develop its own architectural vocabulary, and I think that could be developed best using local talent.”
Dyson said the city is helping by having established building standards specific for urban projects downtown and shucking rules better suited to the suburbs.
“It gives you a little bit more ability to be creative with the work that you do.”
What’s new in Downtown Fresno’s architectural scene doesn’t involve just new buildings.
Developers and architects are taking on older buildings and finding success in updating and repurposing them.
A prime example of this is Warehouse Row, a seven-year-long commercial development on P Street between Mono and Inyo streets where a series of series of old warehouse and industrial buildings were renovated into modern office space.
“The exteriors of the site were historic, but not the interiors,” said Ian Robertson, principal and president of iT Architecture of Fresno and the architect of record on the Warehouse Row project.
Under city codes, the exterior of three of the historic buildings had to be restored using bricks, plaster forms, stonework, etc. comparable to those used when they were built in the early 1900s.
The old carriage house for the former ice plant wasn’t in good enough shape to preserve, and had to be torn down. But city building code prohibits making a new building look like an historic building, forcing Robertson to design a modern-style building between the historic ones.
“It would visually have to look completely different. It’s unusual, but that’s the way it is,” said
Robertson, adding that he believes his design worked.
Some of the most visible work on building renovations has involved Bitwise Industries, a technology and business education program that has expanded to housing startup tech businesses in Downtown Fresno.
It started when the company spent approximately $7 million to convert the more than 100-year-old former Phelan Garage building at the corner of Van Ness and Mono Street, doing little on the outside beyond changing out old windows and doors and erecting the large Bitwise South Stadium sign on the roof.
The bigger renovations occurred inside, including installation of new wiring to make the building more technology friendly, the construction of office space and a new interior design.
Bitwise has since renovated another downtown building for its use, The Hashtag, and plans are underway to convert a pair of older downtown buildings, with plans to announce planned renovations to a third, said William Dyck, owner of Summa Development Group in Fresno and the master developer for Bitwise.
“When we’re talking exterior architecture, there has been a renaissance,” Dyck said about downtown, a reversal from the movement 50 years ago in Fresno and other cities to cover up older architecture from previous eras.
Some of the best examples occurred along the Fulton Mall, where windows and arches around and above stores were covered up with metal or flat walls to offer what was regarded in the 1960s as a “modern” look.
“It was the age of going to the moon and the Jetsons and Tomorrowland, and so they felt left behind and they wanted to keep up with modern shopping centers, so they covered up their oldness,” said Scharton as he walked down the Fulton Mall pointing out sections of flat walls above storefronts that hide ornate windows and brickwork.
At the former Gottschalks department store downtown — now an indoor swap meet — he pointed out the arch of the building and windows that can vaguely be seen through plastic windows built over them.
While the six-block mall is undergoing a major renovation to its streets and sidewalks, it’s up to the owners of buildings there to decide if they want to incur the costs of removing those facades to reveal the architecture hidden away for decades.
“Now we know one of the things that make downtown special is this historic character, and cities all over the country, they’ve pulled off these fake storefronts,” Scharton said.
He said a $7,500 grant is being divided between seven downtown businesses to remove their facades. While that’s not much, he said, grants are being sought to help more downtown buildings be restored to the way they once looked.
Scharton added that the city is waiving or reducing some fees for such projects.
“We’ll do it as we can, but as new property owners come in, they’re going to see the value of having beautiful buildings and storefronts, and that will attract better tenants, and those tenant will attract more customers downtown,” Scharton said.