A 10-Step Plan To Fix K Street, Or: The Legend of the Skyscraper Fairy
As a Sacramento resident keenly interested in the history of K Street from the gold rush to the present, I have read many opinions regarding the best ways to fix the ongoing problems of K Street. Some have been proposed recently, ideas that I view with a mixture of amusement and horror. Most involve returning to the mistakes of the past while clearly avoiding its successes. In order to take the best from the past while avoiding some of its mistakes, I have selected some favorites. I can take credit for none of them, as they are all ideas that have been suggested at other times and places, but they seem like the best of the lot to me. This ten-point plan varies in scope from the very simple and inexpensive to the rather complex and expensive, some are short-term solutions while others are longer-term solutions for better times, but all of them are practical. I can provide more detail about most of these points if requested.
1. Accept that the Skyscraper Fairy does not exist.
Many landlords along K Street have no apparent interest in maintaining or improving their properties. Some are convinced that as long as they own the land, the magical Skyscraper Fairy will give them uncountable millions for the land where their decaying buildings sit, and will replace them with shiny new skyscrapers. Thus, they have little interest in maintaining or tenanting their buildings. The result is under-utilized or vacant buildings whose facades continue to crumble. Despite the Downtown Partnership’s efforts to power-wash streets and alleys, buildings allowed to fall into disrepair, inhabited only by bats and squatters, make our historic buildings into eyesores. Ideally, the city’s code enforcement division would issue stiff fines to property owners who allow their buildings to fall into disrepair, in order to prevent demolition by neglect. Unfortunately, the city of Sacramento is also one of the guilty parties, and one of the strongest believers in the Skyscraper Fairy. City-owned properties currently sit vacant, awaiting their own savior in the form of a deep-pocketed developer who will brush aside the old building and provide badly-needed money to build something else. Given K Street’s current state, this is unlikely—the only propositions so far are dependent on generous subsidies from the city of Sacramento. Until both the city and K Street property owners can be dispelled of their belief in the magical skyscraper fairy, their properties will continue to rot.
2. It’s time to leave the shopping mall in the past.
K Street was a bustling place until the 1950s, when most of Sacramento’s population moved out of the central city, the residential neighborhoods adjacent to downtown Sacramento were demolished, and the city streetcar system was replaced by highways and automobiles. Suburban malls were closer to the new suburban neighborhoods and had plentiful parking, while K Street was far away and none of the stores had parking lots. The K Street pedestrian mall of the 1960s and 1970s was a desperate move to woo suburban shoppers by simulating a suburban mall, including demolition of nearby buildings to provide parking. But the suburban malls were still more convenient, and their parking lots bigger and more obvious, so K Street’s rebirth as a mall of the 1970s failed. A 1990s re-vamp that enclosed the section from 4th to 7th Street has become another failure, due to its failure to move beyond the idea of a suburban mall downtown.
A new generation of city planners has noted that shopping centers of the 2000s look a lot like old downtowns, with stores that copy historic styles and a mixture of pedestrian paths and driveways. These planners have decided that this is the future of K Street, and call for a return of cars to K Street so they can pretend K Street is a new suburban "power center," the 2010s equivalent of a shopping mall. But those suburban “power centers” are still closer to suburban shoppers, and their parking lots are still bigger. If K Street is simply opened to cars and its facades remodeled to emulate new suburban shopping centers in North Natomas, how can the result be any different from the last two attempts to disguise downtown Sacramento as a suburban mall?
3. Cars, no. Bikes, yes.
The simplest change to energize K Street will cost very little: permit bicycle riding on K Street. Bike riding is already on the rise, and the freedom to bike on K Street would turn it into the main cycling corridor of the central city, free from the vehicular mayhem of J and L Street. Provide a few bike racks so bike riders can stop and shop as well as ride through, and the numbers strolling past store windows will dramatically increase.
4. Shrink light rail to streetcar size.
Until the 1940s, K Street had transit in all sizes. On K Street itself, streetcars ran from the heart of downtown to Midtown, Southside and nearby suburbs like Land Park, Oak Park and East Sacramento. These cars were small, typically 30-40 feet long, about the size of a modern bus, and operated at speeds up to 25-30 miles per hour. Like a bus, they worked reasonably well with traffic, but because they had fixed rails they had a smoother ride and a predictable path, making them more comfortable for riders. Trains ran every ten minutes during the day, and “owl” runs carried late-night travelers all night.
On the corner of 8th and K Street, interurban trains ran in both directions. Passengers from Woodland, Chico, Stockton and even Oakland could hop on the train and get off on K Street. These trains were bigger, 60-80 feet long, and operated in trains as long as 6-8 cars. They were taller and wider than streetcars, and could reach 60-70 miles per hour going flat-out through the countryside. They ran on 8th Street because K Street was far too busy to handle the big trains.
