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 built on 40 acres, lying 2.6 miles north of downtown Fresno. The site had previously been utilized as part of the Markarian fig orchard.

Fresno State College had considered the property for the development of a school of agriculture, but abandoned the plan in 1949. The site was sold to Fresno's C. Arthur Berfield and his Manchester Mortgage Company in early 1952. Soon after, ground was broken for MANCHESTER CENTER. 

The single-level complex was designed by Walter Wagner. A (32,000 square foot) Mayfair Market grocery became the 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, Trend O' Fashion, Arnold's Beauty Salon, Fabrics By The Yard and Singer Sewing Center.

The 15 million dollar open-air mall enveloped approximately 364,400 leasable square feetwas anchored by the aforementioned Sears The store was located north of -and across the street from- the four main store blocks. 

Early competitors of MANCHESTER CENTER were MAYFAIR CENTER (1949) {1.3 miles southeast, in Fresno} and FIG GARDEN VILLAGE (1956) {1.9 miles northwest, also in Fresno}. 

The MANCHESTER CENTER Sears was eventually expanded to 216,000 square feet. It was joined by a 3-level (110,00 square foot), Tacoma-based Rhodes, which welcomed its first shoppers on March 6, 1959.  Honolulu-based AMFAC (American Factors), who operated Hawaii's Liberty House chain, acquired Rhodes stores in November 1969. They promoted locations as Liberty House / Rhodes between 1970 and late 1974. After this, they took on the Liberty House brand.

The official name of the north Fresno retail hub had morphed to MANCHESTER MALL by the late 1960s. An air-conditioned block of stores, known as the Enclosed Mall, was added at the north end of Sears. It housed seventeen stores and services, including a Safeway supermarket and single-screen cinema. This venue, the General Cinema Corporation Manchester Mall Cinema, debuted on December 21, 1967. The movie house was in operation until December 1999. 

Meanwhile, a 30 million dollar mall expansion got underway in October 1978. The (45,000 square foot) Promenade Shops structure, in the northeast corner of the site, had been demolished. As part of the renovation, courts and concourses were fully-enclosed and climate-controlled and a second level built on top the the first. An 8-bay Food Court was installed in the new Upper Level. A 1-level (86,000 square foot) Gottschalks commenced operation on October 27, 1979. 

A second expansion -costing 8 million dollars- 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. 

By this time, 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, United Artists 20-screen megaplex and 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 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 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 containing 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 additional eateries, was completed in mid-2017. At the same time, Sears downsized its store into a 132,000 square foot section. The northern end of the building was reconfigured as five store spaces.

The downsized Sears ended up closing for good on February 2, 2020. Two of the five spaces carved out of the store's north end opened soon after. A (21,000 square foot) dd's discounts rang up its first sale on September 25, 2021. Ross Dress for Less (with 23,500 square feet) began business on October 9 of the same year.

MANCHESTER CENTER now covered approximately 1,023,800 leasable square feet and contained around fifty-one stores and services. Among there were Azkara, El Rodeo, Sally Beauty Supply, Footlocker, K's Sportswear, Studio 58 and a campus for UEI College.

Sources:

The Fresno Bee
The Modesto Bee
Western Department Stores Annual Report 1958
http://www.fresno.gov / "Mid-Century Modernism Historic Context" / City of Fresno Planning & Development Department / September 2008
"Fresno Growing Up, A City Comes of Age: 1945-1985" / Stephen H. Provost / 2015  
http://www.labelscar.com
http://www.manchester-center.com
https://omni-manchester.squarespace.com
"Gottschalks Store Location Chronology & Current Statuses" / Randy Hansen
Frenso County, California tax assessor website
https://www.barrons.com 
http://thenewmanchester.com
https://thebusinessjournal.com