The K Street Plan: Local, Green, Historic and Affordable
Disclaimer: This article is my opinion, given as a central city resident and board member of the Sacramento Old City Association. I am not an employee of any of the firms involved, nor the city of Sacramento. I am enthusiastic about this project because it represents the best combination of historic preservation, new development, downtown infill, fiscal responsibility, and promotion of local business, culture, and heritage.
In December 2009, the city of Sacramento asked local developers for plans to revitalize the 700 and 800 blocks of K Street. The project area occupies about one city block, around 2.5 acres, on two half-block lots. Four teams submitted proposals, and a five-member committee met three times to review the responses and select a recommendation to the city council. Their recommendation was based on experience, quality of vision and concept, relationship to local goals, proposed tenants, financial feasibility and delivery schedule. Based on these criteria, the committee chose elements of two proposals: the Promenade on K, proposed by D&S and CFY Development, for the 700 block, and a proposal by David Taylor, CIM, Zeiden Properties and Domus Development for the 800 block.
The Recommended Plan
The proposal for the 700 block includes 136 apartments along the alley side of K Street in a new mid-rise structure, with underground parking at Sacramento’s original street level. The apartments range from 450 to 1200 square feet, studios to 2-bedrooms. 37,840 feet of retail will occupy the ground floor of the existing structures on K Street. The front 90 feet of each building will be retained, and the two landmark buildings on the block retained entirely. The second floor of the historic buildings will also become apartments, and the building basements will be retained for storage or retail use. Because the 700 block has abundant street space, outdoor patios and kiosks will surround the walkway on K Street, creating an expansive outdoor room adjacent to the newly-remodeled St. Rose of Lima Park.
The 800 block will include new buildings on the corner of 8th & K and 8th & L, and the historic Bel-Vue Apartments will be restored and returned to residential use, a total of 110 market rate and mixed-income units, including three-bedroom units intended for families. Parking will be accessed via the alley and L Street, and will not be visible from the street. All buildings will have ground-floor retail, totaling 32,530 square feet. This project team is also considering acquiring the historic Kress and Montgomery Ward buildings, for conversion to mixed-use residential, but because these buildings were outside the project scope (the city does not own them) they were not included in the proposal.
Keep It Local
The proposal for the 700 block includes Letters of Intent from retailers interested in participation. Rather than seeking chain or out-of-town tenants, the D&S proposal sought local businesses. These include popular local eateries, like Old Soul Coffee, who plans a French bistro and wine bar, or Kru, who plans a ramen/yakitori restaurant and sake bar. Three of these potential tenants (Crepeville, Shady Lady and and Burgers & Brew) each plan live music venues in addition to a restaurant and bar. The Shady Lady letter points out Sacramento’s lack of mid-sized music venues, and suggests that this project could fill the glaring need for venues larger than small Midtown bars but smaller than the Memorial Auditorium or Crest Theatre. But it’s not all about music and drinks; the owner of “Top This” Frozen Yogurt wants to create a late-night dessert diner, adding cakes, pies and sundaes to their product mix. Rima Boutique and Muse Salon want to open boutiques selling clothing, accessories and artwork. Specifics on the 800 block’s retail mix were not available, but their team includes Z Gallerie’s Joe Zeiden, who has extensive experience bringing retail to downtowns throughout the state. Because all of these businesses can also operate during daytime business hours, they are useful to the tens of thousands of downtown commuters for lunch, daytime shopping, or after-work dining and entertainment.
Local business is complemented by the local residences included in the project. Affordable housing means employees of a yogurt shop or boutique can live in a nearby unit instead of commuting to work from the suburbs, and downtown office workers can walk from office to home, utilizing local retail options in their own neighborhood. Housing directly above K Street on the second floor, and along the alley, means greater safety through “eyes on the street,” complemented by evening activity in restaurant patios and street vendor kiosks. Many of K Street’s problems take place on vacant, disused properties where there are no residents or tenants. Bringing more housing and late-night business back to K Street means more safety by design. In many ways, this plan is a larger, more ambitious version of D&S’s recent success at 14th and R Street, where a dark, unused warehouse was turned into 12 residential units and a row of eateries and mixed retail, using a historic building, local businesses, and green design.
Keeping it Green on K Street
“Green” is a word that gets used a lot, so much that the meaning is sometimes obscured. This proposal for K Street is green in several important ways. It proposes using green and sustainable methods, plus solar and wind power generation on rooftops. Both blocks include green roofs as inner courtyards for tenant use. Adding downtown housing and the units’ proximity to transit means less driving and consumption of gasoline. Restoration of the existing buildings, instead of demolition, saves those buildings’ embodied energy, uses less energy than new construction, and reduces the load on our landfills.
This project is located at the nexus of both existing Light Rail lines and the Green Line to Richards Boulevard now under construction, with local bus access on both side streets. Recent changes allowing bikes on K Street, and proposed additional bike parking on the street and in the buildings, encourages biking to and from the project. Enhancing the streetscape, adding dense residential and greater security by design promotes walking and transit use. Project residents who work nearby, instead of in distant suburbs, won’t have to drive to work, and won’t have to go far for entertainment or dining.