Today, modern Light Rail trains are more like the interurbans than streetcars. With 80 foot long bodies and operating in four-car trains, they are not well-suited to playing the role of a streetcar. By through-routing Blue Line trains north via the upcoming 7th Street extension and connecting to North 12th Street via Richards Boulevard, light rail trains could bring passengers from Folsom, Rancho Cordova, South Sacramento and North Highlands to K Street without crowding pedestrians off the street.
Meanwhile, the streetcars can return to K Street. Some of Sacramento’s historic streetcars exist in unrestored condition in private collections, but modern streetcars offer amenities like air conditioning and ADA-accessible low-floor entryways. They can run on the existing K Street tracks while leaving more room for pedestrians and bikes. Using existing light rail lines and sharing their tracks, these streetcars can link nearby neighborhoods and connect with light rail. Extending streetcar lines into existing neighborhoods and new development areas costs less than one-third the price of light rail extensions and drives population density, economic investment and reduces the need for cars and parking. Run them until after 2:00 AM to give downtown visitors an option to leave their cars at home—especially if they plan on drinking.
5. Legalize street life.
This is another cheap and easy solution. Part of Second Saturday’s success is its prolific use of street music, performers, and vendors, but its monthly status creates a feast-or-famine condition. A permit program to allow music, performance and vending at any time means that visitors to K Street won’t need to check their calendars before going downtown. Street music and vending also gives local entertainers and small businesspeople a stepping stone to a retail storefront or a musical career. Musicians and vendors will promote activity, give walkers a reason to stick around, and attract visitors to enjoy the street life. This also does not rule out special street festivals and special events above and beyond the day-to-day activity, and maintaining K Street as a pedestrian walk maintains this valuable civic amenity for more public festivals. Both everyday street life and special events will draw visitors from within Sacramento, the surrounding region, and tourists from out of town.
6. Tours bring tourists.
Despite the demolition of the past few decades, K Street still retains a remarkable number of historic buildings, proud evidence of our architectural heritage in stone, terra cotta and concrete. Many cities use local tourism programs to bring visitors into the heart of the city, but to most visitors, Sacramento’s history ends at the edge of Old Sacramento. Efforts to alter this perception have been minimal. The Downtown Sacramento Partnership has a guided tour program, but it is minimally staffed, minimally funded, and minimally advertised. Downtown visitors looking for local history information are likely to come up empty-handed. Sacramento needs a full-strength tourism program worthy of a city with such a rich and diverse history. K Street, the walking street at the heart of the city, can be the center of such a tour program, with more tours branching out into nearby downtown streets and our architecturally rich residential neighborhoods. History tours appeal both to visiting tourists and to locals interested in learning more about their city’s past.
On K Street, the potential star attraction of local tourism is right under your feet. Sacramento’s underground sidewalks, the result of a street-raising measure intended to keep the city above flood waters, run the length of K Street from the river to about 12th Street. Many are demolished, but enough material remains to allow a tour to weave in and out of underground sidewalk spaces, sunken alleys, basements, and even below-surface businesses. Combined with the dramatic story of the raised streets, and some entertaining and colorful stories from Sacramento’s history, the potential of an underground sidewalks tour is unlimited. In Seattle, local booster Bill Speidel turned a walk through clammy underground sidewalks in a notoriously bad part of town into a million-dollar tourist attraction that is known worldwide, drawing as many as 300,000 visitors a year and employing as many as 50 full-time staff. There is no reason that Sacramento can’t do the same.
7. Bring on the nightlife.
If a suburban mall isn’t the answer, what will bring suburban residents downtown? The answer is simple: Give them something the suburbs don’t have. Sacramento is best known for its quiet suburbs, the result of a decades-long whitewashing operation to conceal our party-animal past. The rowdy days of the Gold Rush, the proliferation of local breweries and wineries, our almost total refusal to acknowledge Prohibition, the legendary jazz and blues clubs of Sacramento’s West End, and even last year’s New Year’s Eve party (2,000 expected, 12,000 attended) burst through the “town where nothing happens” façade. It’s time to face the truth, and bring more nightlife down the length of K Street. This doesn’t just mean bars, it also means late-night restaurants, theaters, live music venues, dance clubs, movies, spas and salons, comedy clubs, coffee shops, and other imaginative options for entertainment. Cooperative parking agreements with state parking lots can provide tens of thousands of parking spaces, and better public transit can carry revelers home in safety.
