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The next stage of growth for Sacramento's historic railyards should continue to connect the site with surrounding areas, allowing for smaller-scale development of neighborhoods linked by public transit and an open-space network, urban development experts said Friday at City Hall.

An eight-person panel of development and design experts presented recommendations for downtown railyards development to the city.

They were brought to Sacramento through a fellowship program sponsored by the Urban Land Institute's Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use. The panelists spent three days working in Sacramento and touring the railyards before making the recommendations.

The city and the railyards’ former owner, Thomas Enterprises, pulled together $225 million in local, state and federal funding to build infrastructure including streets, bridges and relocated train tracks. Site cleanup and completed environmental reviews have helped ready the site for construction.

As one of the country's largest infill projects, redeveloping the roughly 240-acre site will take years and must be market-driven. The city may own only 33 acres of that site. Yet as "good stewards," city officials and staff must now help reshape the development vision to plan for new economic realities and allow incremental growth, said panel co-chair Con Howe, managing director of CityView Los Angeles Fund and Los Angeles' former planning director.

"Owners and developers come and go," Howe said. "But the city will be the steward … for a very long time."

The plan for the site should be integrated with plans for the River District, Sacramento and American riverfronts, the central business district, residential neighborhoods such as Midtown, open space and transportation networks, panelists said.

Sacramento's 2030 general plan does that to a small degree. But specific plans for each area are far more detailed.

"We think it's essential you look at the city … and start to think about all these resources you could be connecting … so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," said Robert Lane, senior fellow for urban design at the Regional Plan Association in New York.

The plan should view the railyards as a transit district, rather than just a site containing a transit center, they said.

The panelists recognized that all cities must work in an economic climate where there's a lack of both public funding and private investment. They recommended linking public and private investments to build small neighborhoods that are each complete as a place.

The most expensive way to start would be from the inside out, starting with development of the historic central railroad shops. An alternative would be to allow more natural growth from the city to move into the site, said Frank Cannon, president of Union Station Neighborhood Company in Denver.

Denver provides a good example of how long redevelopment of a large former railyard can take. It's taken at least 30 years, three mayoral administrations and multiple property owners to develop its 200-acre freight yard. After consolidating rail corridors, reclaiming riverfront, building streets and other infrastructure and investing in a multi-modal transit facility, the area is now one of Denver's most desirable, Cannon said.

The city should also start finding ways to expose residents and visitors to the historic site and create a sense of place there, they said.

The site hasn't been open to the public for decades, so most Sacramentans don't have a true sense of the history and size of the railyards and its Central Shops.

John Hodgson, former chair of the ULI Sacramento District Council, said he was "blown away" when he toured the site for the first time last summer after living here for about 40 years.

While long-term plans could include public markets and the future railroad museum, the city should create low-cost uses that will get people to the site and excite them about future development possibilities, said Marlene Gafrick, director of Houston's Planning and Development Department.

Interim uses could include street festivals, sports, arts, culture, wellness and educational events inside and outside the central shops, she said.

Representatives of Thomas Enterprises and Inland American Real Estate Trust, which now owns 203 acres of railyards, attended the presentation.

Mayor Kevin Johnson was among four mayors chosen as the center's 2010/2011 fellows. The other cities are Detroit, Houston and Charlotte, N.C.

Johnson's efforts to promote Sacramento and a national buzz about the railyards site helped the city win one of the four spots, city Infill Coordinator Desmond Parrington said later.

Sacramento's fellowship team also includes Assistant City Manager John Dangberg, Sacramento Area Council of Governments Executive Director Mike McKeever and Hodgson, president of The Hodgson Company, a Sacramento land use development and advocacy firm. Each of those three served on a fellowship panel for one of the other cities.

The fellowship program seeks out cities with interesting land-use challenges and provides free assistance.

Johnson and the city's three other fellows will visit Miami in February and Denver in June to learn from land-use issues there. They and city staff will work with panel members to build on and implement the recommendations over the next year.

"It's a very good juncture for us to get that kind of feedback," Parrington said. "It's a good juncture not only because we have a change in the developer, but because of the economy. The plan (by Thomas Enterprises) was developed in the height of the boom. Now we're in the trough. It's a good time to revisit things."