MANCHESTER CENTER
North Blackstone and East Shields Avenues
Fresno, California

One of the San Joaquin ["wah-keen'] Valley's first major, suburban shopping centers was developed by Fresno's C. Arthur Berfield, under the auspices of the Manchester Land Company. The single-level, open-air complex was situated on 40 acres, lying 2.6 miles north of downtown Fresno. The site had previously been utilized as part of the Markarian Fig Garden.

MANCHESTER CENTER was designed by Walter Wagner. A (32,000 square foot) Mayfair Market grocery became its first operational store, on November 5, 1953. A 2-level (131,000 square foot) Sears opened its doors on May 23, 1956.

Charter tenants included Mode O'Day Frock Shop, Longs Drugs, Weil Brothers, Baldwin's Jewelers, GallenKamp Shoes, Trend O' Fashion, Strauss', Arnold's Beauty Salon, Freeman Shoes, Fabrics By The Yard and Singer Sewing Center.

The 15 million dollar complex enveloped approximately 364,400 leasable square feet. It was anchored by a 2-level (131,000 square foot) Sears, which was located north of -and across the street from- the four main store blocks. Sears was eventually expanded to 186,000 square feet.

Sears was joined by a 2-level (111,500 square foot), Tacoma-based Rhodes Brothers on March 6, 1959. Following a merger with the Western Department Stores conglomerate, in 1960, this store's official name was shortened to Rhodes. Honolulu-based AMFAC, who operated Hawaii's Liberty House chain, acquired Rhodes stores in November 1969. They marketed locations as Liberty House / Rhodes between 1970 and late 1974. Then, they took on the Liberty House brand.

A large-scale expansion of the mall was underway by October 1978. The 45,000 square foot Promenade Shops structure, in the northeast corner of the site, was demolished. A 1-level (86,000 square foot) Gottschalks was built. Mallways were fully-enclosed and climate-controlled and a second level built on top the the first. An 8-bay Food Court became a feature of the new Upper Level. Grand openings were held in late 1979.

A second expansion of the shopping center was undertaken in August 1988. The mall proper was extended northward, taking out Dayton Avenue and connecting the existing Sears into the complex. A second level may have been also added to Gottschalks at this time. The 7.5 million dollar renovation enlarged the center by over 120,000 square feet.

Shopping alternatives in the "Mid Valley" included FRESNO MALL (1964) {a downtown redevelopment}, FASHION FAIR MALL (1970) {1.6 miles northeast, in Fresno}, SIERRA VISTA MALL (1988) {5 miles northeast, in Clovis} and -eventually- RIVER PARK (1997) {4 miles north, also in Fresno}.

All of the commercial competition took its toll on MANCHESTER MALL. The Liberty House location was shuttered, with Home Express taking up shop on the first level and a Gottschalks Clearance Center opening on the second. These stores were short-lived.

A 30 million dollar renovation and expansion was proposed in February 1994. This was to include a 188,400 square foot Third Level for the mall, United Artists 20-screen megaplex and a parking garage. These never came to pass.

By 1996, the shopping hub, known once again as MANCHESTER CENTER, was in default. It was auctioned off in 1997. A new owner embarked on a transition to a mixed-use office and retail format. The vacant Rhodes / Liberty House was leased as a offices for CalTrans.

By the turn of the century, the shopping complex was 60 percent vacant. The mall's doldrums improved a bit with the dedication of the Signature Theatres Manchester Stadium 16. The movie megaplex showed its first features on July 16, 2000.

Unfortunately, as the years progressed, more stores were shuttered. Longs Drugs, a 1950s charter tenant, closed in late 2007. Gottschalks went dark, along with the entire chain, on June 28, 2009.

Beverly Hills-based Omninet Properties acquired the struggling retail facility in 2011. In May 2015, they released details of a major renovation and repositioning. Under this plan, the interior and exterior of the complex would be thoroughly rebuilt. An indoor Dining Court and gourmet grocery (in the old Rhodes building) were included in the prospectus.

An amended plan was announced in early 2016. The moribund mall would be redeveloped, with its focal point being a new outdoor Events Plaza. The bulk of the Lower Level would be dedicated to retail, with the Upper Level reconfigured as leased office space.

The old Gottschalks would be gutted and rebuilt as a Marketplace of restaurants. These would include Mariscos Las Adas Manzanillo, Green's Family Grill, Pineapple Kitchen, The Smokin' Burrito and Yummz Street Treats.

Ground was broken in September 2016. The first phase of the project, a freestanding strip center housing Chipotle Mexican Grill and two other eateries, was completed in mid-2017. At the same time, Sears downsized its store into a 132,000 square foot section. Its northern end was reconfigured as a (27,000 square foot) Ross Dress For Less, (22,000 square foot) dd's Discounts and three smaller inline store spaces.

The downsized Sears store went dark on February 2, 2020. New Ross and dd's Discounts opened soon after. They joined MANCHESTER CENTER tenants such as Azkara, El Rodeo, Sally Beauty Supply, Footlocker, K's Sportswear, Studio 58 and a campus for UEI College.

Sources:

The Fresno Bee
http://www.fresno.gov / "Mid-Century Modernism Historic Context" / City of Fresno Planning & Development Department / September 2008
http://www.labelscar.com
http://www.manchester-center.com
https://omni-manchester.squarespace.com
Frenso County, California tax assessor website
http://thenewmanchester.com