8. Shop local, even if you’re from out of town.
The shopping-mall consultants are half right about K Street—it does need more than nightlife to survive. Daytime and early evening traffic means retail stores and services in between the state-employee lunch rush and the arrival of the dinner, drinks and dancing crowd. However, national chain stores are hesitant to expand, even if bribed into doing so. And again, suburban visitors won’t drive downtown to a store in their local mall. The answer is, again, to give them something the mall doesn’t have: unique, local stores. Local businesses keep money in the local economy, stimulate local employment and provide a unique character that chain stores simply can’t match. Encouraging local businesspeople to rent storefronts on K Street should be a city priority. Matched with neighborhood-serving retail like food markets, cleaners, drugstores and small department stores, locally-based retail on K Street should appeal to suburban shoppers, out-of-town visitors, and central city residents. As stores fill and crowds start to appear, instead of having to beg national chains to locate on K Street, they will appear on their own, smelling money to be made.
One idea we might lift from San Francisco: the much-adored Metreon, high-tech consumer wonderland, is falling on hard economic times, with many vacancies. Earlier this year, a full-time farmer’s market moved into the Metreon, and has already proved a popular destination. A permanent farmer’s market on K Street, instead of the current sporadic weekly markets, would provide fresh foods to a neighborhood where none are sold. Downtown workers, visitors and residents would all benefit from a convenient source for the Sacramento Valley’s agricultural bounty.
9. Living on K Street shouldn’t mean sleeping directly on it.
The destruction of the downtown neighborhoods near K Street was followed by the destruction of thousands of inexpensive rental rooms, commonly known as SRO hotels, where thousands of workers lived. As inexpensive housing disappeared, the poorest people did not. Out of necessity, they made their home on the streets. Many are still there, and as existing SRO stock is phased out of service and homeless services disappear, their numbers grow. They will not vanish and they will not simply move away, because they have nowhere to go and no alternative. The only way to reverse this trend is to replace the housing that was lost. This replacement housing need not be here on K Street, but it needs to be somewhere. Our only alternative is to accept the presence of people sleeping on the streets as an unalterable condition, and tell them that their suffering is necessary and unavoidable—or to simply remain in denial of the problem, which amounts to the same thing. As a people, as a city and as a nation, I think we are capable of better than that.
But it isn’t just the poorest that need housing in the central city. Housing for all income levels should be included in new development projects, but putting it into existing buildings would be even easier. Many formerly residential buildings were converted to office use in the 1960s and 1970s, so why not convert the abundance of vacant upper-story office space back into residential units? This housing should cross the economic spectrum: SRO units for the disabled and seniors, low-income units for service employees, workforce housing for office employees, and high-end, high-up housing for the high rollers. A truly urban life results when you can see all the way across the economic spectrum just walking down the street. That can’t happen unless the street has places for all of them to live, dine, work and shop. Again, not all of these places have to be directly on K Street, but they should be close enough to walk there in a few minutes. Restoration of residential buildings will preserve their architectural value, bring life back to the neighborhood, fill a great social need, and jobs restoring and maintaining the buildings will create more employment than comparable levels of new construction.
10. Have faith, be good, and the Skyscraper Fairy will come.
Part of the current mentality of property owners on K Street is based on outdated models of how downtown development should happen. For decades, cities were assumed to be teeming pits of an imaginary disease called “blight” that could only be cured with wrecking balls and a liberal application of public-funded redevelopment dollars, designed to push out “undesirable” tenants and solicit only the coveted suburban émigré to return to the central business district, and then only to spend money and leave, never to live. Today’s cities don’t work like that anymore. People want to live in cities because they want the amenities of urban life unavailable in the suburbs. If K Street can offer those amenities, not a sanitized Disneyland version and certainly not a copy of a suburban mall, they will grow interested in K Street. If they are interested, they will come to visit. If there are places to live, and things to see and do, they will want to move downtown. Once enough people have moved downtown that there is no longer room in existing buildings, and people feel safe and secure in neighborhoods that are well-maintained, high-rise developers who understand how cities work will look at K Street and see dollar signs. Instead of developers seeking handouts to build on K Street, they will come with money in hand where they think they can make even more.
And when they do, the Skyscraper Fairy will visit the property owners and civic leaders who took care of their buildings, who encouraged vitality and street life instead of a tax write-off, who promoted transit and walkability, and drew people back downtown to share in K Street’s uniqueness, character and history. She will shower them with money and riches and blessings, and cranes will rise on K Street, filling the gaps between the last century’s architectural gems with bright, tall new buildings. Yes, Sacramento, there is a Skyscraper Fairy, but she has very high standards.
William Burg is a board member of the Sacramento Old City Association. This story is a guest editorial opinion, and does not represent the opinion of Sacramento Press or its editors.