We first started traveling to shopping malls in the late 1990s, and it was during those trips that we were awakened to the beginnings of the death of the American shopping mall. In almost every major metropolitan area, there was at least one white elephant, one center that wasn’t cutting it, one place that for some reason was never renovated and still sported decor from the 1970s. We were fascinated, not only because these malls reminded us of our childhoods but also because it was inconceivable to us then that the almighty shopping mall–a development pattern that had been so dominant our entire lives–could possibly fail.
In the last decade and change, of course, this reality has been writ large and discovered by many, ranging from Deadmalls.com to CNN and NPR and (more recently) the entirety of the general public. But the types of malls that we discovered were “dead” in the mid to late 1990s had mostly already gone away: these were the weakest players, the least-loved, and they were wiped off the map before the public’s collective consciousness began to recognize their existence. As a result, our trips since have been somewhat less enjoyable, since most of the remaining malls are at least somewhat whitewashed and there’s a sad knowledge that in just about every city in America, there’s at least one true gem of retail history that’s already long gone.
Before I get too histrionic, this is why I found Manchester Center in Fresno, California to be such a treat. It had been at least five years since I had discovered a mall quite like this one, and it was a shock to find such a creepy time capsule still completely open and accessible.
First, just a quick bit about Fresno: Fresno, California is the largest city in California’s central valley, and the second largest metropolitan area (after Sacramento) in the region. It’s the largest city between San Francisco and Los Angeles and has around 470,000 people proper, with almost 900,000 in the metropolitan area. Like many of California’s inland cities, much of the development in the city and its surrounding areas is fairly new, and the population has been continually exploding over the last decade and a half. Despite anchoring a primarily agricultural region, Fresno is known as a hub for business incubators and is somewhat more politically moderate than some of the other, smaller, more conservative cities in the central valley. On the retail scene, Fresno is the home of Gottschalks department stores, one of the last true independent old-line department store chains in the country.
Like many of California’s Central Valley cities, Fresno doesn’t have the greatest reputation. Its historic downtown area, which is centered around the pedestrian Fulton Mall–one of the first downtown pedestrian malls in the nation, and the home of the original, deceased Gottschalks flagship–is notoriously foreboding and vacant, as noted when the California Planning & Development Report named it the worst big-city downtown in the state:
Bakersfield, Oakland and Anaheim all have less-than-ideal downtowns, but none of those districts is as desperate, depressing and even threatening as downtown Fresno. The hideous 1970s office buildings are the least of the problems in Fresno’s core. The place is one gigantic real estate “opportunity,” and it’s usually deserted after 6 o’clock. Yes, there is a nice new minor league baseball stadium, but that’s about the only reason locals willingly go downtown.
Manchester Center is Fresno’s oldest enclosed shopping mall–I think–heck, I’m not even sure because I can’t find much about it on the internet. It’s over 50 years old, though, and its located near the southern end of the long and massive commercial corridor along Blackstone Avenue, which leads north from downtown. The 950,000 square foot, two-level center contains three large anchor stores–currently filled with Sears, Gottschalks, and a large CalTrans office–and sports a variety of local retailers and office space. Since it was displaced by the more successful Fashion Fair (as well as several burgeoning outdoor shopping malls and one somewhat troubled enclosed one), the Manchester Center has attempted to carve out a niche as a “mixed use” building, with much of the upper level and nearly all of the CalTrans wing occupied with office space. Don’t be fooled, however; the entire mall is open for your perusal!
One thing that really struck me, aside from the really dated decor, was the mall’s strange floorplan. Let me detail it as I saw it:
- I entered at the mall’s northern end. Sears was the anchor here, but when I came in on a side hallway I noticed windows on the second floor leading to a vacant space, and there was visibly an area where a stairway had been removed. The Sears store also faces the mall in a strange way, meeting it only halfway head-on, meaning that when you are standing in the center of the mall and facing Sears, only the left side of the mall enters into the Sears while the right side exits to the rear parking lot (check the pics, it’ll make more sense).
- It appears that the “ghost” space next to Sears on the second level was at one point some smaller anchor. The mall goes underneath this anchor on the first level, but then emerges on the other side as the mall becomes fully two level. Does anyone know what this floating “ghost anchor” was?
- Most of the main mall is a two level “L” shape with a carousel at center court. The further you get from Sears and Gottschalks, however, the further you get from retail activity. Most of the southern part of the center is either vacant or occupied by offices. The second level has no retail activity aside from a food court with several tenants.
I wish I knew more about the place… maybe some of you can fill me in. There’s precious little about Manchester Center available on the internet, including huge missing details like what the third anchor originally was. I would obviously add Manchester Center to the death watch, especially in light of this week’s chapter 11 filing by Gottschalks, one of the mall’s two surviving anchor tenants.