“The greenest building is one that’s already built” is an old adage of the preservation community. Construction of a new building requires tremendous energy, an amount equal to decades’ worth of the building’s annual energy consumption. Old buildings, especially those built prior to 1940, were built when energy was more expensive, and were designed for more efficient use of energy. They are generally built of durable materials like brick, stone, and old-growth timber. They required less energy to create than high-energy materials like concrete and steel. Their energy cost has long since been paid. Demolition of old buildings is also energy-intensive, and sends most of those irreplaceable building materials to landfills, where they are joined by new buildings’ construction wastes (which makes up about half the contents of our landfills!) Saving old buildings is about more than aesthetics; it is the greener, cleaner and less wasteful choice.
Restoring K Street’s Legacy
K Street has been the heart of Sacramento since the Gold Rush, and it has played many roles over time. Younger people know it as the home of Light Rail and the Downtown Plaza mall, those in middle age remember the old pedestrian mall with its “tank traps” and fountains, and the older generation recalls the era of cruising K Street in hot rods in the 1950s and 60s. But all of these eras took place while K Street was in decline, and represent desperate efforts to bring suburban visitors back downtown. The era of K Street’s greatest vitality was during the early 20th century through the 1940s.
American downtowns boomed during this time, and Sacramento was no exception. K Street was a shopping street, home to every department store in town, with small specialty shops ranging from herbalists to bookstores. It was also a place for entertainment, including theater, vaudeville, movies, dining, live music, and dancing, although even then it was not Sacramento’s only entertainment district. It was also a place that thousands of Sacramentans called home, living in apartments above retail storefronts. These included modest rooms with a bath down the hall for working people, efficiency apartments for middle-class professionals, and elegant “palace hotels” for wealthy businessmen and legislators who wanted close access to the capital and the city’s financial district. Public transit reached through the city and the region, bringing visitors to K Street, but many called it home.
Teenagers and adults walked downtown on summer evenings, enjoying the respite from the heat, knowing that even at midnight, something was happening on K Street. Because people were always there, it was a safe place to visit. In the mid-20th century, this changed as suburbs grew, shopping centers and malls appeared, and redevelopment emptied the central city. Highways intended to bring people back downtown only made the central city easier to leave, and expensive redevelopment plans brought a few visitors during the day but the city still emptied at night. Sacramento’s legacy as an urban place was ignored, suppressed, and almost forgotten.
This project brings K Street back using a proven method: provide an experience and a place that cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the region. Residential options and transit means that the automobile takes a back seat—you can have a car and live here, but you don’t need one. Unique entertainment and local retail means that shopping and dining and music is different than what you find in any suburban shopping center. Preservation of historic buildings means that K Street’s true history as a vibrant, urban place is apparent to visitor and resident alike, not simulating the past in Disney style, but using the lessons of the past to shape Sacramento’s urban future.
Putting the “Fun” in Funding Sources
In these cost-conscious times, many criticize the use of public subsidy for downtown reinvestment. However, when compared to the costs of subsidized suburban sprawl, subsidizing downtown infill levels the playing field. The “free-market” solution would mean allowing downtown Sacramento to decay entirely, until property values became lower than undeveloped rural land—a nightmare scenario. However, those calling for frugality have a valid point. City resources are limited, and any project on K Street must make the best use of public funds.
For this project, the city provides the land and existing buildings on the site. The recommended project utilizes the buildings, instead of demolishing them, making use of these valuable resources. For the 800 block, the project team has asked to use $16 million in funds that were set aside for a future redevelopment project by David Taylor’s company, and about $6 million in local, state and federal funds for the south half of the 800 block, including rehabilitation of the Bel-Vue. On the 700 block, the project team asks for two $8 million loans, one forgivable upon completion of the project, and one that would be repaid with interest.
One consideration when cities fund public projects is local benefit. Construction projects create jobs, but not all construction projects create the same number of jobs. New construction projects spend about half on materials and half on labor. Rehab of existing buildings spends closer to two-thirds on labor and one-third on materials, because fewer materials are needed and rehab is more labor-intensive. This means more local jobs per public dollar spent. Those dollars directly benefit the local economy, because workers spend the money they earn in their community. Materials for preservation rehab also tend to come from local sources, rather than materials from outside the community, so more of the construction costs also benefit the local economy.
Really Good, But Not Perfect
While the project has many strengths, there are some weaknesses. Downtown Sacramento lacks a grocery store. Existing corner markets and drugstores have limited options, and farmer’s markets do not operate in winter, creating “food deserts” for downtown residents. The closest market is Safeway, accessible by light rail, but downtown needs a more complete neighborhood market offering fresh meat and produce. The development team should consider a market as part of this project.
While transit is close by, service ends after 9 PM, making transit useless for late-night visitors. While transit budgets are outside the scope of the project, better public transportation would complement a transit-oriented project like this.
Finally, while developer David Taylor is well-known for his ability to complete a project, his projects are often criticized as being architecturally conservative and plain. The 800 block plan includes only volume sketches, not detailed renderings, so we do not know how it will look. Similarly, the 700 block’s new residential units must measure up architecturally to the historic buildings they will complement. The eclectic existing architecture of K Street, from Gold Rush brick to Art Deco terra cotta to 21st century high-rise steel and glass, means an unlimited palette for a talented architect.
On July 13, Sacramento’s City Council is scheduled to select a project for K Street. The recommended project is an excellent choice for Sacramento. It embodies and builds upon our city’s history and culture, promotes local business, and brings more housing across all income levels to K Street at a reasonable cost.
For more details about each of the four proposals for K Street, check the city of Sacramento’s website: